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Lesson 5.8

The Pivotal Role of Educational Leadership

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.

The Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) has researched the impact of various “teaching and learning conditions” on student learning. The conditions researched include: facilities and resources, professional development, and school leadership.

According to the CTQ research, no other variable on this list has as powerful an effect on student learning as the school leader. Parents and teachers are the most immediate influencers of student learning results, but a great school leader can bring out the best in teachers and foster a great environment for learning. A poor leader, on the other hand, can destroy a school. Leadership matters.

California's school leadership crisis

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

Under the best of circumstances, principals have a difficult job. In a small school, a principal oversees not just 400 students and some forty educators and staff, but also dozens of relationships with school district staff, parents, foundation staff, politicians, police, cranky neighbors, community leaders and leaders in other schools. The principal is also responsible for the school facilities, working with the district to provide for upkeep and remodeling when needed. All while conveying a loving openness and unflappable capacity to calm folks down when things aren't going the way they want.

In California, the circumstances for principals are far from ideal. For example, California ranked 47th in the nation in the number of students per administrator in 2014-15, according to a report from the California Budget Project. In 2011, the last year data were assembled, California's ratio was 312 students per administrator, compared to 202 nationally. These administrators, in turn, oversee teachers with some of America's largest classes.

It is uncommonly difficult to recruit principals in California.

What does that mean? As a practical matter, principals in California must do their job with one fewer leader in the office to help. The school district cannot 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. To recap: Leading a school is significantly harder in California than in other states, and it pays less.

Principal turnover in schools is tremendously disruptive. It is also very common. Four years at a school is typical.

"Poaching" doesn't fix the problem

Districts must address this leadership gap, which they sometimes do by attracting a successful principal from another district, which of course contributes to the churn. Successful principals generally find it easy to change districts, but this is a zero-sum game, and it can be expensive to attract a proven leader. 

Some districts have followed the lead of San Diego, which invests in developing principals from within its teaching workforce. San Francisco Unified began a similar leadership initiative in 2006. These programs are not making a major dent in the overall shortfall.

Because leadership plays such a strong role in school success or failure, some nonprofit organizations focus on leadership development and placement, often recruiting principals from unconventional pools of talent. The Broad Residency emphasizes recruitment and training of school district leadership. New Leaders for New Schools recruits and trains principals. Both organizations, in turn, recruit extensively from Teach for America. These organizations (and many others) have developed thoughtful approaches to selecting and developing school leaders. The Rainwater Leadership Alliance collected information about their approaches in a report titled "A New Approach to Principal Preparation."

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.

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 May 2018


Leadership is critical for a school's success. Which ONE of the following statements is True?

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Questions & Comments

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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.
©2003-2018 Jeff Camp
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