4 steps for supporting, strengthening principals

A number of actions can bolster school principals and set them up for success

principal-stepsEnsuring that principals are prepared for success via access to resources, solid evaluation systems, and other measures will lead to successful teachers and students, according to a new report from the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that aims improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

Laying the Foundation for Successful School Leadership offers four recommendations to build a foundation that will support school leaders.

“It’s widely known that teachers influence student achievement more than any other aspect of schools,” said Susan Gates, a senior economist and director of the Kauffman-RAND Institute for Entrepreneurship Public Policy. Gates co-authored the report along with Laura Hamilton, a senior RAND behavioral scientist specializing in teacher and principal evaluation, educational assessment, and accountability, and other RAND researchers. “Research focuses a lot on teachers, but far less on school principals—but actions of principals directly influence teachers. One effective principal can promote the improvement of dozens of effective teachers. One terrible principal can drive dozens of talented teachers to leave the field.”

(Next page: The four steps to success)

Prepare new principals for success by matching principals’ skills with schools’ needs; ensuring that those who do the hiring have information to best guide hiring decisions; and put in place resources that orient new principals as quickly as possible.

“For example, a school with a high level of parental and community involvement may need a principal who is good at harnessing that involvement toward school-wide goals,” according to the report. “In contrast, a school that is lacking in parental involvement may need a principal with strong community outreach skills.”

Principals need the autonomy that is necessary to lead schools, and professional development and continued support can aid in this regard–but it’s also important to include district authority in conversations about autonomy.

“We need to think about striking a balance between principals and district leadership,” Gates said.

This includes “whether it’s efficient for certain types of decisions to be made at the school level, or whether there are advantages to having decisions centralized and made at the district level,” she said.

Evaluation systems can foster and support strong principals if they are well-rounded.

“Even though a lot of policy focuses on how we’re measuring teachers’ performance, it’s just as important to think about how we’re measuring principals’ performance,” Hamilton said.

Hallmarks of good principal evaluation systems include having a clear purpose aligned with state and district goals, having multiple measures of performance, and providing clear and actionable feedback to principals so they can improve their practice, Hamilton said.

Giving principals the resources they need is critical to their success. District leadership should include a principal representative, and districts should invest in tools to support data-driven decision-making.

While interpreting and acting on data is important, Hamilton said principals need to learn how to use data effectively–otherwise, it isn’t beneficial.

“It’s important not to just dump data on a principal and expect him or her to make decisions–[you need a] clear structure and purpose about it,” Hamilton said.

Principals also need “training and professional development, and access to resources like data coaches, to help them engage in data use in a more effective way,” Hamilton added.

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