The Principal Interview Matters
Schools are only as effective as the school leadership. Since leadership matters, why leave the interviewing of principals and school administrators to answers that can be practiced and behaviors that can be feigned? Dr. Martin Haberman (1932-2012) distinguished professor emeritus, a researcher who was based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spent four decades examining research regarding principal successes and failures, specifically in urban settings. Haberman believed that “selection of the right principals ‘up front’ is even more important than training.”
The identification and selection of qualified school leaders is one of the primary goals for K-12 school systems dictated by national mandates like “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top.” However, researchers and practitioners are quickly learning that the qualified principal is not enough in today’s school environment. Despite the various calls by leading accountability agencies to improve the hiring selection process, school districts remain ill equipped to identify star principals on a large scale.
Haberman, in his book, “Star Principals Serving Children in Poverty,” states:
“The attributes of star principals, which make them effective against all odds and in spite of irrational pressures, are more than behaviors. They are behaviors undergirded by an ideology. The ideology and behaviors are interwoven; they are of a piece. The connection between what star principals do and how they think about what they do cannot be broken. In other words, educators who believe they can learn the “magic” behaviors without having the belief system that goes with it are wasting their time. Conversely, those who would assume that, because they agree with the ideology, they could automatically perform as star principals are equally deluded. Star principals are doers and thinkers.”
The truth is those proven instruments do matter when it comes to choosing school leaders that are more than qualified, but are stars. The demographic mandate dictated by the increasing diversity among K-12 students requires a new school leader archetype that can meet the needs of various marginalized learners. This type of futurist school leadership must be creative and adapt to the mutating demands of local political, social and educational environments — and the neo American learner — concurrently. Quite simply, a star principal is a 21st century administrator who has evolved from a white collar administrator into a community worker due to the expanding responsibilities associated with the job.
School districts around the nation use a variety of interview instruments to select school leaders and they cannot afford to get the principal interview wrong. The interview, undergirded by a strong interview instrument, is paramount to selecting the right principal for the job and placing the prospective K-12 school on a trajectory of academic success and overall school improvement. Many district leaders believe that any rote set of interview questions, pulled from the Internet or a “how to” book will suffice, and are pre-occupied with leadership theory that supports a singular and insufficient focus on principal behavior. Being a star principal is more than conveying suitable behaviors and characteristics, which may elude any poorly crafted interview instrument.
Core Beliefs and Behaviors:
The Haberman Star Principal Interview Questionnaire
Dr. Martin Haberman developed the Haberman Star Principal Interview Questionnaire. He conducted exit interviews of principals who were leaving the profession. His research revealed the qualities and characteristics needed for administrators to address children coming from diverse backgrounds, particularly those from urban poverty. From this research he developed key dispositions, or core beliefs, tied to behaviors that principals in urban settings need to be successful.
Those dispositions include the following:
- Commitment to student learning
- Theory into practice
- Role of the school serving students in poverty
- Curriculum and instructional leadership
- Creating a positive school climate and fighting burnout
- Decision making
- Administrative style
- Administrative relations with parents and community.
Figure 1 demonstrates the way in which principals’ core beliefs are tethered to behaviors. In a new book due out later this year, “Better Principals, Better Schools: What Star Principals Know, Believe and Do,” we share accounts of star principals who articulate how star principals’ ideology and behavior are different from qualified principals. Decades of credible research serve as the foundation for Haberman’s 11 core functions, which frame the HSPIQ.
Figure 1. Haberman’s 11 functions as a product of school leaders’ core beliefs and behaviors. Source: “Better Principals, Better Schools: What Star Principals Know, Believe and Do” (Information Age Publishers, in press)
Research and Development
The development of the HSPIQ questionnaire involved merging the knowledge and research base with the most effective practices of star urban principals. The research and theory base was summarized in the 24 domains of the Knowledge and Skill Base and laid out in “Principals for Our Changing Schools” published by The National Policy Board for Educational Administration. Star urban principals in three great city school districts were identified: 27 in Houston, 18 in Milwaukee and 84 in Chicago. Star principals were invited to participate using the following criteria: achievement scores had risen in their schools for a three year period; they were rated by their faculties as effective instructional leaders; central office personnel identified them as accountable fiscal managers; and parents described them as effective in developing community support for their schools.
These stars then engaged in a process of explaining their effective leadership behaviors. They participated in consensus building activities, which involved grouping, and ranking the performance functions that they believed constituted best practice and which they believed explained their success. The domains of the written knowledge base and the functions performed by the urban principals were then synthesized into 11 functions. This synthesis represents the functions that star urban teachers identified as their effective behaviors, which can also be supported in the research literature.
Questions designed to assess the 11 functions of star urban principals were then developed to assess this synthesis of research and practice. In order to validate that the content of the questions dealt with the content they purported to be assessing, all the principals of the Milwaukee Public Schools in 2001 (167) were personally interviewed by Haberman over a period of 53 days. This process established content validity. Respondents, regardless of their level of administrative effectiveness, agreed that the questions dealt with the stated functions. The results of this study indicated that the effective functions cited by star principals that were also supported in the literature, were indeed communicating common meanings to respondents. In addition, all question wordings that were ambiguous were clarified or discarded. In an ancillary study, 51 assistant principals were also interviewed. In spite of the fact that assistant principals were typically relegated to disciplinary duties, they identified 10 of the 11 functions on the questionnaire as explanations of star principals’ effectiveness.
In addition to establishing content validity, this lengthy, in-depth process also provided a pool of responses to the same questions from principals deemed to be less than satisfactory as well as responses from star principals.
Unsatisfactory or “failure” principals were those with attributes opposite to stars: their schools had declining achievement; they were not regarded as instructional leaders by their faculties; they were identified by central office administrators as “in trouble”; and they were not supported by their parents and communities. These were individuals in the process of retiring, being assigned principal coaches or being moved out of schools and reassigned.
As a result of these procedures, 11 functions representing sound theory and practice were developed into valid interview questions. Since our studies had included both stars and failure principals’ responses it was also possible to score responses. The scores reflect the degree to which respondents’ answers are closer to those made by star urban principals or to those made by failure principals to the same questions.
These procedures required one year to accomplish. At the conclusion of the year the questionnaire was taken back to the original three groups of star principals in Houston, Chicago and Milwaukee. The numbers of these groups had declined slightly with two less in Houston, one less in Milwaukee and eight less in Chicago. The star principals were asked to repeat the very same process they had engaged in initially; that is, they engaged in a process of consensus building in which they identified and ranked the behaviors they believed explained their effectiveness. The results of these activities indicated that the behaviors star urban principals had identified the previous year were the same ones they identified a year later. The second finding was that the answers of all the initial respondents identified as stars were, in every case, closer to the star respondents identified in the Milwaukee sample than to the responses of the failing principals. The third finding was that the questionnaire could be administered with inter-rater reliability; different interviewers scored respondents answers in the same ways.
In sum, the developmental approach followed here has yielded a questionnaire which synthesizes what the knowledge base indicates makes principals effective and what star urban principals themselves identify as explanations for their success. When this synthesis was replicated one year later it yielded the same explanations of success. The interview questions developed from this synthesis have content validity for both star principals and failure principals. The scoring of respondents is reliable when used by various questioners who have been trained to use the interview.
The list of school districts using the HSPIQ is available from the Haberman Educational Foundation. Each district can also provide its own data on the predictive value of the instrument. This scenario-based interview assesses the dispositions named above and may be suitable for your school district.