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How States Can Develop Excellent School Principals

How States Can Develop Excellent School Principals
September 24, 2015



Press Contact:                                                                                     

The Wallace Foundation
Jessica Schwartz

The Hatcher Group
Angie Cannon


New Report Details How States Can Develop 
Excellent School Principals as Leaders of Learning

Wallace-Commissioned Analysis by Public Policy Expert  Identifies Concrete Actions State Leaders Can Consider to Improve Principals’ Effectiveness

New York (Sept. 24, 2015) – Even though school principals have a powerful impact on teaching and student achievement, in general they remain relatively low priorities on crowded state education policy agendas. A new report released today suggests a number of possible actions that state policymakers can consider to raise the profile of principals on policy agendas and ensure they are well trained and well supported on the job.

A Wallace-commissioned report, Developing Excellent School Principals to Advance Teaching and Learning: Considerations for State Policy, offers a detailed analysis of what some states have done to strengthen principals and suggests that their actions fall into three areas that can guide policymaking. State leaders can: 1) move principals higher on policy agendas, 2) use six possible policy levers, and 3) better understand diverse state and local contextual factors likely to influence how the levers play out in practice. Although the report presents no single formula for success, its ideas can help guide states interested in better training and supporting principals.

Written by Paul Manna, professor of government and public policy at the College of William & Mary, the report also offers fresh insights into the overloaded job of principals themselves, suggesting that state policymakers should understand principals’ full responsibilities before adding new ones.  His research reflects the insights from a diverse collection of data, including dozens of interviews, hundreds of survey responses of policy experts, primary and secondary source documents, and the voices of principals themselves as reflected in national surveys conducted by the US Department of Education. The report and an executive summary are available for free on the Wallace website at

“All organizations need effective leaders to succeed. Schools are no exception, and their principals bear weighty responsibilities,” Manna said. “Principals who are strong, effective, responsive leaders help to inspire and enhance the abilities of their teachers and other school staff to do excellent work.  And yet, the principal’s role has received consistently less attention than other topics on state education policy agendas. While it’s impossible to identify a single formula that will enhance the work of principals, the central role that principals play merits much attention as state officials craft their policy agendas.”

Wallace President Will Miller noted that research shows that leadership is second only to teaching among school-related influences on student success and that its impact is greatest in schools with the greatest needs. “This report maps out in nonpartisan terms a range of possible steps state policymakers from across the political spectrum can consider to help ensure that principals are well trained and well supported,” Miller said. “The report also wisely acknowledges that state policymakers, in consultation with people working in schools on the ground, are in the best position to determine which levers to pull depending on the educational, political and fiscal context of their particular state.”

​Among the key steps identified in the report:

Setting policy agendas: The report notes that teachers receive more agenda attention than principals and that investments in professional development also tend to prioritize teachers rather than principals. “Some of these differences are understandable because there are so many more teachers than principals in the nation’s schools, yet the evidence suggests important reasons for striking a better balance to improve the chances that teachers and principals alike can do excellent work,” the report suggests. Elevating principals on state policy agendas is essential because it can bolster other state efforts in education.  “Numerous state education policy initiatives developed during the last two decades depend heavily on excellent principals for their success,” the report notes.

Pulling state policy levers: The report also identifies six policy levers potentially available to state leaders, including adopting principal leadership standards, altering incentives to draw the best potential principals into the profession, approving and overseeing principal preparation programs, connecting state licensing requirements to principals’ real-world job requirements, better allocating resources to support principals’ professional development and seeking effective principal evaluation techniques.

​​Many states are using these policy levers to improve principal effectiveness. The report highlights several examples:

  • Approving and overseeing principal preparation programs: States have authority to oversee the organizations that prepare principals, and they also approve the specific degree programs that universities offer. To improve programs, Illinois and Kentucky both “sunsetted” their preparation programs and required them to meet a new set of more rigorous and relevant program expectations to continue operations. Those that were unable to meet the new expectations were given time to adjust, but risked closure if they did not demonstrate improvements.
  • Recruiting the best aspiring principals: Maryland began the Governor's Promising Principals Academy in 2015, a yearlong program to support and train assistant principals who want to become principals. Delaware, Kentucky and Minnesota provided financial support to form statewide principal academies that train new principals and help veteran principals become better mentors to their current assistant principals and teachers.
  • Supporting professional development: States typically have played a small role in the professional development of their principals, but could play a constructive role. In Pennsylvania, for example, the National Institute for School Leadership, a principal training organization, has partnered with the state education agency to develop a statewide program for novice principals and assistant principals that, since beginning in 2005, has helped improve the skills of hundreds of principals statewide.

Understanding State and Local Contexts: Finally, the report describes four contextual factors for policymakers to consider as they set priorities: 1) the distribution of powers within state education governance systems; 2) district environments with diverse local conditions and needs; 3) the level of state and local capacities needed to implement policy; and 4) the overall web of state policies and the demands they create for principals. Policymakers may benefit by incorporating a broader range of voices, including those of principals, into state policy debates. In addition, they can better understand how the policies and regulations they develop can change the tasks principals must complete each day. “Principals are bearing more and more weight as old responsibilities persist and as new ones become layered on top of them,” the report says.

Developing Excellent School Principals concludes with a suggested list of guiding questions for state leaders who want to strengthen their state’s principals. Among the suggestions: move principals higher on policy agendas; inventory state goals for principals compared to their day-to-day job responsibilities; identify policies that lead to duties for principals that thwart state goals; and then create a policy and political strategy to address inconsistencies and better support principals.

“This report makes it clear that every state is different, and no single approach will work with all 50 states,” said Jody Spiro, director of education leadership at Wallace. “But we hope that this report will offer states some potential action steps to help them improve the chances that all schools will be led by excellent principals.”



The Wallace Foundation seeks to improve education and enrichment for disadvantaged children and foster the vitality of arts for everyone. The foundation has an unusual approach: funding efforts to test innovative ideas for solving important public problems, conducting research to find out what works and what doesn’t and to fill key knowledge gaps – and then communicating the results to help others. Wallace, which works nationally, has five major initiatives under way:


  • School leadership: Strengthening education leadership to improve student achievement.
  • Afterschool: Helping cities make good afterschool time programs available to many more children.
  • Building audiences for the arts: Enabling arts organizations to bring the arts to a broader and more diverse group of people.
  • Arts education: Expanding arts learning opportunities for children and teens.
  • Summer and expanded learning: Improving summer learning opportunities for disadvantaged children, and enriching and expanding the school day.

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