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

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

Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Indianapolis Schools Will Soon Have No Latino Administrators

Joél Muñoz is Mexican-American, learned English as a second language, and was the first in his family to graduate high school and college. 

He also is the only Latino administrator in the Indianapolis Public Schools, even though about 22 percent of students are Latino. Only about 48 of the district’s teachers were Hispanic in 2011.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

New Survey: Teachers Say Their Voices Aren’t Being Heard

When it comes to having their voices heard, teachers overwhelmingly say they aren’t being listened to on matters of education policy at the state or national level.

At the school level, however, 69 percent of teachers said their opinions carried weight, according to the third edition of the “Primary Sources”  survey by Scholastic and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which was published Tuesday.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Compelling Principal Stories: It Can Be Done

One of the education system’s most powerful influences on student learning is often ignored — the school principal. Journalists frequently find it challenging to capture the complexities of the job. But the collection of coverage we’ve assembled underscores that this facet of the education beat is replete with interesting angles.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Ten Questions to Ask on School Leaders

When I was covering the education beat in Las Vegas, an annual survey of teachers in the Clark County School District (the nation’s fifth-largest) always yielded plenty of fodder for stories. But what struck me in particular was the No. 1 reason – year in and year out – given by teachers when asked why they had decided to leave a school. It wasn’t overly challenging students, or low pay or a long commute. Rather, it was dissatisfaction with their principals.

Report

Effective Instructional Time Use for School Leaders: Longitudinal Evidence from Observations of Principals

We find that principals’ time spent broadly on instructional functions does not predict student achievement growth. Aggregating across leadership behaviors, however, masks that some specific instructional investments predict year-to-year gains. In particular, time spent on teacher coaching, evaluation, and developing the school’s educational program predict positive achievement gains. In contrast, time spent on informal classroom walkthroughs negatively predicts student growth, particularly in high schools.

Organization

The Wallace Foundation

The Wallace Foundation is a national philanthropy, based in New York City, that aims to improve the educational opportunities for disadvantaged students. The foundation has invested heavily in research and resources aimed at improving the positive effect principals can have on school and student performance. They have also put significant funding toward expanded learning, summer learning, and after-school.