It takes a lot of factors to make a great school, but principals — the people in the middle between classroom teachers and department-level superintendents and school boards — play a larger role than you might think.
“Effective school leadership is second only to direct classroom instruction amongst the school-based factors in raising student achievement,” says Ronn Nozoe, CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “And that principal impact is even greater in historically low-achieving, historically high-poverty, and minority schools.”
He’s backed up by a 2021 synthesis of two decades of studies by The Wallace Foundation, which found that at schools with principals in the 75th percentile of effectiveness, students get the equivalent of three months of additional learning each year.
“The recent research has confirmed that the principal effect is a really close second” to that of teachers, Nozoe adds.
He says a good principal works with students, teachers, and staff to provide the “climate and culture” where everyone thrives.
And teachers notice. “Really high-quality teachers tend to stay in schools that are well run and have principals who believe in those teachers, who provide those opportunities,” says Farnoosh Shahrokhi, an associate professor and the division director for Education Leadership and Policy at George Mason University. “And then, when we have high principal turnover, it always is followed by high teacher turnover.”
Shahrokhi says the job of a principal has changed in recent years. In addition to student achievement, principals need to monitor and address inequities in achievement as well as disciplinary measures; they’re also responsible for dealing with absenteeism, staff retention, and organizing and motivating people. They also must deal with the increased importance of standardized testing, which she says leaves schools with “increased accountability, without necessarily having all that much control.”
As school departments and boards have become political lightning rods, Nozoe says, a principal’s job entails making everyone feel respected and focused: “Somebody’s got to keep that school safe from all of the stuff that’s happening outside and make sure that everybody there is not distracted and is focused on kids.”
The Pandemic Effect
The COVID-19 pandemic piled more responsibilities on principals, and those responsibilities haven’t gone away.
“Principals had to think about keeping students safe and fed, and even able to have the technology to even chime in” for online learning, Shahrokhi says. And since the pandemic, “It’s been a race to just maintain staff.”
The pandemic exacerbated a nationwide shortage of teachers, Nozoe says, as well as a lesser-known shortage of support staff. It also took a toll on principals — about 40 percent of the membership of his group considered retirement or leaving education during the pandemic. That didn’t pan out, he says, but many principals have switched into district-level administration. That does have a silver lining, he says: Administrators with principal experience are more likely to understand on-the-ground challenges.
Nozoe has been a teacher, principal, and deputy superintendent for the Hawaii Department of Education. He’s also worked at the U.S. Department of Education in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. He says the rewards of being a principal aren’t the same as being a classroom teacher: “‘Oh, my God, little Ronnie got it.’ You don’t get that fix every day.”
He says it’s more about seeing the teachers hit their strides and elevating the kids. “Educators can’t help it. You just get hooked on helping somebody go from this place to the next place,” he says. “It’s the same thing that principals get. It’s just a different grain size.”
Feature image of Kevin Clark, Ann Bonitatibus, Peter Laub, Neelum Chaudhry, and Ryan Ferrera by Michael Butcher