School & District Management

Why Principals Must Focus on SEL, School Climate Right Now

By Denisa R. Superville — June 30, 2022 6 min read
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How do you prepare school leaders for a K-12 system emerging from a pandemic and an ongoing examination of the legacy of racism and inequality in society?

Focus on preparing and supporting them to excel in areas where they’ll have the most impact: the combination of social-emotional learning and academics—known as SEAD — as well as school climate, and community engagement.

That’s the thrust of a new publication from The Aspen Institute’s Education and Society Program, which argues for a complete reorientation of the principal’s role for the 21st century.

The report “Rethinking the Role of the Principal,” published this month, is premised on the notion that society demands more from schools, and, by extension, principals. It says that research and experiences during the pandemic have shown that the principalship is in dire need of an overhaul if school leaders are to prepare students to participate fully in a democratic society.

“When we are looking at the role of public education in American society and the society that we are right now, we need something different from public schools,” said Eugene Pinkard, director of K-12 leadership at The Aspen Institute and a former chief in the District of Columbia public schools.

“Students recognize that there is bias and inequity,” Pinkard continued. “The data tell us that we don’t have the same level of upward mobility and economic opportunity ... that we had even in my generation. And certainly it is not equitable across races.”

Public education, he said, has a role to play in changing that, but “if you want to change schools, you have to think about the leaders of those schools as institutions.”

Principals are ‘overextended and under-attended’

Despite research showing that principals are second only to teachers among the factors in schools that affect student learning, the role is both “overextended and underattended,” Pinkard said.

“By overextended, I mean when we ask schools to do something new—whether it’s distributing masks, or food services, or curriculum, or to address complex issues—we expect the principal to be able to manage that,” said Pinkard. “Yet, it’s underattended in the sense that when we think about the research of how principals actually have impact and what would be a sustainable role, we haven’t actually designed for that.”

The Aspen report urges a careful consideration of what the role means now, and removing duties and tasks that do not help school leaders accomplish their key objectives, while ensuring they have support to fulfill their core functions.

“We can’t just reshuffle or resequence the job functions,” Pinkard said. “It’s actually about eliminating some things that might typically sit with principals, introducing some depth where it currently doesn’t exist, creating a role that’s more impactful and more sustainable—but it’s going to look and feel different.”A prime example: a combined focus on SEL and academics.

The publication doesn’t break new ground on research on the gap between what principals learn in their preparation programs and their day-to-day realities of the job, or in raising the idea that the central office can often be an impediment for principals. Recent publications from the RAND Corporation and The Learning Policy Institute, both backed by the Wallace Foundation, delve into those areas.

Changing central office to support principals

To reorient the role, principal preparation and central office support must also transform, according to the Aspen paper.

“When the principal role changes direction, the system must re-align so leaders do not expend valuable energy working at cross purposes,” according to the paper.

For example, principal evaluations would need to focus on the areas districts designate as priorities for principals and remove accountability in those areas that are no longer determined to be part of school leaders’ core functions.

Those duties can be distributed to others in the school or in central office.

It’s a fundamental reconception of the role, and it’s going to ask people to think differently about what they’re asking of principals and giving to principals.

Districts should also clearly communicate to principals and their communities their new expectations for principals—for example, principals are now required to prioritize instructional leadership and school climate over operations, the paper said.

Districts can also ensure that professional development targets areas that are central to principals’ new roles. Peer-support groups and mentoring as well as “principal-in-residence” programs can help principals manage the demands of the job.

And preparation and professional development programs should also devote more time to the science of learning, which continues to get short shrift in training programs, according to Aspen.

While the decades-old shift away from the managerial aspects of the job to instructional leadership has been a major development in the principalship, there’s still too much emphasis on test scores and not enough on helping principals deepen their understanding of the science of learning.

“When we talk about the science of learning and development, we’re not just talking about how this applies to early childhood or adolescents,” Pinkard said. “There is an aspect of this that applies to adults. There is a need for coaching and development that should be embedded into [supervision] that allows principals to grow and reflect.”

Aspen argues that communities should be a key part of the new school leaders’ work. School leaders should address the needs and priorities of their school communities.

That includes listening to and engaging with school communities, and being culturally responsive leaders, who not only prioritize equity, but also ensure their communities’ “values and experiences” are reflected in the schools, according to the publication. It also includes allowing students to play active roles in their own education.

Building a positive school climate should also be at the heart of school leaders’ work, which benefits both students and teachers.

The report also does not separate SEL—for both students and staff—from academics. Districts such as Cleveland had already started to weave SEL into academic expectations and focus on school climate and relationships long before the pandemic, Pinkard said.

There’s often a misunderstanding that SEL is incompatible with or detracts from academic rigor, he said.

“That is not what we are proposing here,” Pinkard said. “What we are saying here is that this integration and this understanding of research and development helps you recognize great teaching.”

Combining SEL with academics, “helps you recognize great assessments and great student engagement,” he said. “It helps you recognize how we are crafting relationships, and that’s why it’s so essential for the leader to bring that into how they build climate in their schools.”

Creating a system of new school leaders

While there are individual principals and school systems focusing on the areas that Aspen is advocating, Pinkard said the organization is hoping to make those practices more than just one-offs, with the understanding that this would look different in every community.

“It’s not just normalizing it and making it acceptable. It’s authentically prioritizing it,” Pinkard said. “Because if we have a principal who says, ‘I know that this is important, but at the end of the day, my evaluation is attached to test scores,’ it creates a dissonance, and it means that we are not authentically prioritizing it.”

The new publication is a deepening of Aspen’s entry into school leadership. It partners with 15 mostly urban school districts across the country.

Aspen says it will shine a light on schools and systems that are already rethinking the role of the principal, highlight policies and other initiatives that support principals, and convene stakeholders that work on principal preparation and support—such as researchers and state departments of education—to ensure that principals remain central to conversations on K-12 transformation.

“We are asking folks to take a step back from the principalship as it’s currently constructed and not just think about tweaking a thing here or there or aligning the job description,” Pinkard said. “We can’t just move the deck chairs around.”

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