School Leadership


School Leadership

The role of the school principal has come into sharper focus in recent years, as a growing body of research shines a light on how principals affect student learning. With that knowledge comes a growing recognition that, in an era of accountability, the success of school improvement initiatives depends heavily on having effective leaders on campus.

The role of the school principal has come into sharper focus in recent years, as a growing body of research shines a light on how principals affect student learning. With that knowledge comes a growing recognition that, in an era of accountability, the success of school improvement initiatives depends heavily on having effective leaders on campus.

Principals are second only to classroom instruction among the in-school factors that affect student learning, according to leadership research conducted for the Wallace Foundation by scholars at the University of Minnesota and the University of Toronto. The 2010 study builds on an earlier research review, which also found that principals’ impact was even greater in schools with high poverty rates and other challenges.

Meanwhile, a 2012 study involving more than 7,000 Texas principals found that having a highly-effective principal can move students ahead academically by up to seven months during one school year.

While teachers’ impact is primarily limited to the students in their classrooms, the influence of the principal is distributed throughout the school. Positive effects can be achieved through hiring and managing effective teachers; setting rigorous academic expectations; creating a climate and culture of success; and fostering good relationships with the community, experts say. The kind of climate a principal sets in a school and the support provided to teachers are key factors in determining whether good teachers stay or leave.

High Turnover

Still, training and keeping effective principals, particularly in urban settings, continue to be major challenges.

The profession experiences high turnover, with about half of new principals leaving their schools in the third year and fewer than 30 percent lasting more than five years, according to a 2014 report by the School Leaders Network, a national organization that focuses on providing professional development to principals. The problem is even more acute in high-poverty areas, where schools are less likely than those in middle-class communities to have the same principal for at least more than six years, the report finds. Those results were similar to the conclusions in a 2012 report by RAND Education culled from a study of new principals, who had been trained by New Leaders,  in six urban school districts in the 2007-2008 school year. In the first year, 12 percent of the 519 principals studied left, while 11 percent left within the second year. 

Principal turnover is expensive both in actual dollars and lost academic achievement. Research shows that it takes about three to five years for principals to have a real impact on schools, and so the constant turnover makes it difficult to sustain academic progress.  The RAND study of the new principals in urban school districts also found a decline in test scores or lack of improvement in the majority of schools the year after the principals left.

Part of the reason for high turnover is the expansion of  the principal’s responsibilities and the increasingly pressure-cooker nature of the job, amid federal and state pressure to turn around low-performing schools. (For example, the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grant initiative encouraged the replacement of principals at persistently struggling schools.)

A Complex Job

In addition to being instructional leaders — individuals who have a deep understanding of teaching  strategies and can  lead their teachers to implement those practices — principals still must manage the day-to-day affairs in their schools, plus contend with such matters as teacher evaluations, implementing new standards and preparing for new assessments, and, in some cases, even marketing their schools in an era of increased school choice. 

Given the complex and demanding nature of the job, attention has mounted to the role of principal preparation programs, with some saying they demand greater scrutiny.

Organizations such as the Alliance to Reform Education Leadership at the George W. Bush Institute, the Wallace Foundation, and New Leaders have called on education leadership preparation programs to adopt more rigorous admissions standards. The Bush Institute, for example, has called for greater consideration of whether candidates have the requisite leadership skill-sets and aptitude when states license them. The institute also suggests that states, which approve leadership preparation programs, should consider the success of those programs’ graduates when considering whether to allow the training programs to continue..

Depending on the state, aspiring principals can go through a university program or an alternate route certification program, normally run by a nonprofit organization and in collaboration with a school district. Some districts are also getting into the business of running their own principal-preparation programs. This approach allows the districts to identify internal candidates with strong leadership capabilities and tailor the program’s content to their needs.

In recent years, universities and districts have made a more concerted effort to create partnerships to train and support principals. Such programs typically include a phase in which principals-in-training work under the tutelage of a successful principal. District-university collaborations exist in places like Denver and Charlotte, North Carolina. Other districts and training programs are working to add intensive mentoring and coaching support for new principals that go beyond the first three years on the job.

The Assistant Principal

The role of the assistant principal is also changing from one that emphasizes the management aspects of the job, such as discipline or transportation, to one in which assistant principals are being groomed to become instructional leaders from Day 1. There is an ongoing debate over whether the assistant principal role should be viewed as a stepping stone to the principalship or a destination in and of itself.

Furthermore, teacher leadership is getting renewed attention. New teacher-leadership efforts have come with support from the federal government and national organizations, such as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the Center for Teaching Quality. Teacher leadership is viewed as a way to tap into the expertise of effective teachers, retain veteran and new teachers, and reduce some of the stresses of the principalship. In some districts, teachers serve as instructional coaches, lead professional development, and spearhead curriculum changes.

