The Changing Role of School Principals: Moving Beyond Keeping the Lights On (Part 2 of 2)

May 13, 2019

RELevant: Viewpoints and Findings from the REL Mid-Atlantic

Effective leadership is at the heart of improving school performance. As we noted in part 1 of this series, however, districts, schools, and principals face three key management challenges today: (1) increasing job complexity, (2) insufficient supply of candidates, and (3) inadequate preparation for the changing role of principals. In addition, many school leaders must navigate complex approval processes for basic services and payroll. These conditions hamper principals’ ability to lead schools effectively.

Teacher with PrincipalWe searched the literature in response to an Ask A REL inquiry and found that, in too many instances, principals must shoulder responsibility for infrastructure tasks that are misaligned with ensuring effective instruction and student success. These activities sidetrack principals from focusing on improving school performance and supporting their teachers.

States, lawmakers, and districts will need to take action to galvanize changes in the role of the school principal. States play an important role in setting qualifications for principals. Lawmakers must understand a state’s needs to identify best policies to prepare, license, assist, and evaluate principals. School districts support principals and build pipelines of effective leaders by influencing how principals are trained, hired, mentored, developed, and evaluated on the job.

In response to the shifting role of principals, states and districts in the mid-Atlantic region have begun to change how they hire, train, and support these staff. State legislatures have stepped forward to develop policies that ensure principals are backed up throughout their careers by setting standards, designing and approving preparation programs, revising licensure, and promoting professional development and evaluation. States and districts in the region have improved principal evaluations in the following ways:

  • Washington, DC, partnered with New Leaders to recruit, train, and support school leaders, focusing on helping students in poverty and students of color prepare for college, careers, and citizenship.
  • Delaware introduced an academy to build administrators’ leadership knowledge, skills, and instructional expertise related to teacher evaluation.
  • Maryland collaborated with New Leaders to launch a program for aspiring principals, with training to develop skills and knowledge needed to work in rural and urban districts.
  • New Jersey developed measures of principal practice, and an instrument aligned with Professional Standards for Educational Leaders, to promote professional growth in its principals through a principal evaluation system. An accompanying guide encourages districts to incorporate self-reflection, authentic evidence of practice, and discussion about practices as part of evaluations.
  • Pennsylvania instituted a train-the-trainer model in which state coaches work with superintendents and hiring officers to implement effective strategies for identifying and recruiting principals.

More schools and districts are helping principals focus on school culture and leadership development, and delegating infrastructure tasks like replacing light bulbs, reviewing school lunches, approving bus schedules, and budgeting to operations leaders. For instance, KIPP charter schools has created on-the-job training that allows principals to be more involved in coaching assistant principals, while transferring traditional administrative tasks to dedicated operations leaders.  As the distractions to investing in more effective school management are delegated elsewhere, principals can build a vision and school culture that support effective instruction and student success.

Cross-posted from the REL Mid-Atlantic website.


The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not represent those of Mathematica Policy Research.

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