The Making of a Great Principal

We all may recall principals from our years in school, and think about the influence they had on our daily lives. But the making of a great principal today is anything but easy.

This essay looks at three places to examine how school districts can develop strong leaders, who, in turn, can improve student achievement across the country.

October 21, 2016
By Eva Chiang, Matthew Clifford, and William McKenzie
Domestic Excellence / Alliance to Reform Education Leadership

WASHINGTON, D.C.: The Instructive Journey of Katie Lundgren

This fall, Katie Lundgren began her third year as leader of Marie Reed Elementary School in Washington, D.C. She describes her journey to becoming a principal as unintentional. But the 36-year old educator's pathway to leading a diverse, urban school is nonetheless instructive to educators, parents, and policymakers alike.

Her story provides a way to understand how school districts can prepare principals for their critical work. Her career shows how districts can provide principals with the right supports. And her journey underscores that recruiting, developing, and retaining strong leaders does not happen without districts intentionally making that happen.

Related Studies

The Bush Institute has released two major studies that look at effective ways to evaluate principal preparation and describe how districts can implement and update policies to attract, support, and keep great principals.

Principal Preparation Evaluation Study

Principal Talent Management Framework

A 2002 political science graduate of Rhodes College, Lundgren did not set out to become an educator. She happened to see a flier advertising Teach for America, applied and was admitted into TFA’s teacher training program. Soon, she was headed to New Orleans as a third-grade teacher in the Lower Ninth Ward.

After serving in the classroom, Lundgren discovered she wanted to get into school leadership. She took the next step because she felt deeply that every child, regardless of background, has the right to an excellent education. Lundgren recalled her move this way: “I wanted to be a leader who can unify the efforts and goals of teachers and families so every child can obtain that excellent education.”

She began by attending the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she earned a master’s degree in school leadership. She then became an assistant principal in Washington, D.C. “The district took a chance, but they have invested in me since 2009,” Lundgren said one day in her D.C. office.

Part of the investment was the Mary Jane Patterson Fellowship for Aspiring Principals that she earned in 2013. The Patterson Fellowship provides financial and learning supports for prospective Washington, D.C. principals.

I wanted to be a leader who can unify the efforts and goals of teachers and families so every child can obtain that excellent education.

Katie Lundgren

Investing in leaders

Investments like the Patterson Fellowship are crucial. Districts cannot simply wait for strong leaders to emerge. Nor can they simply hope to keep them in place. They need to create conditions so school leaders can succeed and remain in posts that directly impact the lives of students.

In a 2014 study, the Bush Institute and New Leaders identified four areas in which districts can make this happen:

  • Align goals, strategies, structures, and resources so that all staff members are working on increasing student achievement;
  • Create a sense of shared responsibility, balanced autonomy, and continuous learning and improvement;
  • Effectively manage and support principals, including through regular feedback and opportunities for development; and
  • Give principals the authority and backing to manage the talent on their campuses.

Those aims sound like common sense, but districts do not commonly have policies in all of these areas. It is particularly difficult putting them in place across the board.

Balanced autonomy, for example, requires districts to oversee campuses and supply them with resources while also giving principals the freedom to implement policies. School boards, however, can upend that balance by putting too much authority in the central office or, conversely, at the campus level.

Still, districts can create the right set of conditions for success. Consider the networking opportunities the D.C. district creates through the Patterson Fellowship. Participating principals meet with other leaders, including with the chancellor of D.C.’s schools and the district’s chief of human capital. Lundgren attributes those opportunities to helping her feel comfortable at the outset to call the right administrators for help.

The district supports principals by assigning assistant superintendents to oversee a cluster of principals. Lundgren’s assistant superintendent visits the campus regularly, working on issues like instruction, hiring, and budgeting. Together, they also review data to track Reed’s progress.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the role of such supervisors. They spend time with their principals, getting to know their strengths and weaknesses. As one principal interviewed for the Bush Institute/New Leaders’ report said: “My manager helps me define what the real work is, and then helps me improve at doing the work.”

