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

EWA Radio

When Students Talk Back, These Teachers Listen
EWA Radio: Episode 139

What do teachers learn from their most challenging students – the interrupters, the ones who push back or whose difficult home lives spill over into the classroom? Sarah Carr, the editor of The Teacher Project at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, discusses a new podcast partnership with The Atlantic, featuring candid conversations with educators and students, as each recall pivotal moments in their relationships.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Principals Expand Role Beyond Buses and Bells

The school improvement spotlight has, in recent years, shone brightly on teachers. Just outside of the spotlight, yet wielding significant influence in schools, are principals.

“We need to take more seriously that school leadership really matters,” said Jason Grissom, an associate professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University who has studied the subject.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Details, Data and Voices: K-12 Reporters Tell ‘How I Did the Story’

A teacher shortage in Oklahoma. Data-driven analysis of the Detroit School Board election. Teen suicide. The impact of an influx of Central American youths on a high-poverty Oakland school. Four of this year’s Education Writers Association award finalists recently shared their stories and took questions from a packed room at the EWA National Seminar on how they did their work.

Rocking the Beat

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Girls Get Fresh Start at All-Female Charter School

Ask the principal of any U.S. high school and they’ll likely tell you their goal is to graduate all of their students “college- or career-ready.” That is, students should be prepared to begin postsecondary education or enter the workforce and be successful.

Andrea Purcell, the principal of an all-girls charter school, is no different, despite the fact that her group of 120 or so high school-aged students are among the most at-risk for dropping out.

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.