Q: I’m stuck on the baffling process/non-process of new principal selection at our school. The central office of our large county touts collaborative parent and staff involvement to find the very best candidate possible, but the reality is far from that. Only current county principals and people who have completed a “principal internship” may apply (or principals from other school systems, but the administrator indicated these folks have no chance). With that limited pool, they don’t expect more than 10 or 15 applicants. The parents and staff invited to be on the selection panel will never see the resumes or writing samples of the candidates nor do they get to ask (or even propose) interview questions. The panel will sit, mute, before 4-6 candidates in an afternoon of half-hour interviews. Then it will make a recommendation to the superintendent. Everyone assembled at the informational meeting had their jaws on the floor. This is a huge, diverse, Title 1 school with a substantial immigrant population and complicated needs, and we’re supposed to find a strategic education leader out of a very limited pool of applicants through HALF-HOUR interviews in which there is no back-and-forth or follow-up questions allowed? Many of us are veterans of hiring processes, and were baffled at the brevity and static nature of the interviews. Why does the selection process in public education appear much more cursory than the hiring process in other markets and industries? What role do state and local laws, confidentiality concerns, and union issues play when it comes to principal hiring practices?
A: The short answer is that you’re right to feel like it’s a farce, but it’s nuanced. I consulted with leaders in a few counties that have similar processes. They acknowledge that by trying to mesh two very different approaches, they end up sending mixed signals.
On the one hand, your district likely has a comprehensive leadership program to prepare principals for the job. This is more typical for large districts because these programs require a lot of resources. A principal-in-training needs to do extensive coursework, receive mentoring, work as an assistant principal for a specified length of time, and complete a principal internship. There are several checkpoints before someone can even enter the principal pool and start applying for positions (or get tapped to apply for a position). All through this process, central office is determining whether the person has the skills and disposition to be a strong principal. So when there’s an opening, the position will be posted, but the assistant superintendent and others usually have a good sense of who they want for a school.
That’s where you (and the sham part) come in. Even if the county knows exactly who they want in that role, they have to abide by policy, which states that they must bring a certain number of candidates to the school community for evaluation. Your committee’s opinion might matter at the extreme, or if someone tanks the interviews, but for the most part it’s preordained. The other candidates are likely there for show, too, whether or not they know it.
There’s a lot to be said for strong leadership programs, as long as system leaders choose the right people, take responsibility for their choices and hold underperforming principals accountable. There also has to be complete transparency in the process around selection criteria so they control for bias. And they need to review data regularly to ensure they’re not perpetuating the “old boys’ network.”
They also should tell you up-front about what’s going on, perhaps creating a hybrid system where they acknowledge your committee’s insignificance but give you the option to participate and meet the candidates. Or they could change the policy altogether. As it stands, this approach is eroding people’s confidence in the system.
You certainly can express your concerns to central office and human resources. One superintendent I talked with suggested you say something like, “I’m happy to participate, but this is a whole bunch of bullsh*t.” He noted that this is a source of frustration for him, too. After all, his office has spent years carefully training candidates, so he finds the process ridiculous for the opposite reason.
If you have real concerns about the person ultimately selected, bring them to the attention of the school board, superintendent, and anyone else involved in the selection process. A big county is a behemoth, however, so I wouldn’t expect much. Change takes time, but it has to start somewhere.
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