School Leadership

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. 

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

Highlight

History and Background: School Leadership

History

The first formal principals emerged in urban school systems in the early 19th century as one- and two-room schoolhouses expanded to accommodate growing classrooms, according to a history of the principalship authored by Miami University Professor Kate Rousmaniere in

Blog: The Educated Reporter

The Power of the Principal

School principals often make the news because of a scandal. But several recent stories, plus a New York Times op-ed, take a deeper look at the critical role principals can play in a school’s success or struggles, and their impact on the daily lives of students and teachers.  

Report

School Leadership Interventions Under the Every Student Succeeds Act: Evidence Review
By RAND

The reauthorization of the U.S. Elementary and Secondary Education Act, referred to as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), emphasizes evidence-based initiatives while providing new flexibilities to states and districts with regard to the use of federal funds, including funds to promote effective school leadership. This report describes the opportunities for supporting school leadership under ESSA, discusses the standards of evidence under ESSA, and synthesizes the research base with respect to those standards.

Report

Perspective: Building Principal Pipelines

School district officials have faced the urgent task in recent years of ensuring that all schools, not just a lucky few, benefit from sure-footed leadership by professionals who know how to focus on instruction and improve it. The question boils down to this: How can districts develop a pipeline of great school principals?

EWA Radio

Wanted: More Women Superintendents in Texas (and Beyond)
EWA Radio: Episode 96

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. 

(Unsplash/Pedro Lastra)
EWA Radio

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

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.

Back-to-School: You Need Stories, We’ve Got Ideas
Blog: The Educated Reporter

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

The boys (and girls) are back in town. For class, that is.

See how forced that lede was? Back-to-school reporting can take on a similar tinge of predictability, with journalists wondering how an occasion as locked in as the changing of the seasons can be written about with the freshness of spring.

Recently some of the beat’s heavy hitters dished with EWA’s Emily Richmond about ways newsrooms can take advantage of the first week of school to tell important stories and cover overlooked issues.

(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)
Blog: The Educated Reporter

Wanted: High-Quality Principal Training

Given the key role that strong leadership plays in providing effective schools, experts, superintendents and universities say principal training deserves a “needs improvement” on its report card.

The nation’s numerous principal-preparation programs are hit or miss, according to Vincent Cho, assistant professor of educational leadership at Boston College.

“There are thousands and thousands of leadership programs operating right now,” and they aren’t all equal, Cho said.

Source: Flickr/ via Mikel Ortega (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Blog: Latino Ed Beat

NYC Schools Initiative Aims to Improve Student Diversity

Schools in New York City are being asked to consider voluntary diversity plans in an effort to combat widespread segregation in the city’s schools. 

According to its online call for proposals under the Diversity in Admissions Initiative, the city’s education department ”seeks to empower schools to strengthen diversity among their students through targeted efforts to change their admissions process.” 

Fickr/dcJohn (CC BY 2.0)
Blog: The Educated Reporter

Missing Class: Using Data to Track Chronic Absenteeism

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.

The implications are major: If a school has a high number of students repeatedly absent, there’s a good chance other troubles are afoot. Feeling uninspired in the classroom, poor family outreach, or struggles at students’ homes are just some of the root causes of absenteeism, experts say.

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

Progressives in Massachusetts Shortchange Poor Kids, Governor Says

Massachusetts has long been the poster child for education.

For years now it’s ranked at the top in the country for math and reading achievement, boasted impressive graduation rates and made a significant financial investments over the last few decades to get there.

It’s no slouch when it comes to higher education either. Massachusetts harbors some of the best colleges and universities in the world, and it’s joining a growing number of states looking to make college more affordable.

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

Inside Tampa Bay Times’ Pulitzer Prize-Winning ‘Failure Factories’
EWA Radio: Episode 70

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

The Pulitzer Prize for local reporting this year went to the Tampa Bay Times for an exhaustive investigation into how a handful of elementary schools in Pinellas County wound up deeply segregated by race, poverty, and opportunity.

Report

Building a Stronger Principalship, Vol. 4: Evaluating and Supporting Principals
The Wallace Foundation

This report is the fourth in a series of studies examining six districts’ experiences in The Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline Initiative, a six-year effort designed to help these districts build larger pools of strong principals and then study the results. It explores the districts’ work to change their approach to principal performance evaluation so that it focuses on working with principals, especially novices, to grow into their jobs and concentrate on improving teaching and learning in their classrooms.