New research encourages developing the role of assistant principals to advance education equity, promote school improvement, and foster principal effectiveness.
Effective principals have a substantial positive impact on student achievement as well as staff satisfaction and retention, as noted in our recent article Principals’ Impact on Student Learning. But what about assistant principals?
The second of three research reviews commissioned by the Wallace Foundation found not much attention has been paid to assistant principals and their impact on student learning and teacher retention. The review found assistant principals don’t have clearly defined roles as there is no consensus on what assistant principals do or should do. It also questions whether the assistant principal experience prepares them to become effective principals. And it is not clear if districts are taking advantage of the talent pipeline provided by the assistant principalship.
Ellen Goldring, a dean at Peabody College at Vanderbilt University and the lead author of the review The Role of Assistant Principals: Evidence and Insights for Advancing School Leadership, said, “It’s time to take stock: what do we know and what do we need to know in this really important role?”.
Between the 1990–1991 and 2015–2016 school years, the number of assistant principals increased by a whopping 83 percent, from about 44,000 to 82,000. Over this period, the proportion of schools with an assistant principal rose from about one-third to more than half. Much of this growth is explained by an increase in the percentage of elementary schools with assistant principals.
There has also been an increase in the number of principals with prior assistant principal experience. About three quarters of principals spent time as an assistant principal, making the role an increasingly common stepping-stone to the principalship. It appears assistant principals are part of a school’s leadership team and provide a pipeline to the principalship.
While the numbers of assistant principals have increased, many of them never move into a principal position. Although 80 percent of teachers are women, they are less likely to become assistant principals or principals than men. Educators of color are more likely to become assistant principals and less likely to become principals than white educators. Given the importance of a diverse pool of school leaders to more closely reflect the diversity of the student population, better understanding these patterns and their implications is important.
There are some possible explanations why the higher numbers of women and people of color in the assistant principal role don’t transfer to the principalship. This talent pipeline filled with diverse individuals may not be recognized by district leaders and principals for filling principal positions. Or it is possible that discrimination in hiring could play a role.
It’s also possible that these assistant principals may not be getting the instructional leadership experience necessary for the principal’s job. Access to mentoring, coaching, and professional development may be more limited to women and educators of color.
Assistant principals are in a pivotal position to impact school leadership and student outcomes if the role is carefully considered. And the assistant principalship could be used strategically to better prepare future principals by ensuring it provides effective leadership experiences and professional development.
Some recommendations to better support assistant principals noted in the report include the following:
- Define the major responsibilities and duties in the assistant principal job descriptions with a stronger focus on instructional leadership responsibilities.
- Implement developmental, sequenced leadership tasks and opportunities for assistant principals in preparation for the principalship.
- Implement unique systems of evaluation for assistant principals.
- Provide principals with professional development on how to mentor and coach assistant principals and delegate leadership tasks to help them grow.
- Develop systems to ensure equitable access to mentoring, coaching, and professional development.
- Identify barriers to advancement that need to be addressed to help diversify the principalship.
- Prioritize women and people of color in leadership pipelines and plans.
- Ensure equitable experiences in leadership roles while in the assistant principal position.
- Clarify policies around assistant principal standards, certification, evaluation, and advancement.
- Work with prep programs to sequence courses to match the work that assistant principals are doing.
Clearly, there is much more to learn about the increasingly prevalent yet often overlooked and maybe undervalued role of the assistant principal. “This isn’t an assistant to the principal; these are assistant principals—key school leadership positions,” Goldring said, adding that she hopes the report will help provide new opportunities and experiences for current assistant principals and educators who want to become principals.
We encourage districts to consider implementing these recommendations so the educators in the assistant principal role can reach their full potential and districts can take advantage of the talent they have in front of them.
Cheryl Hoover joined HR Services in 2018. She assists with staffing and HR reviews, training, and other HR projects. During Hoover’s public school career, she served as an executive director of curriculum and principal leadership, executive director of human resources, principal, assistant principal, teacher, and coach.
Hoover earned her bachelor’s degree from The University of Texas at Austin and obtained her master’s degree from Texas State University. She is a certified PHR.
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