5 ways schools throw away talented teachers
New report reveals there’s no pipeline for teacher talent in schools; leadership not cultivated
According to a new report based on thousands of educator responses, schools across the country don’t have a pipeline for leadership, discouraging talented teachers from staying in education. The problem: The unending cycle of mediocrity based on last-minute leadership hires for those often unprepared for the challenges facing schools today.
The report, “Building Pathways: How to develop the next generation of transformational school leaders,” by Bain & Company—a management consulting firm often working with schools and charter schools—discusses how despite student achievement progress in many districts across the country, there is still a lack of consensus around what works…except good leadership.
“We know that an essential ingredient behind each school success story is extraordinary leadership,” says the report. “Yet we have far too few transformational school leaders today to replicate the results that are possible at a greater scale. The reason: Most school systems fail to methodically develop talented educators into a deep bench of prospective leaders with the experience and ability to build an extraordinary school.”
The consulting firm collaborated with 12 school systems nationwide (7 urban school districts and 5 charter management organizations) and conducted a broad, quantitative survey of over 4,200 teachers, assistant principals (AP), and principals. Interviews were also conducted with school level, district, and charter leadership.
Looking over 40 years-worth of experience with schools, as well as from survey data, the consulting firm noted that schools need to stop looking for the best available candidate when openings occur [for principals and leadership] and commit to a model that developed and retains the most promising leaders over time.
“Instead of identifying and developing the largest possible pool of talent, they are often left choosing among the best-available candidates, frequently at the last minute,” explains the report. “In essence, they are leaving this critical school-leadership function to chance.”
However, the report notes that just 23 percent of teacher and 26 percent of teacher-leaders and APs believe that the most talented people in their systems move into school leadership positions. In traditional school districts, those percentages are even lower.
roadblocks to great leadership
Based on the study, the consulting firm identified five persistent roadblocks that stand in the way of improvement:
1. School systems encourage too few high-performing educators to pursue leadership roles.
More than 80 percent of those surveyed said they were unlikely to pursue school leadership in the future.
For almost half of this group, the issue is a desire to stay in the classroom. However, just as many have said they found the principal’s role unattractive, meaning that a negative perception is curtailing interest among a large group of potential candidates.
Yet, unlike teachers, those in a leadership role believe the role offers a good balance of autonomy and support.
“I stick around because I get immense satisfaction out of the work,” explained one principal of a Houston school. “Teachers see how hard leaders work and they already know how hard they work so they just don’t think about it as an option.” In this responder’s case, however, mentors “helped [to] understand that it was extremely fulfilling—and possible.”
In fact, 80 percent of the school leaders surveyed noted that early encouragement around the attractiveness of leadership roles was formative in making their decision to pursue one.
As one principal explained, he never gave much thought to being a principal until his boss tapped him on the shoulder. “Great leaders can see people down the road as a leader before they can see it in themselves.”
Unfortunately, only 33 percent of teacher in the survey said their system had encouraged them to consider pursuing leadership roles.
According to the report, the problem may be cultural—a hesitance to do anything that would encourage great teachers to leave the classroom, even if that might align with those teachers’ ambitions and benefit the broader system.
For others, the challenge is knowing with confidence who to encourage.
2. Stepping-stone roles fail to develop necessary leadership skills.
According to the survey, most school systems lack guiding standards that define stepping-stone roles and ensure that they include meaningful leadership responsibilities.
In the systems studied, these roles were often centrally-funded but defined across schools haphazardly without a commonly understood set of requirements.
75 percent of the teacher-leaders surveyed said they “don’t feel accountable for the performance of the teachers they supervise” and 56 percent said “they aren’t responsible for providing instructional coaching.” More than 80 percent of teacher-leaders had a full teaching schedule with no time allotted for leadership responsibilities.
3. Aspiring leaders receive inadequate coaching and training on key skills.
Less than half of the Aps and other full-time leaders in the survey said they receive frequent coaching and feedback on their performance from their principals.
“For our APs we literally do nothing,” said an HR official at one large district. “We put them in the role and we just expect them to do things like evaluate teachers. Obviously, this is something we want to address.”
Much of the problems, notes the report, stems from the fact that both school leaders and systems leaders typically have much “broader spans of control” than managers in other organizations.
In other words, they’re swamped.
4. Leadership roles are not managed systematically as a talent pipeline.
Decisions for leadership roles are based on today’s school-level considerations, reveals the report, rather than the talent development needs of the broader system.
“Until very recently, the principals hired whomever they wanted and they don’t always select on the right criteria,” said a senior administrator at one large district. “Often, they’ll look for the person who can just keep things off the principal’s plate…A more formal process is needed with a clear pathway to leadership for those that are interested.”
The report notes that relying on this type of informal system based on short-term priorities and a “fragmented building-by-building perspective leads to stagnation: Too many stepping-stone roles are filled by educators with little interest in leadership.”
5. The hiring process is disconnected from performance management.
50 percent of the principals in the study were hired within one month of the start of the next school year, according to the report.
Only 41 percent of the school leaders surveyed believe their systems have invested appropriately to identify and attract “very talented” candidates to apply for principal slots. And when it comes time to hire, only 32 percent feel the process effectively selects the most talented candidate from those who do apply.
Launching a new strategy
To better help school systems create a sustainable talent pipeline, the report describes what a successful, phased effort might look like:
Phase 1: Define leadership criteria
Phase 2: Develop leadership pathways
Phase 3: Organize leadership development.