Principals have harder jobs today, as more state oversight and a tougher school rating system have put them at the center of higher expectations.

School districts are searching for school leaders who can juggle increased time spent evaluating teachers, relatively new principal certification rules and pressure to raise ISTEP scores and A to F grades from the state.

For urban school districts, higher poverty means many of their schools face steeper challenges to hit test score targets, and that’s made hiring principals tougher, too.

It’s a national phenomenon, according to a recent study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based education policy think tank that advocates for high standards and school choice. It’s also evident in Indianapolis.

Consider Perry Township’s Winchester Village Elementary School: When the principal requested a transfer last spring, administrators wanted a replacement who could build upon a year of substantial academic progress at the school, where about 85 percent of students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch.

It was rated a B by the state last year with 62 percent of students passing the state ISTEP exam, a marked increase from its D rating in 2012.

That might sound like a pretty good situation for a new principal to step into. Even so, it’s harder to find candidates today who are ready to take on all that’s expected of them, school officials said.

“It’s more of a challenge than it’s been in the past,” said assistant superintendent Vickie Carpenter. “Principals five years ago were more managers of the building. Now they really are instructional leaders, and they have to be knowledgeable.”

After a statewide search that included several internal and external candidates, the school turned to assistant principal Natalie Bohannon, who will become the school’s new principal. Carpenter said they chose Bohannon because they believed she played a role in the school’s test score gains.

But schools aren’t always fortunate to have good internal candidates ready to step in.

For example, Indianapolis Public Schools said on Tuesday it was still scrambling to fill open principal and assistant principal jobs before the start of school in just three weeks.

For its study, Fordham examined five urban districts across the country. The district’s names were kept secret in exchange for candid answers to the researchers’ questions. Together, the five were diverse in size, union strength, performance and other factors.

For the study, Fordham worked with the North Carolina-based Public Impact, which in 2011 worked with The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit that advocates for educational change, to craft a controversial report that recommended major changes in IPS to reduce administrative spending and redirect money and decision-making authority to schools.

Fordham’s report found the districts it studied had hiring practices that hurt their chances of getting the best candidates. They were not using techniques other districts use for successful recruiting, researchers found. For example:

  • Principals were often hired without looking at objective evidence that their prior schools improved.
  • Pay for some principal jobs was too low.
  • The districts weren’t always strategic enough about placing principals in the buildings where they could make the most difference.
  • By focusing too heavily on recruiting internal candidates to be principals, districts could be missing dynamic leaders from outside.

Some of these ideas are already being factored in by Indianapolis districts.

‘Objective, hard evidence’

Carpenter, the Perry Township administrator, said the district is less inclined to hire a principal with no previous experience as a school leader, for example.

“The questions we ask in the interview process are different,” Carpenter said. “We do get applicants from teachers that have not had experiences being an administrator yet. We wouldn’t hire someone that hadn’t at least (served) as a current principal or an assistant principal.”

Now the list of expectations for principals includes experience helping students learning English as a second language. At Winchester Village Elementary School, those students make up 40 percent of the school.

The districts that participated in the Fordham study seemed to have strong practices to help them figure out what types of skills and characteristics they’re looking for in new principals. But it found districts were missing the boat when it came to demanding actual evidence of strong leadership from their candidates.

Those are the right sorts of questions, said Amber Northern, vice president of research at the institute. Too often districts make the mistake of not demanding actual evidence of strong leadership from their candidates.

“Perhaps you haven’t run a school, but what experience do you have in terms of helping an organization succeed by whatever measure they use?” she said.

Salaries that ‘mean something’

Perhaps not surprisingly, good candidates may also expect more money to work at schools with the toughest challenges. Indianapolis Public Schools has been learning the hard way that rewards have to accompany success.

IPS lost School 90 principal Mark Pugh in June when he was recruited to a district in Ohio for more money.

Pugh led an aggressive overhaul of the high-poverty school’s academic program and its test scores skyrocketed to earn five consecutive A grades. He told Chalkbeat he would have considered staying in IPS if he hadn’t received a $14,000 pay cut last year due to a change in his contract length.

IPS seems to be changing its approach. The school board recently voted to approve Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s plan to offer some principals recruitment bonuses if they take a job at one of the district’s most troubled schools. The plan also includes bonus money for principals whose students show marked improvement in test scores and other measures.

Principals aren’t widgets

When a principal position opens up at a building, often districts will immediately start a search for someone to lead that specific building without first considering its overall leadership strategy, Fordham found.

But a shift is underway in IPS and other districts aimed at better matching their principals with the schools where they can make the most difference.

But once the match is made, districts also need to give those matches time to mature, said Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals.

“I might have a principal working their tail off making all the right changes and that school grade might not be progressing,” Bess said. “The best thing a district can do when they’ve got that right administrator is to give them the right supports. It takes about three years for the impact of a principal’s leadership to have an effect.”

‘They know the challenges’

At Perry Township, Carpenter said officials believe the best place for finding future leaders is within the district.

“If we have people who have proven themselves, we try to support that,” Carpenter said. “If we’re comparing and we have an outside candidate and an internal candidate (with the same qualifications), we’re always going to go with the internal candidate. They know the challenges, they know the strengths.”

It’s a common instinct. But Northern said the study’s authors believe districts’ preferences toward internal hiring could actually hinder recruiting by relying only on the people they already know.

Carpenter wasn’t ready to concede that point, however. Going out of the area, or out of state, has its own risks, she said.

Indiana, for instance, in recent years has seen a slew of statewide education policy changes that could require a steep learning curve for a newcomer to the state.

At Winchester Village, for example, Carpenter said she felt strongly that Bohannon moving up from assistant principal to the top job was a good call.

“She has a high level of credibility, due to her number of years as a classroom teacher,” Carpenter said. “We are confident that she will not only maintain (the school’s) growth, but will accelerate this growth.”