School principals impact the day-to-day experiences of their staff, students and communities. Having an effective school principal is essential for improving staff and student outcomes, including working conditions, teacher retention, student achievement and student attendance.
It begs the question: How do we get effective principals into every school?
There may not be a simple answer, but recent research provides significant insights into recruiting, preparing, developing and retaining effective school leadership.
[I]t is difficult to envision an investment with a higher ceiling on its potential return than a successful effort to improve principal leadership. —Grissom, et al., How Principals Affect Students and Schools
Recruitment of school principals requires strong partnerships between districts and preparation programs, adequate compensation and incentives to serve in the most challenging schools. Partnerships between local districts and principal preparation programs facilitate identification of potential candidates from the district and local community. Providing competitive salaries, scholarships, loan forgiveness and paid clinical experiences can reduce barriers for those interested in becoming principals. Adopting evaluation and accountability systems that acknowledge the difficulties in leading struggling schools can encourage principals to take on and stay in difficult assignments.
Preparation and Development
Comprehensive principal preparation and professional learning are associated with improved outcomes for principals, teachers and students. Principals need training and development in instruction, school improvement, school conditions, staff development and meeting students’ needs. Effective learning strategies include applied learning opportunities, high-quality internships, coaching and mentoring, and cohorts. Although over two-thirds of principals indicate having access to instruction in key content areas, very few report having access to effective learning strategies.
Increasing retention requires addressing the main drivers of principal turnover, including inadequate preparation and professional development, poor working conditions, lack of decision-making authority, insufficient salaries and high-stakes accountability policies. Improving preparation and providing principals with the time and financial resources to engage in high-quality professional learning opportunities decreases stress, increases efficacy and facilitates collaboration.
To ensure principals have sufficient support and autonomy to meet the requirements of their positions, they need adequate student services personnel, authority over school-level hiring decisions and curricula, and appropriate staff and support to make their workloads manageable. Competitive salaries or other forms of compensation can address financial concerns related to student debt. Accountability systems that acknowledge student growth, instead of relying heavily on achievement alone, can encourage principals to work in struggling schools and those serving high-need populations.
Addressing all aspects of the principal pipeline is essential for creating a comprehensive system to recruit, prepare, develop and retain effective principals. Below are potential policy avenues that, when used together, could improve the school principal workforce:
1 — Adopt rigorous state leader standards and use them to guide preparation, licensing and evaluation policies.
2 — Reduce barriers to entry by providing financial support for attaining principal licensure.
3 — Leverage preparation program approval and candidate licensure criteria to:
- Promote partnerships between districts and preparation programs.
- Require training in key content areas.
- Require use of effective learning strategies and concrete performance-based experiences and activities.
- Promote principal mentoring and coaching activities.
- Allow for a variety of preparation providers to design and execute preparation programs while being held to state standards.
4 — Evaluate existing evaluation and accountability policies to ensure:
- There are no disincentives for serving in challenging assignments.
- Data and feedback provide actionable information to guide improvements.
5 — Invest in a statewide structure to provide or identify vendors for high-quality professional learning opportunities.
6 — Invest in a leader tracking system to facilitate the use of data in enhancing the principal pipeline.
Molly Gold is a senior policy specialist in NCSL’s Education Program.