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Lesson 5.8

Principals and Superintendents:
The Pivotal Role of an Educational Leader

The most influential person in a school is…

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Leadership does not always spring to mind as a key element of the learning environment of a school. It should.

For schools to work well, many things have to work well at the same time. The job of a school principal is to harness the frenzy of a school and align it with purpose. Even under the best of circumstances, it's a difficult job.

What is a Principal of a school?

A school principal is an executive, best compared to a CEO or the executive director of a major non-profit organization. In a mid-sized school, the principal is responsible for some 600 learners, thirty educators and a similar number of other staff. The central job of the principal is to develop and lead processes that support effective teaching and learning for all students.

But principals cannot focus on instruction alone. Principals bear responsibility for the safety and the health of students and employees. They juggle relationships with school district staff, parents, foundations, politicians, police, neighbors, community leaders and leaders in other schools. They handle disputes, scrapes and scuffles. They are the substitute teacher of last resort. They usually don't handle payroll or have control of much of a budget, but that's a mixed blessing: it means they have to be good at getting what they need from the district.

All while conveying a loving openness, a keen focus on student learning, and an unflappable capacity to calm folks down when things aren't going the way they want. The job of the principal is unpredictable — there's no such thing as a typical day.

Why school leadership matters

In 2018, a team of researchers with the Leadership Policy Institute (LPI) conducted a deep study of educational leadership in California with a focus on measurable indicators of success and patterns that predict it. The key finding is that stable, prepared school leaders are strongly associated with many good things, including higher test scores, graduation rates and the like.

It's easiest to notice the importance of leadership when things go haywire. With effective leadership, small problems stay small. People can focus on what matters, and come back for more. With ineffective leadership, by contrast, small problems spiral into crises. When districts lack a good structure for leadership succession, leadership turnover can cause damage.

California's school leadership crisis

This is very bad news for California, because it is uncommonly difficult to recruit principals in this state.

In California, principals face bigger challenges than school leaders in most states — and they must face those challenges with less help. California's school system is administration-light compared to other states. (See chart below.)

It is uncommonly difficult to recruit principals in California.

What does it mean to have fewer administrators in a school? As a practical matter, principals in California must do their job with one fewer leader in the office to make the school work. The school district can't fill the gap, either — districts in California have about half as many administrators as is typical in other states. To top it off, California’s relatively high salaries for teachers are not matched with similarly high salaries for principals, though the math of the pension system helps draw teachers toward school leadership in their final years.

To recap: Leading a school is significantly harder in California than in other states, and it pays less, but the retirement benefits can help.

Who wants the job?

To be hired as a principal in a California school, you need credentials. These aren't usually seen as a huge obstacle, and programs are offered all over the state. The bigger issue is that districts are having a hard time finding good candidates who want the job.

Principal turnover in schools is very common — four years at a school is typical — and disruptive. The LPI study found that student achievement tends to fall after a principal leaves a school, and it can take 5 years after a new principal is hired to fully rebound. The harm is particularly great in high-poverty, low-achieving schools.

Poaching makes the equity problem worse

To support schools in disarray, district superintendents know they need effective principals. Hmmm… where can they find them?

The quickest solution is to recruit talent from other districts. According to the LPI study, "Principals have become more mobile in the last decade. In 2004–05, the typical California principal had been the principal at their current school for almost 10 years, compared to only 4 years in 2016–17."

Poaching makes sense as a hiring strategy, but it's a zero-sum game. It contributes to the churn in the system and tends to put less-well-off districts at a disadvantage because they tend to pay less.

How to develop school leaders

To address the chronic shortage of effective school leaders, the LPI study recommended that the state develop a new pipeline of principal leadership programs, taking inspiration from programs in Tennessee and Chicago as well as from the California-based Aspiring Principals fellowship program.

Some nonprofit organizations have brought resources to the challenge, recruiting principals from unconventional pools of talent. The Broad Residency emphasizes recruitment and training of school district leadership. New Leaders recruits and trains teacher leaders and principals.

In the best cases, school leaders remain in place for many years, growing more effective with time, experience, and deep relationships with faculty and community. To help principals develop "in place," the LPI research suggests that districts set aside funds annually to provide principals with ongoing training, coaching, and support.

