Pairing Leadership with Education

CAP event brings experts together to discuss how principal pay incentives can attract leaders to America’s high-need schools.

Principals play a vital role in school systems across the country. They set the tone. They support the teachers. They shape the futures of the girls and boys who walk through schoolhouse doors every day. Yet despite the many hats that principals wear, very little quantitative research has been done to connect student achievement with principal performance. Even less is available on methods to attract and retain high-quality principals, especially in low-income, under-performing schools.

As more schools embrace teacher pay reforms, changes to principal compensation may follow. Next year, Maryland’s Prince George’s County will begin offering incentives to teachers and principals in low-performing schools, financed with funding from a federal grant. Now, New York City gives a $25,000 raise to principals who serve three or more years in high-need schools, with an additional $25,000 bonus based on student achievement.

Yet these reforms may prove ineffective without data or research on how to structure performance-based pay scales. At a CAP forum on Tuesday, Director of Education Policy Cynthia Brown met with John Deasy, the Superintendent of Prince George’s County Public Schools; Natalie Elder, principal of Hardy Elementary in Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Dr. Dan Goldhaber, an affiliated scholar at the Urban Institute’s Education Policy Center and the author of the CAP report “Principal Pay Compensation: More Research Needed on a Promising Reform,” to discuss what makes a great principal, how needy schools can attract and retain them, and what role pay-for-performance can play.

“We have to be honest about what is happening in America,” said Elder. “The warriors of the past are going home,” and the new generation doesn’t think the fight is worthy of them because they are not receiving pay based on their performance. Elder, an educator for 25-years, entered Hardy Elementary as a principal seven years ago. At the time Hardy was ranked 1044 out of 1044 schools in the state. In 2005, Hardy achieved the highest academic gains in math and social studies among Tennessee’s elementary schools. Thanks to a school reform program called the Benwood Initiative that includes teacher and principal incentives, teachers and administrators in the school are eligible for up to $7,000 a year in bonuses. And most get them, she said, adding, “It just validates what you do.”

Goldhaber recommends starting principal pay reform first. “Principals are going to have more say about what goes on in their schools than any other teacher,” and many of the technical challenges with teacher pay-for-performance measures are less difficult in principal pay models. Since principals are responsible for more students, there is a greater amount of statistical data. Also, there are fewer principals for the district to evaluate and fewer problems with competition with colleagues, as the school is considered a self-contained unit. Another key factor is giving principals the ability to choose their teachers or at least have a say in staffing decisions.

Once pay reform models are agreed on, there needs to be an allowance for mistakes, said Deasy, whose district has chosen to start teacher and principal pay-for-performance systems simultaneously after studying best and worst practices across the country. There is a great amount of tolerance for youth who don’t learn right away, but not a similar amount of tolerance for adults. Figuring out measurable indicators of success takes time, but many other fields with complex standards, such as medicine, reward practitioners based on performance.

Overall, the discussion returned to the importance of principal compensation for attracting and retaining talent in low-income areas, and validating, for the educators, the importance of their work. In low-income areas, stress levels are often high and attitudes are not always orientated toward student achievement to begin with, Elder said. Success may be slow in the beginning and many principals could leave one day for a job that pays just as well and probably better.

“No one wants to join a sinking ship,” said Elder. Well-integrated, locally initiated principal pay reforms will not be the only lifeboat for our nation’s high-need public schools, but they are a key element. With more research and data, principal pay-for-performance can help bring more qualified leadership to our classrooms and school districts across the country.

Read more on principal compensation from CAP:

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