Actions School Districts Can Take to Help Principals Better Lead Schools

For Release

November 14, 2013

States and school districts can play an important role in helping principals be more successful and guide their schools more effectively by undertaking actions in four key areas, according to a new RAND report.

Simply matching the correct candidate with the appropriate school — along with supporting the new principal during the transition period — can affect the principal's ability to help students reach their highest potential, according to the report.

Researchers also say school districts can better support principals by using a high-quality system to evaluate principals, by strategically considering the amount of autonomy given to principals, and by providing principals with the resources and support they need to produce better education outcomes.

The report comes at a time when states and school districts — particularly those in urban areas — are struggling with wide variations in student outcomes.

“Along with quality teachers, a good principal is essential to a successful school,” said Susan M. Gates, a report co-author and a senior economist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “Principals' role as school leaders is a significant factor in affecting student achievement. But their skills alone are not enough to successfully lead a school.”

Researchers drew on extensive research conducted at RAND and elsewhere to provide guidance to school district leaders and others who manage school systems. The study highlights how actions in these areas can create conditions in schools and school districts that foster principal success.

While matching a principal vacancy with the right candidate is important, it might not always be possible. With mandatory state-issued principal certifications, district-specific principal candidate requirements, and formal district processes for hiring and placing principals, it is possible that no available and eligible candidate will be a strong match for a particular school.

“For example, a school with a high level of parental and community involvement may need a principal who is good at harnessing that involvement toward school-wide goals,” said Susan Burkhauser, a co-author and an assistant policy analyst at RAND. “A school that is lacking in parental involvement may need a principal with strong community outreach skills.”

When there is not a perfect match between available candidates and a school's needs, she said, professional development opportunities should focus on those areas that are vital to the school and where the principal may lack needed skills.

Other key findings:

  • Policymakers should build evaluation systems that foster stronger principals. A high-quality evaluation system can play a key role in helping principals improve their own performance and help central office staff make informed decisions about principals' career paths.
  • The “right” level of autonomy will vary by district and possibly by school or principal. Three key issues that districts should consider in making this decision are principal capacity, district efficiency and principal expertise.
  • States and school districts should provide principals with the resources and support they need to effectively do their jobs. This includes targeted professional development and authority to delegate responsibilities. Other support should include resources for training, coaching and common planning time for teachers and principals to work together to analyze data to improve teaching practice.

“States and districts are placing greater emphasis on teacher quality and teacher evaluation, and they are adding to the already significant responsibilities principals must fulfill,” Gates said. “As the role of the school principal continues to grow, these actions will go a long way toward fostering effective school leadership.”

The report, “Laying the Foundation for Successful School Leadership,” can be found at Other authors are Laura Hamilton, Jennifer Li and Ashley Pierson.

Support for the report was provided by RAND's Investment in People and Ideas program, which combines philanthropic contributions from individuals, foundations, and private-sector firms with earnings from RAND's endowment and operations to support research on issues that reach beyond the scope of traditional client sponsorship.

This work was conducted by RAND Education, a division of the RAND Corporation. Its mission is to bring accurate data and careful, objective analysis to the national debate on education policy.

About the RAND Corporation

The RAND Corporation is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.