School & District Management

What Role Can States Play in Developing Effective Principals?

By Denisa R. Superville — September 24, 2015 4 min read
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What can states do to develop and support effective principals?

A lot, according to a new Wallace Foundation-commissioned report released Thursday that digs into the policy levers that states can pull to help elevate the job of the principals, create more clarity around the role, strengthen preparation programs, and tailor support for principals and assistant principals.

In “Developing Excellent School Principals to Advance Teaching and Learning: Considerations for State Policy,” Paul Manna, the report’s author, writes that there is no “cookbook recipe” for what all states can do (given that conditions on the ground vary from state to state and district to district), but that there are areas where states already play a significant role and can expand their efforts.

Manna is a professor in the government department at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

It’s in the interest of state policymakers to elevate the profile of principals in their education policy discussions, Manna argues, as principals play an important role in the success of federal and state education initiatives, especially those rolled out over the last decade. They also impact teachers and shape school climate.

State policies can also further principals’ work or inadvertently hamper them, the report says.

Not surprisingly, the report notes that principals are often low on the state education policymaking agenda, and that principals, in general, receive less attention than teachers.

The report calls for states to move principals higher on the education policy agenda; understand the principal’s role, both in theory and practice; and identify inconsistencies that may get in the way of principals being able to do their jobs.

Among the areas where the report argues states can do more:

Setting leadership standards

Standards clarify what principals should know and be able to do and also differentiate the role of principals from that of other “school leaders.” (Manna writes that he does not like the tendency in recent years to use the more expansive term, “school leaders” as it obscures the principal’s unique role.)

Recruiting aspiring principals to the profession

States can alter incentives for aspiring principals and others who want to enter the principal profession. They can help coordinate the recruitment of aspiring principals. They can also support leadership academies and other programs for those who are already in the profession.

Approving and overseeing principal preparation programs

The report urges states to take a more active role here. It suggests that states actively oversee preparation programs in an effort to improve quality. It also recommends that states sunset current programs and require them to meet standards before admitting new students and change licensing requirements and prerequisites. (Illinois did this, and the report provides a snapshot of their efforts.) States can also act as a clearinghouse for data on all the preparation programs within their boundaries.

Licensing new and veteran principals

States can connect those requirements as much as possible to real world conditions and practice. They can also delegate the licensing duties to entities with a strong track record of developing effective principals.

Supporting principals’ growth with professional development

States should play a bigger role in principal professional development.

Principal evaluations

This is a relatively nascent field, and the report urges that states maintain some flexibility in this area and look at other states’ experiences for promising approaches that they could use in their own evaluation systems.

State must also understand the local context—the multiple governing structures and the differences in needs based on geography and settings. Policy-makers may benefit more if they include diverse principals’ voices in the discussion.

The report drew on the Wallace Foundation’s extensive volume of work on school leadership over the past decade and a half. (The Wallace Foundation supports coverage of arts education, expanded-and-extended-learning time, and leadership at Education Week.)

The author used interviews from principals, expert surveys, and findings from the U.S. Department of Education’s School and Staffing Survey. He also interviewed journalists at Education Week and references work by the paper’s reporters.

The report highlights examples of what some states and districts are already doing to create effective principals, including the Governor’s Promising Principal Academy in Maryland, an effort started to groom assistant principals for the top job, and efforts aimed at improving principal training in rural districts in North Carolina, among others.

Jody Spiro, Wallace’s director of education leadership, said that the organization was cognizant that no single approach would work in all 50 states.

“But we hope that this report will offer states some potential action steps to help improve the chances that all schools will be led by excellent principals,” she said.

You can read the full report, along with the policy suggestions, on The Wallace Foundation’s website.

And to dive even deeper into the role of principals, read our special report from earlier this year, Shaping Strong School Leaders.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.