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Assistant Principals Have Much to Offer in Advancing Equity and Improving Schools, Major New Research Review Finds

Assistant Principals Have Much to Offer in Advancing Equity and Improving Schools, Major New Research Review Finds
April 13, 2021

12:01 a.m., April 13, 2021 
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James Wall,
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Assistant Principals Have Much to Offer in Advancing Equity and Improving Schools, Major New Research Review Finds

The role is growing in prevalence but is often overlooked. Twenty years of research suggest opportunities to reconsider the role as a powerful force for school improvement and a more equitable pathway to the principalship.

New York – A major new research review released today by The Wallace Foundation paints a detailed picture of how the role of assistant principal is growing, both in number and potential impact. The job could play a greater role in promoting racial and gender equity in school leadership, the report concludes, as well as in advancing more equitable outcomes for students. The report also sheds light on the varied functions of assistant principals across the country and suggests ways to better prepare and support them.

Drawing on 20 years of research and 79 studies, the synthesis suggests possible actions for practitioners and policymakers. These include developing distinct standards for assistant principals, tailoring evaluations to the position, eliminating barriers to advancement, and ensuring equitable mentoring for assistant principals of color and women.

The Role of Assistant Principals: Evidence and Insights for Advancing School Leadership, ​commissioned by The Wallace Foundation, is a synthesis of empirical research on assistant principals published since 2000 and includes new analyses of national data and data from two states, Tennessee and Pennsylvania. The report was written by researchers Ellen Goldring and Mollie Rubin of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development and Mariesa Herrmann of Mathematica.

Among the key findings:

  • From 1990 to 2016, the number of assistant principals in the U.S. grew by 83 percent, to almost 80,600.
  • The assistant principal role is an increasingly common stepping-stone to becoming a principal.
  • Assistant principals’ functions vary but generally include a mix of instructional leadership, management and student discipline.
  • Across six states, 24 percent of assistant principals were people of color; the assistant principal role could promote greater diversity in the principalship, if potential racial and gender barriers to advancement were identified and addressed.
  • Principals in numerous studies suggested that experience as an assistant principal provided important preparation for the job of principal.
  • Being adept at certain aspects of the assistant principal’s job could help improve school climate and equitable student outcomes.
  • Collaboration between principals and assistant principals could reduce principal burnout and provide necessary experience for those who aspire to become principals.

“This research synthesis is essential to our understanding of a role that often is overlooked,” said Jody Spiro, director of education leadership at The Wallace Foundation. “We hope this report encourages school districts and policymakers to rethink the position as a lever for improving equity and strengthening principal pipelines, in ways that ultimately benefit students.”

Key recommendations for policymakers and practitioners include:

  • Conduct equity audits to help identify and remove barriers to leadership for educators of color and women.
  • Develop standards for assistant principals that are consistent with a job that can lead to the principalship.
  • Examine evaluations, mentoring and professional development to ensure they are suitable for the assistant principal role.
  • Instruct principals on effectively mentoring the assistant principals under their guidance.

“Despite the rapid growth in numbers of assistant principals, the role has received limited attention from policymakers and researchers,” said Ellen Goldring, the Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Education and Leadership at Vanderbilt and the report’s lead author. “Our findings shed light on the role of the assistant principal, including its potential for creating equity in school leadership and more equitable outcomes for students.”

Methodologies of the studies examined by the researchers varied widely and used either qualitative or quantitative methods, or both (“mixed method” studies). Quantitative studies are well-suited to answer “what” questions, such as: What is the relationship between experience as an assistant principal and future principal effectiveness? Qualitative methods enabled study participants to share their experiences and perceptions of the role.

The 79 studies included assistant principals who worked predominantly in public elementary, middle and high schools, and were largely conducted in Southern states, including Florida and Texas. Most of the qualitative studies were conducted in urban locales, whereas most quantitative studies included all types of locales. 

The assistant principal role varies greatly from district to district and even between schools in the same district. However, there is suggestive evidence that when assistant principals take on strategic leadership tasks, they can play important roles in improving outcomes for students, teachers and schools,” said Mollie Rubin, research assistant professor at Vanderbilt.

“Examining who is receiving mentoring and being encouraged to pursue leadership roles, and ensuring that assistant principals have equitable experiences while in their roles, could help diversify the principalship and contribute to more equitable outcomes for educators and students,” added Mariesa Herrmann, senior researcher from Mathematica.

The report is the second of three research syntheses commissioned by Wallace. The first, released in February, examined the critical role of principals in student learning and other outcomes. A third, expected to be released this spring, will look at the characteristics and outcomes of effective principal preparation programs, building on the 2007 report, Preparing School Leaders for a Changing World: Lessons from Exemplary Leadership Development Programs.


Based in New York City, The Wallace Foundation is an independent national philanthropy whose mission is to foster equity and improvements in learning and enrichment for young people, and in the arts for everyone. Current areas of interest include school leadership, expanding and diversifying audiences for the arts, social and emotional learning, summer learning, arts education, and afterschool. Wallace aims to help solve problems facing the fields in which it works, benefiting both the organizations it funds directly and the broader field by developing credible, useful knowledge to inform policy and practice nationwide. Research commissioned by and produced by the foundation is available without charge from the Knowledge Center at



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