The Changing Role of the Principal

How High-Achieving Districts Are Recalibrating School Leadership

A series of case studies sheds light on the changing landscape of school leadership and principal professional development.

See also: Professional Support for Principals Is Essential for Strong Teacher-Evaluation Systems by Jenny DeMonte and Kaitlin Pennington

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The principal has historically been portrayed in television and film as decidedly unheroic. From the hated Mr. Woodman on the 1970s television sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter” to the mean-spirited and incompetent Ed Rooney in the film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” the principal has been cast as inept at best and villainous at worst. While the creators of such characters certainly relied heavily upon comedic license in crafting such caricatures, there was nonetheless a kernel of truth in the stereotype upon which these depictions were based. In the public mind, principals were often thought of as mere school-building managers, individuals who were more interested in wielding power and enforcing compliance than in the loftier concerns of teaching and learning.

Today, however, those stale notions could not be further from the truth. The job of a modern-day principal has transformed into something that would be almost unrecognizable to the principals of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The concept of the principal as a building manager has given way to a model where the principal is an aspirational leader, a team builder, a coach, and an agent of visionary change.

New teacher- and principal-appraisal systems are contributing to the principal’s changing landscape. These changes have rightly put student performance at the forefront, and principals are being asked to develop new competencies largely centered around data, curriculum, pedagogy, and human capital development in order to meet the new expectations. But make no mistake, the increasing emphasis on instructional leadership does not mean that the more traditional managerial concerns of school administration have disappeared. Indeed, principals are still expected to be effective building managers, disciplinarians, and public relations experts.

These changing expectations, coupled with insufficient training and support, have led many principals to the conclusion that the job is no longer sustainable. Attrition due to resignations and early retirements, along with a shortage of qualified candidates for open principal positions, is leading toward a crisis of leadership in American education. Principals do not feel sufficiently prepared by their preservice training to successfully meet the demands of school leadership. Furthermore, once on the job, they do not feel adequately supported in their roles by their school districts, as districts’ expectations of principals have traditionally been limited to simply being compliant, enforcing compliance from others, and managing conflict. In a 2011 survey of American educators, almost 70 percent of principals reported that their job responsibilities are much different than they were just five years before, and 75 percent of those reported that their jobs are too complex and have led to higher levels of stress and less job satisfaction.

As new principal recruits assume positions of leadership, the difficulty of the job has often proved overwhelming. A 2012 study of first-year principals by New Leaders, a national nonprofit that develops school leaders, found that 20 percent of newly minted principals left their positions within two years. Principals placed at the lowest-performing schools were most likely to leave. Moreover, schools that lost principals were more likely to perform poorly the subsequent year. These findings indicate that a lack of continuity in leadership bodes poorly for schools and underscore the importance of districts having well-designed plans for recruitment, training, and ongoing support of their principals.

This report examines the changing landscape of school leadership, most notably as a result of increased expectations around instructional improvement and teacher development. Although teacher evaluation reform is not its primary focus, the report discusses the components of certain appraisal systems and the demands they place on school leaders in terms of expertise and time—demands that have prompted some school districts to consider more proactive ways to support principals and successful implementation of teacher evaluation reform at the building level.

Throughout the report, a series of case studies are referenced to shine a light on innovative ways in which districts are training and supporting school leaders so that they are able to meet the ever-increasing demands placed upon them, such as a strategic focus on coaching and instructional feedback, customized professional development, streamlining of the principal’s job duties, and partnerships with universities and nonprofits to train the next generation of principals.

Furthermore, the case studies—which look at Gwinnett County Public Schools in Gwinnett County, Georgia; Denver Public Schools in Denver, Colorado; District of Columbia Public Schools in Washington, D.C.; Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in Charlotte, North Carolina; Uplift Education in Dallas, Texas; and Northeast Leadership Academy at North Carolina State University—were also used to inform the following eight principal professional-development recommendations for districts:

  1. Redesign school organizational charts and job descriptions.
  2. Develop instructional-leadership capacity around the principal.
  3. Focus principal training on coaching teachers.
  4. Build the capacity of central-office administrators to support principals.
  5. Provide regular opportunities for principals to gather around self-selected problems of practice.
  6. Develop partnerships with universities and nonprofits to recruit and train future principals.
  7. Develop and train principals on district-wide teaching and leadership frameworks.
  8. Provide technological supports that allow administrators to record and share instructional data.

Overhauling teacher evaluation substantially affects the job of the principal. Our initial findings indicate that the new models of teacher evaluation will not only dramatically change the amount of time principals spend observing and conferencing with teachers but will also alter the nature of their interactions with teachers. Principals must be able to manage the new demands; training in time-management strategies and structures that encourage strategic prioritization and delegation of administrative tasks will be of the utmost importance. Furthermore, these new systems require principals to function not only as evaluators but also as instructional coaches. Principals must have the requisite skills to function in the coaching role if reformed evaluation systems are to be successfully implemented.

While teacher evaluation reform is a national policy initiative that has been greatly accelerated by the Race to the Top initiative, success will be determined at the local level and will depend, at least in part, on whether principals are ready, willing, and able to implement more robust systems of evaluation. It is incumbent upon local districts to prioritize the development of their current and future principals by providing relevant professional development and appropriate support systems to ensure that the work is sustainable. Failure to do so will make it less likely that teacher evaluation reform will effect the desired change—instructional improvement at scale. This report explores how the principalship is changing and offers recommendations regarding how school districts can most effectively ensure that principals are able to meet the ever-increasing demands of their jobs. The accompanying case studies highlight districts and organizations that have successfully prioritized principal development.

Lee Alvoid is a clinical associate professor and chair of the Department of Education Policy and Leadership at the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Watt Lesley Black Jr. is a clinical associate professor of education policy and leadership at the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development.

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