How to pick a leader

If your school is looking to hire a new principal and you have been included in the search process, GreatSchools offers a list of interview questions to ask. The toughest type of questions, and sometimes most revealing, are simulation interviews in which you ask a candidate to play-act how they would handle a difficult leadership scenario.

While the most important elements of a work environment are human factors such as leadership, the more mundane physical considerations can also make a difference. The next lesson will explore these considerations.

Updated April 2024


Which ONE of the following is TRUE?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Brenda Etterbeek May 13, 2019 at 5:07 pm
I am grateful that my children's elementary school has had the same amazing principal for over 15 years. Sadly, this is not the case throughout our district. It seems there is always a transition with principals moving to district admin and some schools rebuilding every several years.
user avatar
Caryn May 15, 2019 at 10:02 am
Hi Brenda, thanks for your comment. Yes, having an amazing principal for over 15 years is quite unusual and you are right to feel an abundance of gratitude. And I agree, there is nothing quite as disruptive as losing a principal (especially a fantastic one!) even if it's to the district administration. Transient leadership is another reason why it's so important for parents to understand how our school system works so they know how to best support their school, no matter the circumstances.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 25, 2019 at 4:25 pm
Could I add to the discussion about movement of principals. In our school district, a good principal was often plucked to go to one of the other elementary schools which was having trouble. This might have been good for the troubled school (not always clear) but it was lousy for the school that lost the principal--no continuity with the parents, teachers, PTA etc and a sense even for the students of disruption. They are far more aware of that kind of turnover than we give them credit for, I believe. So sometimes it isn't exactly poaching, but rather the superintendent moving employees around within, but still to the detriment (especially if there was no one in house to promote to principal and the hiring was from outside and in our case too late in the year for good hires).
user avatar
Caryn January 30, 2019 at 9:59 am
Hi Susannah, thanks for commenting. I have been lucky enough to have known several outstanding principals in California and...a few other kind. Several years ago, I had the experience of moving my children to a well-regarded magnet school right AFTER the phenomenal principal was moved. Everything that people raved about changed (and not for the better!) within the course of just a few months. That was my second experience confirming that school leadership absolutely matters. This can be a tough pill to swallow when these decisions occur at the district level. The good news is now when I recognize great leadership, I am especially grateful for all their hard work and let them know regularly.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 25, 2019 at 4:19 pm
Our school district suffered terribly from superintendent turnover--it really began to feel as if we were stepping stones to another position elsewhere. The principal situation was somewhat similar, and because of the pink slip timing, our district was always looking to hire when anyone decent (to be honest) was long since taken. That meant choosing from the dregs.
user avatar
Jeff Camp August 16, 2018 at 2:12 pm
In 2018 the Wallace Foundation invested in research about the role and effectiveness of "Principal Supervisors" -- a strategy for providing support and oversight to school leaders in very large districts. The research found patterns of success with this strategy. Notably: focus the job on instructional leadership, keep the span of responsibility to supporting no more than a dozen schools, and invest focus in supporting them in their role as instructional leaders.
user avatar
Veli Waller April 8, 2015 at 4:23 pm
What is the average time principals stay in their role? Is there a significant difference between elementary and secondary principals time in their position?
user avatar
Robert Crowell May 4, 2018 at 9:06 am
Good question. I would be interested in seeing data on that as well. From personal observation it seems that elementary school principals stay in their position longer that secondary principals
user avatar
Jeff Camp May 25, 2018 at 3:39 pm
It appears that principal turnover averages about four years (now indicated in the lesson, with a link). Frankly I'm not that impressed with the data source. Each school has a leadership history, but I haven't found a way to find and assemble that data from detail. This feels like fertile ground for public records research. Turnover of district superintendents in big districts averages about six years according to a study by the Broad Center. This is less churn than I imagined, living in the Bay Area.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar - Ed100 December 14, 2014 at 1:24 pm
A 2014 report, "CHURN: The High Cost of Principal Turnover", argues that focusing primarily on principal preparation ignores the problem of "churn". It finds:
"Twenty  thousand (one quarter of the country’s principals) leave their schools
each year, leaving millions of children’s lives adversely affected. Fifty percent of new
principals quit during their third year in the role. Those that remain frequently do
not stay at high poverty schools, trading difficult-to-lead schools for less demanding leadership roles that serve more affluent populations."
It calls for decision makers to value and prioritize principal retention efforts as much as principal pipeline development and offers a series of specific recommendations.
©2003-2024 Jeff Camp
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