School & District Management

Is the Assistant Principal the Most Overlooked, Undervalued Person at School?

By Denisa R. Superville — April 14, 2021 | Corrected: April 15, 2021 7 min read
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Corrected: A previous version of this story misstated the number of studies that were part of the researchers’ review.

Are assistant principals the most overlooked, undervalued people in schools?
While their numbers have exploded over the last 25 years, schools have little to no idea of whether this sizable group of second-in-command administrators influence student learning.
Often, they don’t have clearly defined roles. And whether their experience as APs prepares them to become effective principals is not well known or understood.
In a new and sweeping review of decades of research on assistant principals, researchers came to some clear conclusions:

  1. There’s no consensus—in theory or practice—on what assistant principals do or should do;
  2. Too many APs’ experiences fall short of leading them to the principal’s role, and
  3. Districts may be squandering a talent pipeline, especially one filled with more women and people of color.

The upshot?
“It’s time to take stock: what do we know and what do we need to know in this really important role?” said Ellen Goldring, a dean at Peabody College at Vanderbilt University and the lead author of The Role of Assistant Principals: Evidence and Insights for Advancing School Leadership.

Unexplained increase in assistant principals

The number of assistant principals grew from close to 44,000 to nearly 81,000 between the 1990-91 and 2015-16 school years—at about six times the rate of principals, according to the report. The percentage of principals who had previously worked as APs also increased in that period.

While growth in the number of elementary schools offers some explanation for the rising numbers, Goldring and colleagues found that the increase outpaced student enrollment, with the ratio of APs to students higher in urban and suburban schools.

Still, most students attend schools with only one AP, and schools with higher enrollment of students of color were more likely to have APs than those with higher percentages of white students.

A barrier or stepping stone for people of color?

Though the teaching profession is largely female—nearly 80 percent of teachers are women—they were less likely than men to become both APs and principals, according to the report.

The researchers found a higher percentage of people of color serving as APs than as teachers and principals. Just under a quarter of assistant principals were people of color, but they made up only 19 percent of those serving as principals and 13 percent of teachers. (Students of color comprised 34 percent of the enrollment in the six states that were included in this specific study that was part of the larger review.)

And principals of color were more likely to have worked as APs than their white peers and more likely to do so after finishing their leadership preparation programs.

There are a number of possible explanations for why the higher numbers of women and people of color in the AP role doesn’t transfer to the principalship.

One is who gets into the pipeline. Since teachers often decide to go into administration on their own or at the encouragement of district leaders and principals, it’s possible that district leaders and principals are not steering women and people of color toward the principalship, Goldring said.

While there is little research to explain fully this phenomenon, the authors posit that discrimination in hiring as well as access to mentoring could also play a role.

It’s also possible that Black assistant principals—particularly Black men—who are often steered toward student discipline, may not be getting the instructional leadership experience necessary for the principal’s job, Mollie Rubin, a research assistant professor at Vanderbilt and a co-author, said during a panel discussion and presentation of the report’s findings.

The new report affirms some findings from a recent study that the Council of the Great City Schools, the organization that represents some of the nation’s largest school districts, found when it looked at APs and principals in its member districts, said Michael Casserly, the executive director.

But there were also some key differences, Casserly said.

While the new report said that big-city and other large districts offered more professional development and mentoring opportunities for APs, the council’s research found something quite different. In its districts, there was little coaching and mentoring for assistant principals, few PD opportunities for principals on how to mentor APs, and a dearth of PD tailored to or differentiated for APs, Casserly said.

And while the ranks of school leadership were more diverse in the big cities, they did not fully reflect students. Black principals and assistant principals come close to matching Black student enrollment, but Hispanic school leaders still fall short of mirroring the districts’ share of Hispanic students.

More diversity could be the result of districts and schools drawing candidates from a wide pool that includes central office staff, instructional coaches, department chairs, and teacher-leaders, Casserly said. But, he said, there’s not enough research to fully answer the question.

Assistant principals as ‘co-pilots’

Who is selected to be principal is part of the problem, said Beverly Hutton, the chief program officer at the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Understanding—and reducing—the barriers that prevent Black APs and women from moving up the ladder could lead to greater equity and diversity to the field, said Mariesa Herrmann, a senior researcher at Mathematica and one of the report’s authors.

Equity audits to identify barriers can help districts address this issue, as well as examining data on who has access to mentoring and who is selected to pursue leadership roles, Rubin said. District leaders can also ensure that APs have equitable experiences to hone their managerial as well as instructional leadership skills.

Hutton said APs should be treated as “principals in training” or as the lead principal’s “co-pilot” and provided with training and job experiences to match those roles.

A key finding from the report highlighted the disconnect between pre-service programs and the real world: Prep programs prepare candidates to work as principals even though the majority of graduates work as APs upon completion of their training.

Ideas to support assistant principals

The report comes with some clear recommendations on how districts can better support APs and bring some coherence to the role, including:

  • Develop standards and tasks that are consistent with the AP job and responsibilities;
  • Create evaluations for APs that are separate from those for principals;
  • Ensure principals have the skills, training, and professional development to mentor APs and that they offer APs experiences to develop their leadership skills;
  • Prioritize people of color and women in leadership pipelines and plans.

Other highlights from the report:

  • It’s unclear whether the assistant principal’s role is a career goal itself or a stepping-stone to the principalship.
  • The actual responsibilities of the assistant principal are often at the discretion of the school’s principal—meaning that two assistant principals in the same district can leave their jobs with vastly different experiences and readiness for the next step in their careers. Goldring and colleagues note, however, that recent data indicate APs’ responsibilities, in some cases, are becoming more instructionally-focused, possibly because more detailed teacher evaluation requirements that may lead principals to share those duties with their APs.
  • There’s limited empirical evidence that having worked as an AP leads to better school outcomes or effectiveness as a principal. But there’s emerging research to suggest that working as an AP in their current school, in a more effective school, or being an effective AP could improve student outcomes. But the research is “nascent,” Rubin said.
  • Assistant principals can play an important role in improving school culture and equity through their work with students and families.

The researchers started from a base of more than 1,600 qualitative and quantitative studies and fully coded 79. The report also relies on data from the National Teacher and Principal Staffing Survey and longitudinal assistant principal and principal data from Pennsylvania and Tennessee and job descriptions from districts.

Assistant principals are in a pivotal position to shape school culture and student outcomes if the role is carefully considered. Prep programs, for example, can work with districts to sequence courses to match the work that APs are doing. A residency model, similar to those in the medical profession, may hold promise, Goldring said.

“This isn’t an assistant to the principal; these are assistant principals—key school leadership positions,” Goldring said, adding that she hopes the report will help provide new opportunities and experiences for current APs and educators who want to become principals.

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2021 edition of Education Week as Is the Assistant Principal the Most Overlooked, Undervalued Person at School?

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