Cover: Support for Instructional Leadership

Support for Instructional Leadership

Supervision, Mentoring, and Professional Development for U.S. School Leaders: Findings from the American School Leader Panel

Published Oct 31, 2016

by William R. Johnston, Julia H. Kaufman, Lindsey E. Thompson

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Research Questions

  1. What on-the-job supports for principals are available across American school districts?
  2. To what extent do these supports emphasize principals' role in teachers' instruction, and how does that influence principals' perception of the quality of support they are receiving?
  3. How does the quantity, quality, and format of on-the-job supports vary for principals in districts of different sizes?

An abundance of research suggests that effective school leaders are vital to promoting student outcomes in schools across the United States. Recognizing this, many state and local education agencies are motivated to develop a strong corps of highly qualified principals and assistant principals. Although a lot of emphasis is placed on recruitment and preservice training for new principals, many school districts are also working to support administrators once they are placed in schools. However, relatively little is known about the types of on-the-job supports currently available to school leaders, particularly on a national scale. This report presents findings from a Wallace Foundation — funded survey of RAND's American School Leader Panel, a nationally representative sample of principals, regarding the quantity, content, and perceived quality of on-the-job support offered to them by their school districts. It focuses on three particular types of support — supervision, mentoring, and professional development — and investigates not only the prevalence of support for school leaders but also how this support reflects the role of leadership in instruction. In addition, responses of principals from small, midsize, and large school districts are examined to consider whether school leader support may look different depending on district size. This report was updated in October 2016. The current version provides estimates based on updated weights for a small percentage of the respondents. Weights were updated to account for infrequent misclassification in the assignment of school-level characteristics.

Key Findings

Most Principals Receive Some Form of Support

  • Almost all principals reported having some form of district-provided, on-the-job support available during the past school year, but less than a third indicated their district provided a combination of regular supervisory communication, mentoring for principals at varying experience levels, and at least one day of professional development specifically for school leaders over the past year.
  • While mentoring was generally available for new and struggling school leaders, fewer respondents indicated mentoring was a districtwide requirement.

Supports that Emphasize Principals' Role as Instructional Leadership Are More Valued Than Other Forms of Support

  • Most principals reported their interactions with supervisors had at least some emphasis on instructional leadership, with higher rates of instructional emphasis among principals supervised by someone other than the district superintendent.
  • School leaders valued supervision and mentoring support more when it emphasized their role as instructional leaders.

Larger Districts Provide More Support

  • Principals from larger districts indicated more communication with their supervisor, greater access to formal mentoring, and more opportunities for principal-focused professional development than their peers in smaller districts.
  • Principals in larger districts also indicated a greater focus on instructional leadership in communication with their supervisors compared with those in smaller districts.


  • The results of our survey suggest that districts could do more to consistently support principals' role as instructional leaders, particularly considering the value that principals place upon such support. In addition, smaller school districts may need more support to mitigate capacity limitations related to central office staffing, budget, and geography that may curb their ability to provide comprehensive support for principals and vice principals.
  • State and district policymakers, as well as researchers, should investigate new and innovative ways for school leaders in small districts to receive the strong, instruction-focused supports of their peers in larger districts through both differentiated support within districts and — potentially — networks of peer support.
  • Moving forward, it will be important for policymakers and researchers to query not only the presence and quantity of school leader supports, but also the perceived quality of those supports and the extent to which they emphasize principals' instructional leadership.

This research was conducted by RAND Education with the support of The Wallace Foundation.

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