The principal coaching has a ripple effect. Lundgren concentrates on modeling good practices for Reed’s teachers, especially in the area of instruction. She regularly observes them and constantly provides feedback.

Why effective principals matter

Most important, strategies like these pay off for students. Results from the 2015-2016 school year show that Reed’s students, most of whom are economically disadvantaged, met or exceeded four out of the five academic goals D.C.’s chancellor set for the school.

What’s more, 42 percent of Reed’s students scored at an important level on the national math exam that the district gives as part of Common Core. They scored at the level that shows they would be ready for college or a good career after high school. Similarly, 35 percent of their students scored at the college/career ready level on the English Language Arts exam. Both the math and English scores increased noticeably from the previous year, and were ahead of the district’s levels.

A growing body of scholarship backs up the anecdotal evidence of a campus like Reed Elementary. The Wallace Foundation has found that effective principals can add as much as 20 percent to the achievement of their students. In a 2013 Education Next report, Gregory Branch, Eric Hanushek, and Steven Rivkin found that “highly effective principals raise the achievement of a typical student in their schools.” This impact is even greater in schools serving disadvantaged students.

Yet as Branch, Hanushek, and Rivkin also discovered, the flipside is that ineffective leaders are associated with decreases in student achievement and teacher retention. The two sides of this coin are why it is crucial for districts to have the right policies to attract, develop, and retain strong principals. They need to be intentional about them, too.

The success of a leader like Lundgren shouldn’t depend upon whether she happens to have, say, a good mentor. District policy should state that principals will have supervisors who share the vision of effective leadership.

Lundgren didn’t plan on becoming a school leader, but she is well on her way to becoming one thanks to the training and support she has received from the district. But how many great leaders like Lundgren are not getting this support? What can districts do to ensure all capable leaders get this attention?

DENVER: How one district makes school leaders

Today’s effective principals are instructional leaders, multiply talent throughout the building, and create expectations. They are not like the old school principal with the booming voice and authoritarian manner.

Rarely, though, do such leaders suddenly appear. Districts must make them, starting with the superintendent’s commitment.

Tom Boasberg, the head of Denver Public Schools (DPS), knows well the challenge of making leaders. Boasberg has seen leadership from a variety of perspectives.

After teaching in China, the Stanford-educated lawyer served as chief of staff for the chairman of Hong Kong's first Democratic Party. He then worked for the Federal Communications Commission and later a telecommunications company. By the time he landed Denver's head job, Boasberg had learned lessons from leaders in government, politics, and business.

A primary goal of his tenure has been to build leaders that improve student achievement. To Boasberg and his colleagues, this has meant redefining the job of a principal; hiring leaders who can meet the modern demands of being a principal; training and supporting them; and giving them the freedom to do their work.

One person can’t do it all, so principals need to attract talented teachers, motivate them and build strong teams of teachers. This is a tall order, and it starts with a willingness to learn.

Tom Boasberg (Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Denver’s strategies

Denver’s hiring strategy starts with a clear definition of the role of principals. Defining the goal started under Michael Bennet, Boasberg’s predecessor, and accelerated when DPS under Boasberg developed a framework for what a principal is supposed to do. The process involved input from principals themselves.

With the idea in mind, the district has sought out talent. DPS identifies prospective leaders, and then puts them through a number of tasks so they can successfully lead a school.

The training part comes next, which districts often cannot do solely by themselves. Denver, for example, trains some of its future principals and assistant principals through the University of Denver’s Ritchie Program for School Leaders. No preparation program guarantees success, but they collaborate in such ways as matching new principals with coaches and mentors.

DPS’ training also includes assigning teams from the front office to work directly with principals. They answer questions on everything from budgets to personnel to benefits.

Like Washington, D.C., DPS supports its principals by assigning them a coach, or principal manager. In fact, Denver Public Schools now has a ratio of about one instructional superintendent for every eight principals.