Published: December 2015

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Starting next year, it will happen in some struggling Broward and Palm Beach County schools.

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Opinion: Want to Fix Schools? Go to the Principal’s Office

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De Blasio’s Questionable School Consultants Cost Taxpayers Millions

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Member Stories

February 2-9
Here's what we're reading by EWA members this week

Lauren Camera writes for U.S. News & World Report that while DeVos may be a champion of school choice, she will need to take a piecemeal approach to expansion, as it is unclear whether measures like a voucher proposal would garner more support from lawmakers if pushed by DeVos.

On Kara Newhouse’s Women In STEM podcast for Lancaster Online, African-American teenagers from the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, school district share what they thought of the recent Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures.”

Member Stories

December 22-29
Here's what we're reading by EWA members this week

What will education in California look like under President Trump? Nan Austin of The Modesto Bee offers her take, noting the ”stability built in by state law and sheer size.”


In this story on tall tales during exam week, one Indiana University professor tells Michael Reschke of The Herald-Times that this ”can be an especially dangerous time of year for grandmothers, grandfathers and pets,” who all seem to fall suddenly ill.



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Perspective: Building Principal Pipelines

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EWA Radio

Wanted: More Women Superintendents in Texas (and Beyond)
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Shelby Webb of The Houston Chronicle discusses her reporting on the gender disparity among superintendents in Texas. She and EWA public editor Emily Richmond also explore some of the reasons behind this statewide — and national — trend, its impact on learning, and what some experts say would help make school and district leadership jobs more appealing to female educators. 

EWA Radio

Bright Lights, Big City: Covering NYC’s Schools
EWA Radio: Episode 89

(Unsplash/Pedro Lastra)

Today’s assignment: Reporting on the nation’s largest school district, with 1.1 million students and an operating budget of $25 billion. Patrick Wall of Chalkbeat New York has dug deep into the city’s special education programs, investigated whether school choice programs are contributing to student segregation rather than reducing it, and penned a three-part series on on one high school’s effort to reinvent itself. He talks with EWA public editor Emily Richmond about his work, and offers tips for making the most of student interviews, getting access to campuses, and balancing bigger investigations with daily coverage. A first-prize winner for beat reporting in this year’s EWA Awards, Wall is spending the current academic year at Columbia University’s School of Journalism as a Spencer Fellow.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Back-to-School: You Need Stories, We’ve Got Ideas

Back-to-School: You Need Stories, We’ve Got Ideas

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Blog: The Educated Reporter

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(From left to right) Moderator Emma Brown of The Washington Post moderates a panel on principal leadership with experts Vincent Cho, Erika Hunt, Glenn Pethelfar at Boston University in May 2016. (Lilli Boxer for EWA)

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Blog: Latino Ed Beat

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Source: Flickr/ via Mikel Ortega (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Missing Class: Using Data to Track Chronic Absenteeism

Fickr/dcJohn (CC BY 2.0)

For every savant who’s skilled enough to ditch class and still ace the course, many more who miss school fall way behind, increasing their odds of dropping out or performing poorly.

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Blog: The Educated Reporter

Progressives in Massachusetts Shortchange Poor Kids, Governor Says

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker speaks at EWA's National Seminar in Boston. (Photo by Katherine Taylor for EWA)

Massachusetts has long been the poster child for education.

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EWA Radio

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Kindergartner Tyree Parker sits at the front doors of Maximo Elementary as he waits for school to open. (Tampa Bay Times/Dirk Shadd)

Update: On May 2, “Failure Factories” won the $10,000 Hechinger Grand Prize in the EWA National Awards for Education Reporting.

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Key Coverage

Bad Apples: Who is Teaching Mississippi’s Kids?

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The Wallace Foundation

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Teach Plus

Since 2009, Teach Plus has worked to recruit and prepare teachers to take on teacher-leadership roles in their schools, districts, and states.


New Leaders

Founded in 2000, the New York City-based organization trains current and emerging school leaders, including principals, teachers, and instructional coaches, to work in high-poverty schools.


CHURN: The High Cost of Principal Turnover
School Leaders Network

“CHURN: The High Cost of Principal Turnover” shows America’s schools, students and teachers are bearing significant, unnecessary costs from heightened principal turnover – or churn – because little is being done to provide principals with reasonable support after their second year in the position.  The report is the first to reveal the litany of losses – including critical education resources, disruptions to classrooms and weakened student learning opportunities – that are occurring because America’s principals leave their jobs at a rate higher than nearly all other white-collar profes

Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Saving on College by Doing Some of It in High School

Gov. Dannel Malloy announces the creation of Connecticut's first P-TECH high school, modeled after the IBM-backed school in Brooklyn, New York. (Source: Flickr/Dannel Malloy)

Last week the White House announced a new higher education experiment that will direct federal grants to some high school students who want to enroll in college classes.

The plan is to start small, with the administration offering $20 million to help defray the college costs of up to 10,000 low-income high school students for the 2016-2017 academic year. The money will come from the overall Pell Grant pot, which is currently funded at more than $30 billion annually and used by 8 million students.


69th EWA National Seminar

The Education Writers Association, the national professional organization for journalists who cover education, is thrilled to announce that its annual conference will take place from Sunday, May 1, through Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in the historic city of Boston.

Co-hosted by Boston University’s College of Communication and School of Education, EWA’s 69th National Seminar will examine a wide array of timely topics in education — from early childhood through career — while expanding and sharpening participants’ skills in reporting and storytelling.

Boston, Massachusetts
Blog: The Educated Reporter

A Chicago High School’s Turnaround

Reporters visit Nicholas Senn High School in Chicago's North Side as part of EWA's 68th National Seminar (Jessica Smith for EWA)

Five years ago, Nicholas Senn High School on the Near North Side of Chicago was one some educators felt lucky to avoid. While student discipline might have been an issue elsewhere, “you would say, at least it’s not Senn,” Principal Susan Lofton said.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

The Impact of Principal Turnover

Flickr/Simon Cunningham

Joe Nelson wasn’t the only principal along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in August 2005 to face rebuilding a school in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But he did it with exceptional leadership, focusing on setting up reward systems for students and teachers and creating an environment where they could flourish despite the devastation around them.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Finding (And Keeping) Great Principals

(Flickr/Eric E Castro)

How much do you know about your district’s approach to hiring principals? Is there a cohesive effort to attract, train, and retain the most talented leaders? Or is it a scattershot approach that ultimately lets strong prospects slip away?


Building a Stronger Principalship, Vol. 3: Districts Taking Charge of the Principal Pipeline

The third in a series of reports evaluating a multi-year Wallace initiative documents ways in which six districts are working to improve school leadership districtwide. It describes several new measures districts are implementing, including systematic support for assistant principals; the use of performance standards to hire and evaluate principals, as well as to inform training and support for them; and the establishment of data systems to promote more effective hiring, identify principals in need of support and provide feedback to the programs that trained them.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Is Common Core Support Waxing or Waning? (Depends on Whom You Ask)

EWA seminar at George Washington University on Dec. 15, 2014. Left to right: Michael Brickman (Fordham Institute);  Principal Carol Burris; Andrew Ujifusa (Ed Week); Michael McShane (AEI); Carmel Martin (CAP). (EWA/Emily Richmond)

Last month’s election spells trouble for the Common Core State Standards, a set of expectations for what students should know in English and math by the end of each grade. With the standards increasingly being assailed as an unwanted federal intrusion into public education by conservatives, the Republican sweep of state legislatures – the party is now in control of over two-thirds of state lawmaking bodies – will likely lead to a new round of scrutiny of the standards and the tests tied to them.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Study: Replacing Principals Tied to Boost in Student Test Scores

Flickr/ecastro (CC BY-SA 2.0)

As more research emerges on the sizable effect school principals have on student learning, some experts are asking whether removing principals who are rated poorly can lead to learning gains among students.

A new report scrutinizing schools in the nation’s capital suggests replacing low-performing principals with new ones is correlated with a modest boost in student academics.

EWA Radio

Principal Turnover: What’s Happening in Denver?
EWA Radio, Episode 13

Why are so many principals in Denver leaving their jobs? And what is the local school district doing to try and stem the churn? EWA Radio speaks with Katharine Schimel of Chalkbeat Colorado about her story looking into the high rate of principal turnover, and what it means for student learning and campus climate in the Mile High City.


Principals Have Lots of Teacher Effectiveness Data, But Don’t Use Them

Time and timing are two other key barriers to principal data use, noted Jason A. Grissom, assistant professor of public policy and education and a collaborator on the study. “Principals face so many demands on their time already, so it can be difficult to find the time to access and analyze data, particularly when those data are not always available to principals at the time talent management decisions need to be made,” he said.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Atlanta Cheating Scandal: New Yorker Magazine Gets Personal

The July 21 issue of The New Yorker takes us deep inside the Atlanta cheating scandal, and through the lucid reporting of Rachel Aviv, we get to know some of the teachers and school administrators implicated. We learn not only how and why they say they cheated, but also about the toxic, high-pressure environment they contend was created by Superintendent Beverly Hall’s overwhelming emphasis on improving student test scores.


