Principals Matter—and They Need the Right Start

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By Stephanie J. Hull

In national efforts to improve schools and ensure that every child is on a meaningful path to college and career, many observers have seen classroom teachers as the linchpin of success. Research shows—compellingly—that the single most important in-school factor in student achievement is the teacher standing in the front of the classroom. That is one of the reasons the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has made it a priority to strengthen the pipelines of effective teachers for high-need schools.

The research is equally clear, though, as to the importance of school principals. In fact, principals account for at least 25 percent of a school’s total impact on student achievement, according to research conducted by organizations such as ASCD and the Wallace Foundation. Principals create the necessary conditions for teachers to succeed—the individual support, the technology, the facilities, the interface with parents and policy leaders.

October has been designated as National Principals Month. The National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), and the American Federation of School Administrators (AFSA) are collectively spotlighting the importance of principals and their dedication to our nation’s schools and children.

Through eight years of preparing teachers through the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has learned a great deal not only about preparing teachers, but also about the way in which principals today are leading, and about how they can be better prepared for the new kinds of challenges they face.

It is for this reason that the Foundation created the Woodrow Wilson MBA Fellowship in Education Leadership, which combines business-school coursework in organizational change, educational finance reform, and outcomes-based assessment with an education emphasis and a year of experience in an actual school. Through this program, Woodrow Wilson is working with local school districts in three states—to date—to identify those teachers with the greatest potential for leadership. After being nominated by their districts, those educators have the opportunity to apply for a highly competitive one-year fellowship that puts them squarely on the path to school leadership.

As the Woodrow Wilson Foundation joins with NAESP, NASSP, and AFSA to celebrate principals this month, it is mindful of some of the early lessons our work in states like Indiana, New Mexico, and Wisconsin has provided.

First, a visionary, well-prepared principal is essential to school and student achievement.

Second, working in tandem with effective teachers, principals are an important part of efforts to close our twin achievement gaps—that is, the gap between the nation’s lowest-achieving and highest-achieving students, as well as the gap between even the United States’ best public schools and those around the world that are outperforming our own.

Third, to ensure a strong pipeline of highly able principals, the nation needs to improve the quality of our education leadership programs—offering prospective education leaders integrated clinical and academic instruction that draws on the most innovative leadership preparation.

Fourth, such preparation must be developed in collaboration with school districts to ensure principals are prepared for leadership needs today—particularly in high-need districts—and are equipped to drive sustainable gains in student achievement.

And fifth, as with leaders in other professions, principals need ongoing coaching and mentoring. While there are no shortcuts to effectiveness in this constantly changing field, peers in and beyond education can help principals keep abreast of new approaches and perspectives.

Nearly 15 years ago, NAESP worked to transform school leadership through its Leading Learning Communities report, redefining the principal’s role to reflect both the traditional role of building manager and the emerging position of instructional leader. 

This year, as we celebrate National Principals Month, it is time for the next transformation in the preparation of principals. School leadership in the 21st century requires far more than it did a generation ago. School leader preparation must change as the profession changes. Principals matter, and their development and ongoing support must reflect that. They are entrusted with entire teaching and learning communities, and, ultimately, with the future of our children.

(Stephanie J. Hull is executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.  She previously served as Head of the Brearley School.)