The actions of principals can have a significant impact on accelerating student learning. A synthesis of two decades of research released in February 2021 found that a highly effective principal can positively impact student achievement and attendance, as well as teacher satisfaction and retention. The report found that a principal in the 75th percentile of effectiveness generates an increase in student learning in math and reading of about three months across an entire school. This amount is nearly as great as the four months of increased learning that a teacher at the 75th percentile generates. According to the report, “The principal’s effects on students are largely indirect, coming in good measure through teachers, with the principal influencing factors including teacher hiring and development, as well as the conditions for sound learning.”
Researchers identified what effective principals do to get these results: They use high-impact instructional strategies, create collaborative professional learning environments, build a reflective school culture focused on continuous growth, and develop the capacity of others. Yet many principals struggle to find the time to implement these strategies, and few principals have support to build their leadership skills. A 2020 survey conducted by the Learning Policy Institute found that less than one quarter of responding principals reported having a mentor or coach in the past two years.
These findings on the positive impact of effective principals make a strong case for investing in principal mentoring and coaching; the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) is working with districts to put these supports in place. With school leaders responding to numerous challenges in the wake of the pandemic and the urgent need to better ensure equitable learning opportunities for all students, principal mentoring is now more important than ever.
Principal supervisors are an existing resource in many districts, with the potential to mentor principals to strengthen their instructional leadership skills. But this typically requires a change in the role of principal supervisors. They must shift from focusing on compliance to focusing on coaching, dedicating time to provide job-embedded, individualized support.
NIET has found that district leaders and principal supervisors have greater impact when they provide coaching that is deeply connected with the day-to-day decisions of the principal, the work of the instructional leadership team, and what happens in classrooms—but too often, such coaching doesn’t occur. Although many districts are giving principals greater autonomy and control over school improvement efforts, they do not provide the coaching and support that principals need to be successful. Too often, neither principals nor supervisors have dedicated, protected time on their calendars for coaching or mentorship, making it even easier to put to the side.
District leaders should carefully consider who they place in the principal supervisor role, prioritizing experience as an effective school leader, along with the ability to coach others. They also need to examine their existing processes for placing school leaders in school buildings, and ensure that the newest, least-experienced principals are not assigned to the most demanding schools.
At NIET, where I serve as co-president, we found that when the role of principal supervisor shifts to prioritize coaching, supervisors can be a key lever for schoolwide change. In our recent report, “The Untapped Potential of the Principal Supervisor: How Support for School Leaders Should Change” (bit.ly/NIET-UntappedPotential-Report2021), NIET provides four high-impact strategies:
- Be a visible partner and model being a lead learner. While principals want to strengthen their instructional leadership, they struggle to find the time and may not feel confident in their instructional knowledge. Principal supervisors can help by being a visible partner: scheduling time with principals in their schools and modeling being a learner in professional learning, leadership team, or classroom settings. Principal supervisors are uniquely positioned to support principals in reflecting on their mindset and their actions in ways that enable them to grow their capacity as instructional leaders.
- Develop a common vision and consistently use a shared language that describes expectations for principals around the instructional leadership aspects of their role. Principal supervisors can create clarity by using research-based leadership standards to define effective practices and show that the purpose of such standards is to facilitate growth for principals. Principal supervisors can help school leaders create and reinforce their vision by strengthening connections between the daily work of principals, classroom teaching, and student work—three crucial pillars of student achievement.
- Establish a coaching, feedback, and support system that is aligned with expectations in evaluation. Supervisors can model for principals what it looks like to be an effective coach. This requires being present in schools, observing principals in a variety of different settings, and tying feedback to leadership standards and curriculum. More frequent observations support a cycle of feedback and should be aligned to expectations in principal evaluations, rather than one-off conversations.
- Create opportunities for collaboration and capacity-building. We found that while principals strive to create collaborative learning environments, they need support and resources to do this well. Principal supervisors can uniquely support principals to create collaborative learning opportunities in their school, engage teachers in leadership roles, and develop collaborative opportunities for principals themselves.
To create strong coaching opportunities, district leaders, principal supervisors, and principals can take the following steps:
For District Leaders
- Set clear expectations for the amount of time that principal supervisors spend in schools, and ensure they have sufficient time to provide individual coaching for each of the principals they supervise.
- Use principal leadership standards to create a shared language around strong practices.
- Define the role of principal supervisor to focus on coaching and growth and provide training and support for principal supervisors to improve their coaching skills.
- Provide resources to support school-based professional learning structures, including teacher leadership roles.
- Increase communication and collaboration between principal supervisors and other central office staff working with schools (e.g., curriculum office).
For Principal Supervisors
- Be visible and engage as a learner alongside principals in their school during classroom observations and coaching, professional learning, and leadership team meetings.
- Build a common understanding of strong principal leadership by using research-based leadership standards.
- Provide individual mentoring for principals to reflect on and improve their practice.
- Align coaching and expectations in evaluation to reflect the most important aspects of a principal’s job.
- Support principals to build collaborative learning structures, engage teachers as leaders, and create opportunities for principals to engage in collaborative learning and networking.
- Shift support for principals from focusing on compliance to focusing on coaching, and advocate for the supports necessary to do this.
- Be visible and actively engage in the work of teaching and learning—in classrooms, professional learning settings, and leadership team meetings.
- Build a common understanding of strong leadership practices with your supervisor based on research-based leadership standards.
- Use coaching and support from your supervisor to reflect on and continuously improve your practice and strengthen your ability to coach others.
- Build collaborative learning structures, engage teachers as leaders, and engage in opportunities for collaborative learning and networking.
- Invite your supervisor to participate in the work of teaching and learning in your school, and actively seek their engagement and feedback.
Build on Advocacy
NASSP members can advocate for funding and policies in their district to ensure that principal supervisors have a smaller number of principals to mentor, are trained to be effective mentors, and have the time to provide job-embedded support. At the state level, licensure and certification, as well as principal evaluation requirements, offer opportunities to create clear and consistent expectations for principals around the instructional leadership aspects of their role.
Here are some other important actions NASSP members can take: Support federal funding through Title II Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act (state grants for supporting effective instruction), and encourage states to take advantage of the three percent that these grants set aside for school leader professional learning. In addition, support Title II Part B competitive grants of the Every Student Succeeds Act—including the Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program, School Leader Recruitment and Support, and Supporting Effective Educator Development grants, which fund evidence-based approaches for mentoring and coaching principals.
Given the importance of principals in accelerating student learning, investments in their growth and success should be prioritized. Principal supervisors can be highly effective mentors and coaches when provided with the time, resources, and training for this role. It is time to change the way we support school leaders by ensuring that every principal has an effective mentor.
Laura Encalade is co-president of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.
Grissom, J. A., Egalite, A. J., & Lindsay, C. A. (2021). How principals affect students and schools: A systematic synthesis of two decades of research. The Wallace Foundation. wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/Documents/How-Principals-Affect-Students-and-Schools.pdf.
Levin, S., Leung, M., Edgerton, A. K., & Scott, C. (2020). Elementary school principals’ professional learning: Current status and future needs. Learning Policy Institute. learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/elementary-school-principals-professional-learning-report.
Goldring, E.B., Clark, M.A., Rubin, M., Rogers, L.K., Grissom, J.A., Gill, B., … Burnett, A. (2020). Changing the principal supervisor role to better support principals: Evidence from the principal supervisor initiative. The Wallace Foundation. wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/Documents/Changing-the-Principal-Supervisor-Role.pdf