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

(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.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Atlanta Cheating Scandal: New Yorker Magazine Gets Personal

The July 21 issue of The New Yorker takes us deep inside the Atlanta cheating scandal, and through the lucid reporting of Rachel Aviv, we get to know some of the teachers and school administrators implicated. We learn not only how and why they say they cheated, but also about the toxic, high-pressure environment they contend was created by Superintendent Beverly Hall’s overwhelming emphasis on improving student test scores.

Report

Lacking Leaders: The Challenges of Principal Recruitment, Selection, and Placement
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Thomas B. Fordham Institute

A school’s leader matters enormously to its success and that of its students and teachers. But how well are U.S. districts identifying, recruiting, selecting, and placing the best possible candidates in principals’ offices? To what extent do their practices enable them to find and hire great school leaders? To what degree is the principal’s job itself designed to attract outstanding candidates?

Report

Great Principals at Scale
Bush Center and New Leaders

School leaders are critical in the lives of students and to the development of their teachers. Unfortunately, in too many instances, principals are effective in spite of – rather than because of – district conditions. To truly improve student achievement for all students across the country, well-prepared principals need the tools, support, and culture that enable them to be the best.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Judging Principals: Inside the Evaluation Debate

How should we judge the performance of Baton Rouge education reporter Charles Lussier?

That was the question posed by Vanderbilt University education professor Joseph Murphy, who suspected that by the second afternoon of EWA’s National Seminar his audience was ready for a fun exercise. Murphy talked about the difference between Lussier’s inputs (such as his education and technical skills), the work he does and his results (readership and response to his articles).

“What if we measure him on whether the paper increases circulation? Do you buy that?” Murphy asked.

Report

Preparing Principals to Raise Student Achievement: Implementation and Effects of the New Leaders Program in Ten Districts
By Susan M. Gates, Laura S. Hamilton, Paco Martorell, Susan Burkhauser, Paul Heaton, Ashley Pierson, Matthew Baird, Mirka Vuollo, Jennifer J. Li, Diana Lavery, Melody Harvey and Kun Gu

New Leaders Principals Affect Student Achievement in Their Schools

  • Students who attended schools led by New Leaders principals experienced slightly larger achievement gains on average than similar students in schools led by non–New Leaders principals.
  • The magnitudes of achievement effects varied substantially across districts. They also varied across principals.

A Variety of Factors Could Explain the Observed Relationship Between New Leaders Principals and Outcomes