One of the clearest and most effective ways to improve education outcomes in the U.S. is to develop and put in place exceptional school leaders. Yet, many school systems across America lack a formal or, in some cases, any process to identify and develop these individuals, resulting in a shortage of the types of leaders required to create a high performing school; this according to “Building Pathways: How to develop the next generation of transformational school leaders,” a report released today by the Education Practice of Bain & Company, the global management consulting firm.

Bain conducted research among approximately 4,200 teachers, assistant principals and principals from 12 school systems nationwide this year, and found that 97 percent of respondents agreed that “a great principal is an essential ingredient to making a school successful,” yet 77 percent of teachers and 74 percent of teacher-leaders and assistant principals believe that the most talented people in their districts are not in school leadership positions.

“Despite widespread evidence that ‘transformational leaders’ are essential building blocks of every high-performing school, school districts often fail to prioritize leadership development,” said Chris Bierly, a Bain partner and co-author of the report. “We want our nation’s best teachers to have opportunities to grow and increase their impact; many will do that while keeping a presence in the classroom, but we also need to develop robust leadership pathways for those with the interest, talent and capabilities to extend their impact school-wide.”

According to the report, successful schools focus on systematically identifying and developing talented educators into transformational leaders. However, today many districts take a reactive, last minute approach to hiring, searching for great leaders only when they need them, leading to a scramble for talent. The research found that 50 percent of school leaders are hired within just one month of the start of the school year.

High-potential educators point to five major roadblocks that stand between them and leadership roles:

  • Too few high-potential candidates are pursuing these roles: many see the job as undesirable and get little encouragement to pursue it, leading to less than 20 percent of teachers aspiring to be school principals
  • “Stepping stone” roles fail to develop necessary leadership skills: nearly 75 percent of teachers-leaders do not feel responsible for ensuring high student achievement of the teachers they supervise; in addition, teacher-leader and assistant principal roles vary widely on leadership responsibilities
  • Leadership training and coaching is inadequate to prepare educators for leadership roles: 62 percent of teacher leaders/assistant principals say they do not receive any regular coaching, and ‘Principal Supervisors’ are stretched too thin, often across more than 25 direct reports
  • Leadership roles are not managed systematically as a talent pipeline: 38 percent of assistant principals have been in their roles twice as long as current principals spent as APs, effectively clogging the pipeline
  • The hiring process is disconnected from performance management: the majority (51 percent) of principals say they are not asked for recommendations on hiring decisions – and just 32 percent of principals and assistant principals say they believe their school’s hiring process effectively selects the most talented candidates

“When it comes to hiring educators, schools should shift from asking ‘Who’s available?’ to ‘Who do we need?’” said Bierly. “This ‘about face’ from scrambling for the best available candidate when openings occur to committing to a model that develops and retains the most promising leaders over time is an essential ingredient to create a greater number of extraordinary schools.”

According to Bierly, a successful approach to cultivating high-potential talent includes:

1. Setting a high bar for school leadership, including articulating specific leadership competencies and behaviors required to achieve district and school-level goals. Bain’s study found that a number of school systems are making fresh progress in this area; the Denver Public Schools, District of Columbia Public Schools and the Los Angeles Unified School District have been on the forefront of developing and implementing new higher standards and competencies for school leaders.

“School leaders are much more than administrators,” said Dr. John Deasy, superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District. “Principals are critical for facilitating great teaching in the classroom and delivering results—in this case, students who are college prepared and career ready. This requires an approach to leadership development that equips principals with the needed skills and experience.”

2. Build a talent development organization with consistent and meaningful “stepping stone” roles and focusing the “Principal Supervisor” role on better identifying and managing talent. The report found that KIPP’s network of charter management organizations has been an early innovator in using a “Leadership Progression Roadmap,” which describes specific skills that candidates must develop as they move from one role to the next.

3. Promote, monitor and support the talent development pipeline by communicating leadership pathways, regularly assessing talent, and creating robust leadership training programs across all stepping stone roles. The New York Department of Education was one of the first major school systems to focus on this critical step and has developed a formal system designed to create leadership opportunities for strong teachers and move those with a desire for school-wide leadership along a pathway to assistant principal and principal.

Editor’s note: To request the “Building Pathways” report or to schedule an interview with the authors Chris Bierly and Eileen Shy, please contact Cheryl Krauss via email: [email protected] or 646-562-7863.

About Bain & Company, Inc.

Bain & Company, a leading global business consulting firm, serves clients on issues of strategy, operations, technology, organization and mergers and acquisitions. The firm was founded in 1973 on the principle that Bain consultants must measure their success by their clients’ financial results. Bain clients have outperformed the stock market 4 to 1. With 50 offices in 32 countries, Bain has worked with over 4,600 major multinational, private equity and other corporations across every economic sector. For more information visit: Follow us on Twitter @BainAlerts.

About Bain’s Education Practice

Bain & Company’s Education Practice has deep experience helping create extraordinary schools around the world. The firm is deeply committed to social impact and invests approximately $50 million a year in pro-bono support with K-12 education as one of its core areas. Bain works with institutions of all types – including school districts and charter schools, organizations focused on supporting students with in-school and after-school services, and education reform organizations focused on human capital and advocacy. Bain partners with these organizations to develop strategies and business plans, structure the organization for success, nurture donor relationships, and attract and retain talent, working alongside our clients toward the shared goal of accelerating student achievement.


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