By: Dr. Stephanie Levin, Research Manager, Learning Policy Institute
At a time when many schools are struggling to find and keep teachers, the leadership of a strong principal takes on added importance for student success. Strong principals are especially critical for schools serving students from low-income families and students of color, as these schools benefit most from effective principals who can find and keep talented teachers. Importantly, recent research on principal effectiveness has found that the impact of having an effective principal on student achievement is nearly as large as the impact of having an effective teacher. Given that principals' efforts affect all the students in a school, their influence is consequential. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and its revelation of stark inequities in educational opportunity, the role of the principal has become even more critical in meeting students' needs.
High-quality school principals can ensure that students have access to strong educational opportunities. They can create strong and inclusive learning environments by fostering a climate of continuous growth, empowering staff to assume leadership roles, and making data-informed decisions. They also attract and retain highly effective teachers, organize schools to support the whole child, and lead and support deeper learning instruction.
Given the value of principals to schools and students, efforts to buttress principals and strengthen their leadership capacity are critically important. The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) has taken this on, calling for district actions to support the important work of principals. NIET's recently released brief, The Untapped Potential of the Principal Supervisor: How Support for School Leaders Should Change, highlights the important role of the principal supervisor and offers specific actions that principal supervisors can take to build principals' instructional leadership capacity. These actions are well-aligned with the research on strategies to support principal success and retention.
Strategies to Support Principal Success and Retention
Research conducted by Learning Policy Institute (LPI) and others have identified a number of strategies districts can embrace to heighten principals' self-efficacy, reduce turnover in their ranks, and enhance the likelihood that they are successful in leading their schools. These strategies include: ensuring access to high-quality professional learning opportunities by providing ongoing, proactive district support; maintaining supportive working conditions; and offering timely, formative evaluation designed to help principals improve their practice.
High-quality professional learning opportunities for principals
Effective professional development programs enable principals to build leadership capacity and improve student and school outcomes. Professional development can target principals along the career trajectory, including preservice, early-career, and veteran principals. High-quality opportunities include activities that are authentic and job-embedded, such as applied learning experiences. They include sharing leadership practices with peers, working with mentors and coaches, and participating in networking opportunities. And they focus on what matters: leading instruction, shaping a positive school climate, developing people, and meeting the needs of all learners.
Such learning opportunities can develop principals' competence in leading across their full range of responsibilities, empowering them to foster school environments in which adults and students thrive. Equally important, principals who have access to high-quality professional learning are typically more likely to remain in the profession. Additionally, teachers appear more likely to remain in schools led by principals who participate in these types of professional learning programs.
High quality professional learning opportunities for principals include sharing leadership practices with peers, working with mentors and coaches, and participating in networking opportunities. And they focus on what matters: leading instruction, shaping a positive school climate, developing people, and meeting the needs of all learners.Dr. Stephanie Levin, Research Manager, Learning Policy Institute
Unfortunately, access to high-quality professional learning is not universally available. In a survey for an LPI study of principal professional development, conducted in partnership with the National Association of Elementary School Principals, a large proportion of responding elementary school principals reported that they have not had the opportunity to participate in authentic, job-embedded professional learning—less than one third of were able to spend time sharing leadership practices with their peers three or more times in the past 2 years, less than a quarter reported having a mentor or coach in the past 2 years, and nearly half reported that they did not have the opportunity to meet with a professional learning community three or more times in the past 2 years.
Ongoing, proactive district involvement is crucial for ensuring that principals have access to individualized, capacity-building professional learning opportunities and resources for continuous improvement. LPI studies of principal professional development and principal turnover, conducted in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals, speak to the importance of the district role in supporting, empowering, and retaining effective school leaders. In surveys of secondary and elementary school principals, most respondents indicated that their districts play a role in helping them overcome obstacles to professional learning and support their continuous improvement. However, principals in schools with higher proportions of students in poverty and students of color had reported having less district support than did principals in schools with lower proportions of students in poverty and students of color.
Positive working conditions
Districts that adopt policies, practices, and resource priorities that enable and encourage principals' leadership, and schools with positive climates are necessary for principals' success. In contrast, poor working conditions—characterized by lack of support; difficult relationships with colleagues, parents and students; and an inhospitable school climate—can negatively influence principals' efficacy. In LPI's principal turnover study, principals identified a variety of working conditions, including heavy workload and unresponsiveness from the district or other support teams as significant challenges. Principals planning to leave their schools were twice as likely to identify heavy workload as a challenge influencing their mobility plans than those planning to stay. Also, those planning to leave reported that their districts did not provide adequate student services staff to support students' emotional well-being at higher rates than those planning to stay.
Timely, formative evaluations
Evaluations can be designed and carried out to support principals in their efforts to improve student learning. Such a system calls for evaluations that are constructive, rather than punitive, and offer principals opportunities to build their leadership capacity. LPI's principal turnover study reveals that many principals have concerns about how they are evaluated as school leaders. Nearly half of all survey respondents in the study reported that their own evaluation system does not produce useful information, and the percentage was higher for those principals planning to leave their schools. Further, well over one-third of principals reported that they do not trust the results of the evaluation system. As explained by focus group participants, principals want timely feedback that they can use to improve their performance and support student learning. Consistent with these findings, additional research suggests that districts that support and develop principals employing helpful mechanisms for principal feedback and evaluation can reduce the likelihood that principals will leave their schools or the profession.
As the challenges principals face can be vast, district policy makers and practitioners should consider the range of strategies that can facilitate principals' success. As suggested by NIET, principal supervisors can play an important role in implementing these strategies. For example, they can ensure that principals have access to professional learning opportunities by providing authentic, job-embedded professional learning through coaching, modeling best practices, and facilitating the development of learning communities of school leaders. They can also support principals by providing connections to the central office, advocating on their behalf for needed resources and supports, and ensuring that principals' work is aligned with the district mission. In addition to serving as a conduit to district leadership, principal supervisors can guide principals to create positive learning environments to improve principals' working conditions. And, in their roles as evaluators, principal supervisors can ensure that principals get timely feedback that is actionable and serves to help principals grow in their roles. By embracing and enacting these strategies, principal supervisors can be instrumental in leveraging the principalship to create communities of learners that successfully support educators and meet the needs of all students.
Dr. Stephanie Levin is a research manager at Learning Policy Institute (LPI), a nonprofit organization that conducts and communicates high-quality education research to advance evidence-based policies that support empowering and equitable learning for each and every child.