Earlier this month, our own Sonja Santelises led a conversation with state and district leaders about the critical importance of principals and how policymakers can help ensure that every school — especially those educating large numbers of low-income students and students of color — has a strong, well-supported principal. Drawing on a new report from the Wallace Foundation, panelists surfaced several key themes, including:

To improve student outcomes, make principals a priority.

As the link between district and state leaders and teachers, principals are vital to turning ideas on paper into reality for kids. New York Commissioner of Education (and former Hillsborough County Schools superintendent) MaryEllen Elia talked about principals being critical to efforts to raise standards:

“As you start implementation, you think, ‘Who’s closest to the teachers to support … what we want to see come out of every classroom?’ Principals are absolutely a key in this …. The focus should be on providing the kind of environment for teachers so they can be as effective as possible in the classroom.”

Preparation should address what principals will need to succeed in schools.

Every panelist mentioned the importance of preparing principals for the settings for which they’re being hired, including the unique demands of leading high-poverty schools.

University of Illinois at Chicago’s Steve Tozer discussed UIC’s program to prepare “transformative” principals to lead high-need urban schools, and The College of William and Mary’s Paul Manna discussed The Northeast Leadership Academy, a program to train principals for North Carolina’s high-poverty, rural schools. In both cases, the programs provide a year-long internship and in-service mentoring. Both focus on preparing principals to meet the needs in their respective districts and schools. For example, a graduate of the North Carolina program who is quoted in the report described how her program explicitly dealt with “the financial challenges faced by districts and schools in rural areas … [and] about things we could do to garner additional financial resources for our kids. That was something that was critical for us but may not be critical for every principal.”

This alignment makes a real difference for principals. Santelises shared a recent conversation with a principal who said, “Coordination between principal preparation and what was occurring at the school level would have led to a lot less work my first years as principal.” And when principals are better able to lead their schools, kids benefit.

Standards guide principals, too.

Just like it’s important to have standards for student and teacher performance, it’s important to have standards for principal practice. Having clear descriptions of what’s expected — things like working with staff to set ambitious yet attainable targets for student learning, and fostering a culture of continuous improvement by engaging staff in conversations that encourage further development of effective instructional practices — means that school leaders aren’t left on their own to figure out what they should be doing. Doug Anthony, executive director of the Office of Talent Development in Prince George’s County Public Schools, emphasized that his district’s partnerships with preparation programs are built around leadership standards: “That’s non-negotiable. Varied initiatives leave a lot on the principal to actually actualize those things. Leadership standards really help align our work in the district.”

While panelists were unequivocal about just how hard it is to change how principals are prepared and supported, Tozer made the stakes for not doing this work clear:

“What does it take for a low-income neighborhood school to transform education outcomes? States that develop the principals we need are those that develop the organizational capacity…. We know that the problem is not with the kids. The problem is how we organize ourselves at the institutional level (school, district, and state) to support those kids learning…. There’s real stuff about kids’ life chances at stake here.”

Photo credit: Wallace Foundation