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

Organization

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.

Organization

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.

Report

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

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)
Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Saving on College by Doing Some of It in High School

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.

Seminar

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

A Chicago High School’s Turnaround

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.

Flickr/Simon Cunningham
Blog: The Educated Reporter

The Impact of Principal Turnover

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.

(Flickr/Eric E Castro)
Blog: The Educated Reporter

Finding (And Keeping) Great Principals

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?

Report

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.

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)
Blog: The Educated Reporter

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

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.

Flickr/ecastro (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Blog: The Educated Reporter

Study: Replacing Principals Tied to Boost in Student Test Scores

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.

Report

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.