I am often fond of saying principals operate at the center of policy practice and public will. That is a difficult place to be, and it is often a lonely place to be. It can be extremely challenging to support your school community and hold on to your job when you’re caught in the middle of competing priorities from politicians and politics, bureaucratic regulations, and what you and your staff know is right. And it is this precarious position that is partly responsible for the worsening educator and principal shortage.
Even though the impact of an effective principal on student achievement is nearly as large as the effect of having a similarly effective teacher, our education system has inadequate and outdated measures to train and retain excellent school leaders. And after the pandemic, principals are feeling the squeeze more than ever. A recent NASSP survey found that 38% of principals plan to leave their position within the next three years. While this would be a damaging blow to every child, students of color and those from low-income families stand to lose the most when school leaders in their community leave.
After being named NASSP’s Principal of the Year in 2016, I became increasingly curious about the root cause of educator shortages. I toured the country meeting with fellow school leaders to learn about their challenges, needs, strengths, and successes with the hope of learning how to develop and keep talented and caring leaders in every school. And no matter the background of these school leaders and their schools, one thing was clear: Even though principals are experts in their fields, they are routinely left out of making the decisions that affect them and are often hamstrung in making their own. The same NASSP survey confirmed this, with only 33% of respondents believing their opinion is represented in major decisions and policy considerations in their district. That figure falls to 14% and 13% at the state and federal levels.
To change these statistics and strengthen our profession, I am one of the founding members of NASSP’s new principal-led educator pipeline advocacy campaign. Right now, during National Principals Month, we aim to support the creation of a sustainable pipeline that recruits, prepares, retains, and supports excellent school leaders so they can enjoy successful careers. The campaign officially launched this month, and we are galvanizing our colleagues to have a real voice in the policy decisions that affect us, our students, and our teachers. Even though working from the center of policy, practice, and public will is difficult, it provides a unique and powerful position to influence decision-makers—if we decide to use it.
So, how do we provide support for the people at the center? To start, we advocate with lawmakers in Congress to pass legislation that will incentivize new educators to enter the profession and retain the quality educators already with us. One of the most transformative pieces of legislation that we are supporting in our campaign is the Loan Forgiveness for Educators Act, recently introduced by Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) and Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-NM). This bill would significantly expand student loan forgiveness to early childhood and K–12 educators and school leaders, offering full debt relief in exchange for five years of teaching in high-needs schools or programs. Moreover, the federal government would make educators’ monthly loan payments while they serve and up to the full-service commitment. The bill would also:
- Make federal Parent PLUS loans, (whether held by an educator or their parent), Grad PLUS loans, and other popular federal loan programs eligible for the current Teacher Loan Forgiveness (TLF) program benefits;
- Allow service in pursuit of TLF to concurrently count as service toward Public Service Loan Forgiveness, removing an unnecessary roadblock that can keep educators saddled with student loan debt for longer periods of time; and
- Ensure educators retain loan repayment and forgiveness benefits even if their school or program loses their “high-needs” status. In addition, educators will still be able to make progress toward loan forgiveness if they have to take time off for medical leave, military service, or are impacted by a national emergency.
In addition to incentivizing new educators to enter the profession, other pending legislation our campaign supports would also greatly improve schools’ ability to retain current high-quality educators and school leaders. The EDUCATORS for America Act, sponsored by my own Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) and Representative Alma Adams (D-NC), would:
- Invest $1 billion annually in the educator pipeline to ensure schools have a profession-ready workforce of teachers, principals, and specialized instructional support personnel;
- Boost outreach efforts to future teachers, expand educator residency programs, and invest in educator preparation programs; and
- Double TEACH grants to $8,000 per year, and create a new monthly credit for teachers, principals, and other educators toward repayment on their student loans so they earn loan forgiveness while they serve.
Finally, the bipartisan Preparing and Retaining Education Professionals (PREP) Act, sponsored by Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Susan Collins (R-ME), would:
- Encourage school districts to create partnerships, including grow-your-own programs, with local community colleges and universities to ensure their programs are educating future teachers in areas where there is a shortage of educators, including in rural communities;
- Increase access to teacher and school leader residency programs and preparation training;
- Require states to identify areas of teacher or school leader shortages by subject areas across public schools and use that data to target their recruitment and retention efforts; and
- Increase support for teacher preparation programs at Minority Serving Institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities to support a diverse and well-prepared educator workforce.
Policymakers need us to remind them that they have the power to strengthen public schools and support principals. Ultimately, the three bills our campaign is supporting all contain policy elements that we hope would eventually be rolled into a larger reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). Current authorization for the HEA programs expired at the end of 2013 but continues to be extended through insufficient stopgap measures. Sooner or later, Congress must write a full reauthorization of HEA. When they do, it’s critical that we’ve ensured that the policies proposed in the Loan Forgiveness for Educators Act, the EDUCATORS for America Act, and the PREP Act are known and widely supported by our representatives and senators.
That’s why I’m asking you and all school leaders to take a moment right now and urge your members of Congress to begin a comprehensive reauthorization of the HEA and support the policies in these three bills. To send a message to your officials, visit nassp.org/take-action and use one of our interactive campaigns. With a few simple clicks, you can quickly send a powerful, prewritten message that will move our advocacy forward.
During National Principals Month, we’re also working with our colleagues at the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) and the American Federation of School Administrators (AFSA) to honor hard-working leaders and cultivate respect for one of the most difficult and important roles. I encourage you to visit principalsmonth.org to celebrate and advocate alongside your colleagues.
Alan Tenreiro is the president of Mount Saint Charles Academy in Woonsocket, RI, and an NASSP Ambassador working on a national campaign to strengthen the principal pipeline and address the national educator shortage.
Sidebar: Contact NASSP
For more information on NASSP’s principal pipeline campaign and other ways to get involved, reach out to NASSP’s advocacy staff: