Overview

School Leadership

School principals are the most trusted leaders in the country – more than military and religious leaders and local elected officials, survey data show.

They are extraordinarily important to students’ academic success. Principals are second only to teachers among the factors during the school day that affect student learning, research indicates. 

They set the tone and climate in schools, hire teachers, develop school schedules, and are akin to middle-managers in school systems, carrying out and disseminating the district’s directives and priorities to teachers, parents, students and school communities. 

However, long working hours, high-stakes accountability measures, federal and state mandates, and lack of autonomy have contributed to an annual 18% turnover rate—a phenomenon that’s more acute in schools with high enrollment of low-income students and in rural and urban areas. Leadership churn can lower student achievement, dampen teacher morale, and increase teacher turnover.

Most principals are former teachers, with several years of teaching under their belts. They typically attended a two-year preparation program and passed a state licensure exam.

While many school districts have formal programs to steer talented teachers into school leadership, it’s often up to aspiring principals to forge their own paths.

That’s one reason why the principalship has remained predominantly white – 78% are white—even as students of color make up 54% of those enrolled in K-12 public schools.

Though the majority of principals are women—54% — they are still underrepresented in school leadership relative to their presence in the teaching workforce, where women make up more than three-quarters of educators.

The mismatch between the race of school leaders and their students continues to be a challenge for schools and districts even as research increasingly shows the benefits of same-race teachers and educators for students and teachers.

Principals are great sources for journalists on all sorts of issues. They can provide valuable insights based on their on-the-ground experience and steer reporters to important stories. In addition, there are important stories to be told about the principalship itself.

Reporters can look for stories on efforts to make the principal’s job manageable; how principals engage with their communities, especially during fraught public debates; how principals incorporate student voices in decision-making and approach school discipline and other equity issues; and how principals empower teachers. Don’t overlook the role assistant principals play in schools. 

This resource page will help reporters understand the principal’s job, contemporary challenges, and what the research says.

Published: November 2021