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.

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