Lacking Leaders: The Challenges of Principal Recruitment, Selection, and Placement
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Thomas B. Fordham Institute

A school’s leader matters enormously to its success and that of its students and teachers. But how well are U.S. districts identifying, recruiting, selecting, and placing the best possible candidates in principals’ offices? To what extent do their practices enable them to find and hire great school leaders? To what degree is the principal’s job itself designed to attract outstanding candidates?


Great Principals at Scale
Bush Center and New Leaders

School leaders are critical in the lives of students and to the development of their teachers. Unfortunately, in too many instances, principals are effective in spite of – rather than because of – district conditions. To truly improve student achievement for all students across the country, well-prepared principals need the tools, support, and culture that enable them to be the best.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Judging Principals: Inside the Evaluation Debate

How should we judge the performance of Baton Rouge education reporter Charles Lussier?

That was the question posed by Vanderbilt University education professor Joseph Murphy, who suspected that by the second afternoon of EWA’s National Seminar his audience was ready for a fun exercise. Murphy talked about the difference between Lussier’s inputs (such as his education and technical skills), the work he does and his results (readership and response to his articles).

“What if we measure him on whether the paper increases circulation? Do you buy that?” Murphy asked.


Preparing Principals to Raise Student Achievement: Implementation and Effects of the New Leaders Program in Ten Districts
By Susan M. Gates, Laura S. Hamilton, Paco Martorell, Susan Burkhauser, Paul Heaton, Ashley Pierson, Matthew Baird, Mirka Vuollo, Jennifer J. Li, Diana Lavery, Melody Harvey and Kun Gu

New Leaders Principals Affect Student Achievement in Their Schools

  • Students who attended schools led by New Leaders principals experienced slightly larger achievement gains on average than similar students in schools led by non–New Leaders principals.
  • The magnitudes of achievement effects varied substantially across districts. They also varied across principals.

A Variety of Factors Could Explain the Observed Relationship Between New Leaders Principals and Outcomes

Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Indianapolis Schools Will Soon Have No Latino Administrators

Joél Muñoz is Mexican-American, learned English as a second language, and was the first in his family to graduate high school and college. 

He also is the only Latino administrator in the Indianapolis Public Schools, even though about 22 percent of students are Latino. Only about 48 of the district’s teachers were Hispanic in 2011.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

New Survey: Teachers Say Their Voices Aren’t Being Heard

When it comes to having their voices heard, teachers overwhelmingly say they aren’t being listened to on matters of education policy at the state or national level.

At the school level, however, 69 percent of teachers said their opinions carried weight, according to the third edition of the “Primary Sources”  survey by Scholastic and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which was published Tuesday.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Compelling Principal Stories: It Can Be Done

One of the education system’s most powerful influences on student learning is often ignored — the school principal. Journalists frequently find it challenging to capture the complexities of the job. But the collection of coverage we’ve assembled underscores that this facet of the education beat is replete with interesting angles.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Ten Questions to Ask on School Leaders

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Effective Instructional Time Use for School Leaders: Longitudinal Evidence from Observations of Principals

We find that principals’ time spent broadly on instructional functions does not predict student achievement growth. Aggregating across leadership behaviors, however, masks that some specific instructional investments predict year-to-year gains. In particular, time spent on teacher coaching, evaluation, and developing the school’s educational program predict positive achievement gains. In contrast, time spent on informal classroom walkthroughs negatively predicts student growth, particularly in high schools.


The Wallace Foundation

The Wallace Foundation is a national philanthropy, based in New York City, that aims to improve the educational opportunities for disadvantaged students. The foundation has invested heavily in research and resources aimed at improving the positive effect principals can have on school and student performance. They have also put significant funding toward expanded learning, summer learning, and after-school.


Principal Ideas: Stories on School Leaders
67 minutes

Even the most talented teacher will be less successful under a bad principal. But how do you cover what really matters about principal leadership? This webinar offers five “story ideas to steal” and spark your own ideas for compelling coverage. As a launch pad for the discussion, the webinar will feature clips from the recent documentary “The Principal Story.”


The Effective Principal

This research brief describes the “five pivotal practices that shape instructional leadership” based on an examination of 10 years of research and advocacy work from the Wallace Foundation, an influential philanthropy that works to improve the education for disadvantaged youth.


Building Cohesive Systems to Improve School Leadership

This research brief examines the results of the Wallace Foundation’s efforts to build Cohesive Leadership Systems — i.e., better cooperation among school leaders at the school, district, and state levels. The researchers conducted more than 400 interviews in Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, Oregon, and Rhode Island; and surveyed more than 600 principals. The researchers find that interagency cooperation can be effective.