Encompassing, evolving, critical—that’s how principals described their roles during a recent congressional briefing to highlight National Principals Month. National education leaders and congressional staff had convened on Capitol Hill to discuss federal support for principals, focusing on funding opportunities for school leadership in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
“We know a lot from evidence and experience about the vital role of principals and other school leaders in terms of getting the opportunity, the systems, the outcomes we need,” said Tiara Booker-Dwyer, executive director of leadership development and school improvement for the Maryland State Department of Education. Next to classroom instruction, principals are the second most important factor that impacts student learning, she added, alluding to a landmark Wallace-funded examination of school leadership.
In describing the importance of principals’ work, panelists detailed an overwhelming list of job duties: managing operations and finance, engaging parents, implementing policies, evaluating instruction, overseeing student behavior, encouraging students’ social and emotional health, supporting their staff and fostering a positive school climate. This prompted moderator Scott Palmer, managing partner and co-founder of EducationCounsel, to suggest, “Maybe if Congress could find a way to stop time, that would be really helpful.”
While Congress doesn’t have the power to stop time, panelists were unequivocal in urging Congress to support principals in another way: funding support for school leadership. Palmer pointed to increasing attention paid to school leadership at the federal level, including through ESSA, which expands the opportunities for states and districts to use federal funding for school leadership improvement. Title II, Part A of ESSA allocates about $2.3 billion per year to improve the quality of principals, teachers and other school leaders. States may reserve up to an additional 3 percent of the amount set aside for district subgrants for school leader support.
“It’s important that you understand the critical role of principals and other school leaders and that funding for Title II—full funding, more funding—is essential to the work we do each and every day,” said Christine Handy, president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and principal of Gaithersburg High School in Maryland.
Panelists identified principal supervisors as an important driver of improved leadership. Laura Mastrogiovanni, principal of M.S. 137 in Queens, said her leadership skills “came through my support, through having a mentor, a coach, a consultant. I’ve had all three at one point in my 13 years [as a principal].”
Eric Cardwell, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) and principal of Besser Elementary School in Alpena, Mich., noted that 56 percent of NAESP’s members have zero to five years of experience. “What that’s telling me is that people get in, they might get overwhelmed, and they get out—either back into teaching or into another job,” he said. “What we need to do a better job with is that mentorship, that collaboration, that time for those folks to ask the questions that they have and not just turn the keys over.”
After the panelists answered questions from teachers, principals and congressional staff, Palmer asked panelists what point they thought was most important to end on. Cardwell said, “I would encourage you to go into schools and ask principals what Title II means to them. It is everything.”
You can watch a video of the full Capitol Hill briefing hosted by NAESP, NASSP and the American Federation of School Administrators, check the full calendar of events for National Principals Month, follow the conversation on Twitter with #ThankAPrincipal and learn more at the School Leadership section of our Knowledge Center.