Trying to Improve the Standard of School Principals

"The standard of school principals in Israel has to be raised," argued Yehudit Shalev. "Excellent people don't consider this career."

Shalev is director general of the Avnei Rosha Institute, a new facility for training principals that is funded by the Education Ministry and Yad Hanadiv - the Rothschild foundation. And as of next year, she said, the criteria for hiring principals will change: Applicants will have to have a master's degree, which only some 55 percent of principals do today, according to Education Ministry data. In addition, they will have to participate in a practical training course that will be formulated by Avnei Rosha and offered at several locations throughout the country.

The new course will replace the courses that prospective principals are currently required to take, and which are given in 17 universities and colleges throughout Israel. However, even those courses became mandatory only a few years ago. Thus the ministry's data shows that in 2006, some 60 percent of all Israeli principals had not undergone any kind of preparatory course.

Shalev's institute also hopes to raise the quality of principals by locating outstanding teachers and building "career horizons" for them, similar to those offered to outstanding Israel Defense Forces officers.

"The supply of potential school principals is very limited," Shalev explained. "There are not enough candidates for the job, and the Education Ministry's district managers report that this is a very difficult problem all over the country. The result is that before the school year starts, when there is no longer any choice, compromises are made. Sometimes people enter the system who have not had any preparation."

The creation of a pool of prospective principals is particularly important in view of the increase in the number of comparatively elderly principals over the past few years. A decade ago, the proportion of high school principals over the age of 50 stood at 43.5 percent; today, it is 53 percent. In elementary schools, the increase has been similar.

The establishment of Avnei Rosha, which will be the main training center for school principals, was approved a year ago. Over the past few months, Shalev - a former principal, former head of Jerusalem's educational administration and former deputy city manager of Jerusalem - has prepared the ground for studies to start in the coming school year.

Some of the institute's programs will begin operating in two weeks' time. Once the academic year begins, approximately 150 experienced principals will serve as mentors to some 300 principals in their first first or second year on the job. Additionally, a hotline will be opened that principals can call both during and after school hours to get concrete advice about problems ranging from payments by parents to safety issues.

Shalev said that having experienced colleagues mentor new principals is designed to moderate the loneliness that many principals feel, especially during their early years in the job.

"A large part of their work is dealing with demands, often contradictory ones, from children, parents, local governments and the Education Ministry," she explained. "They are constantly coming under attack. That is why it is so important to have guidance from someone who can say 'I have been there, too.' Like with psychologists and social workers, training doesn't have to stop the moment they get the appointment."

She said the mentoring would take the form of a two-hour meeting once a week for the entire school year.

Commenting on the recent trend toward adopting models from outside the education system, such as the business world, Shalev continued: "Because of the loneliness and the difficulties entailed in training principals who were already on the job, some of them sought pasture in foreign fields and hired organizational consultants. That is a mistake. Running an educational institute is a completely different profession. Cooperation with the world outside the education system has to come from a position of self-respect, not one of inferiority."

Avnei Rosha has a budget of NIS 150 million, half of which comes from the Education Ministry and the other half from the Rothschild foundation. Education Minister Yuli Tamir heads the institute's steering committee, which has 19 members, five of them from the foundation. Her deputy on the committee is the foundation's director general, Ariel Weiss.