What if We Treated School Principals Like CEOs?

What if We Treated School Principals Like CEOs?

By Jean Desravines



Because these could be the neglected leaders of the century.

By Jean Desravines

Imagine a leader who is responsible for managing a budget of several million dollars, overseeing hundreds of staff, addressing the concerns and needs of passionate stakeholders, and is ultimately on the hook for delivering a “product” that will profoundly impact the trajectory of our country. You’re probably envisioning that this person is a corporate CEO of a Fortune 500 company, right?  


I’m actually referring to your high school principal.  

Principals are the CEOs of our nation’s schools. Just like CEOs, principals work strategically to hire the right staff, cultivate effective managers at all levels of their organization, ensure staff are supported and held accountable for results, create systems to promote efficient operations, and cultivate a positive culture focused on their vision for success.  

The students most in need of strong, consistent leadership are more likely to be exposed to an unstable school environment.  

But rather than carrying the responsibility for building products, principals are the executives responsible for academically building our nation’s future: the minds of our children. On average, a principal accounts for 25 percent of a school’s total impact on student learning — as many experts have written.


It is not hyperbole to suggest that CEOs — whether of companies or schools — can make or break the success of their organizations and, in many ways, of our country.   

Now imagine that 100 CEOs from companies on the Fortune 500 leave their roles this summer. Some will retire. Others will explore opportunities in other countries or companies. Still others will leave the world of business altogether. What would this fictionalized scenario mean for millions of people who rely on these companies? How would this affect the vitality of our economy?

Unfortunately, high leadership turnover is a reality for millions of students across the country — and particularly for those in low-income communities. A new report from the National Center for Education Statistics estimates that more than 18,000 public school principals will switch schools or leave the profession all together this year alone. This represents turnover of 20 percent of the approximately 90,000 public school principals nationwide. We know from experience that most of these transitions will happen in schools that serve low-income students and students of color. This means that the students most in need of strong, consistent leadership are more likely to be exposed to an unstable school environment.  

It’s clear how important Fortune 500 companies are to our economy. Every time a CEO leaves, we pay attention to the impact on workers in the company, who the successor is, how it affects share prices and how the markets respond. But when a principal leaves a school, we don’t fully appreciate the deleterious impact such transitions have on students, families and communities, as well as the teachers and staff in the building. And, sadly but not surprisingly, we don’t respond with the same sense of urgency to address the problem.

In Baltimore, a city with roughly 200 schools, 188 principals either left the principalship or exited the system entirely over a five-year period. What business could thrive and be successful with that level of turnover? Thankfully, in recent years Baltimore has made enormous strides in addressing this challenge and is emerging as a model for other school districts on how to tackle school leadership in a comprehensive way. Reducing principal turnover — and keeping the best leaders in the schools most in need — must be a national priority.  

The resources that some businesses spend on developing their leaders are impressive. Companies like Boeing and GE have built campuses focused exclusively on leadership and team development. They understand that the success of their organizations is directly tied to the quality of their leaders. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in education.  

By ignoring school leadership, we are missing a prime opportunity to focus on a key differentiator in education.

So how do we fix it? There are a few solutions out there. Some suggest we need to start simply by gathering more data because the conversation about school leadership has been ignored for so long. Others advocate large-scale leadership training, the sort that corporations treat as dime-a-dozen. Still others point out the need to increase principals’ salaries — an often controversial proposal. And then there are those who argue we need to fundamentally change the way we train, hire, manage, support and recognize principals today — an “all of the above” approach. 

In my work on school leadership, I’ve found over and over that the success of an entire school depends on a strong principal: from making sure students feel safe and promoting healthy lifestyle choices to ensuring teachers across all grades and subjects provide robust and engaging lessons, principals are ultimately responsible for ensuring all kids graduate from high school prepared to succeed in a 21st century global economy and to contribute meaningfully to their communities and society. This is a responsibility that demands nothing less than our full attention and strongest commitment.  

We intuitively know that to remain a great country we have to provide a high quality education for our children. No one would choose to stay with a bad boss if they could leave. Just as bad CEOs drive out great employees, great teachers only stay in schools where there is outstanding leadership. By ignoring school leadership, we are missing a prime opportunity to focus on a key differentiator in education. We should be putting the same level of energy, thought and resources into school leadership as some of the businesses I’ve mentioned earlier that invest in leadership development. After all, one can argue, the principal’s role is more important because they’re tasked with developing something much more important than products — our children and our future.