Wednesday, November 01, 2000

November 2000 - RJJ Newsletter

While leadership is vital in all organizations, it is most urgently needed in those whose missions are difficult to accomplish. Schools obviously fit this bill. They seek to educate children of varying aptitude, interests and background, while preparing them for adulthood. Along the way, they inevitably have to deal with troublesome staffing and curriculum issues, as well as budgetary shortfalls.

Their prospects for success depend considerably on the ability to recruit top-flight educational leaders. A principal can impart vision and discipline to a school, inspire teachers to do better and funders to give more and they can innovate in ways that enhance rather than disrupt the core educational services they seek to provide. A good principal can make a large difference; much the same obviously can be said about a principal who is not up to the job.

Throughout the vast domain of elementary and secondary education, it is readily acknowledged that educational leadership ranks are thin in talent. Schools everywhere face recruitment difficulties as they seek persons with the requisite combination of people, administrative and intellectual skills. Jewish schools are not exempt from the problem.

The usual and, I think, facile explanation for this shortage is that salaries are too low to attract candidates of merit, especially in view of what is being offered in other professions. For all of the self-evident convenience of the financial argument, it somehow falls short of accounting for what is happening. The salaries of principals have risen considerably in recent years – far more rapidly than those being paid to teachers – and this is true of all kinds of schools. Jewish schools are among the industry leaders, their fragile financial situation and small enrollments notwithstanding. Candidates for top positions at day schools are now being offered pay packages that comfortably exceed what is being offered in nearby public schools which have far greater enrollment and governmental pockets to dig into. Salaries north of $150,000 per year would have been regarded as a fantasy not too long ago. This figure has been figure has been reached and even exceeded in quite a few places.

Ironic or not, as salaries have gone up the pickings appear to have gotten thinner, in some measure because the number of Jewish day schools continues to grow.

Status and job satisfaction probably are major factors. For all of the talk about how crucial day school education is, from the perspective of young people who are making career choices, rarely does Jewish education make it to the first list. The situation is not helped by the experience of too many principals who are worn out by the endless and usually hopeless attempt to satisfy parents who see the school exclusively through their children and by lay boards which too often define their responsibilities as a mandate to interfere. It is no great surprise that our best and brightest seek other pastures.

Matters are not helped much by the astounding number of day school principals who are fired each year. For the most resourceful, there is a silver lining in the cloud. Because of the shortage, those who get the axe are almost certain to quickly land another job, provided that they are willing to endure an itinerant life that requires them to keep their bags packed and their families on the move.

As the situation has worsened, salaries have continued to rise, so that the $200,000 per year figure has been breached. Philanthropic support is being given to efforts to provide training to current and aspiring principals, the hope being that skills can be upgraded as a result of the experience. It is fascinating to see how many principals have been fired shortly after they concluded this training. Whatever the efficacy of these initiatives, they have little impact on the recruitment pool, so that the shortage continues to grow.

The philanthropic initiatives are also prone to the hype and exaggerated claims that inform all grantsmanship. In the case of Jewish schools, there is the added bit of child’s play embraced by training programs that operate on the notion that a trip to Israel – usually a two or three week affair – will somehow transform a principal into an accomplished educational leader.

Perhaps the most interesting development is the willingness of some schools – primarily in the non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox sectors – to recruit educational administrators from outside the ordinary confines of Jewish education, by seeking persons who have served in public education or private schools. Such candidates are generally retirees or those who can be lured by an attractive offer and perhaps also by the challenge and the desire to work in Jewish education. This approach makes sense, although it is risky because it leaves the school vulnerable on the Judaic front.

These efforts and others are not going to alleviate the shortage anytime soon and they certainly cannot change the situation that results in too many principals with limited ability being in charge of schools that desperately require principals of much greater ability. Perhaps the best solution is to reshape the relationship between lay and educational leaders. Lay people can contribute to the schools they serve even – and perhaps especially – regarding educational matters, provided that they appreciate the limits inherent in the positions they hold. At the same time, principals who far too often believe that a school is totally under their exclusive control must be willing to ease up a bit and welcome the involvement of those who can ultimately enhance prospects for educational success.