This ratio is extraordinary and important. In some large districts, the ratio can be as high as one supervisor for every 40 or more principals. That’s too large. To be effective, supervisors simply cannot be spread too thin.

Denver has been intentional about the low ratio, too. It has cut spending elsewhere to invest in this part of its work. The district even got rid of some meetings at headquarters so supervisors can spend more time on campuses.

Of course, the position of principal manager only works as well as the people who occupy it and the tools they have at their disposal. DPS attempts to hire and support principal managers that have shown a knack for leading multiple schools, and are recognized for their abilities to coach other leaders.

The district also supplies principals and their managers data about their schools and information about effective leadership. That way, they can support their coaching and development.

When it comes to freeing up principals to do their job, Denver’s strategy includes increasing the authority of principals to run their schools. As an example, principals and their school-based teams ultimately decide the curriculum. The district may recommend programs but the principals determine which curriculum to use.

At the same time, the district pays attention to the school's work and aligns resources such as human resource personnel to make sure the campus is meeting its mission. This, again, is part of recognizing that responsibility for a school’s success rests on the front office and the principal.

It’s all about being intentional

Some of these fundamentals are in play elsewhere as well. You see them in such places as the Hillsborough district in Florida, the Charlotte-Mecklenberg district in North Carolina, and the Dallas district in Texas.

Districts that develop strong leaders know the role of the school leader has been elevated over the last several decades. Principals must lead the way or their schools and students will be at risk.

Students, after all, must meet rising academic standards if they are going to compete in a hyper-competitive economy. Schools also need to show their students are actually learning and progressing.

To grow strong school leaders, districts need to shift their thinking about who does what in their districts. They need to make the principal’s job more doable, more protected, and more supported so that the job appeals to our most talented professionals.

This needs to be a job that people truly want to do, and are able to do effectively. This is a tall order, as Tom Boasberg says. But schools, parents, and communities benefit when districts are able to make -- and keep -- great principals.

NEW MEXICO: How one state helps prepare principals

When Hanna Skandera began leading the New Mexico Department of Public Education in 2010, she knew there were schools in her state that needed to improve. So, she and her deputy secretary, Leighann Lenti, set out to see where improvement was happening. They looked for bright spots — and found them.

One fact that stood out from the beginning was that New Mexico had success stories with effective principals, but this knowledge and practice was not being widely shared with those principals who needed help. This evidence, combined with what they already knew about the importance of principals, proved they needed to increase resources for training aspiring principals and supporting sitting ones. And, as state leaders, they knew they had a major role to play in making this happen.

Skandera and her team first developed a program to train principals in low-performing schools on turn-around strategies. They likewise launched an initiative to train turn-around leaders to work in low-performing schools.

These programs were a great start to building talent, but one thing was missing. Skandera and Lenti quickly realized that some principals who went through them were excelling and some were not.

Related Video

Holly Kuzmich, executive director, Bush Institute: Strong principals matter

Laura Garza, principal, Annie Webb Blanton Elementary: The challenges of being a principal

What made the difference?

It turns out the principals who excelled were in districts whose superintendents were willing to revise policies and practices to support principals. The superintendents and their central office staff removed barriers, simplified procedures, and did whatever was necessary to support their great principals.

The principals who were not as successful were in districts that did the opposite. This realization spurred the programs to add a new condition. Superintendents must agree to support any principal who wants to go through one of these programs. Otherwise, the effort won’t pay off.

New Mexico started working on its principal pipeline well before Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015. But other states will likely be tackling these kinds of issues in the next decade.

The new federal law focuses on research into the role of strong principals. In fact, ESSA provides states and school districts unprecedented opportunities to support principals and their school districts, which, in turn will improve instructional leadership for teachers.

As states take up this task, we know what supports and training for principals matter. For example, we know that:

  • A lengthy residency, where principals-in-training have real autonomy to make decisions, is critical;
  • The quality of the principal pool improves when there is seamless support from a preparation program to working in a district;
  • Principals should be evaluated upon well-thought out leadership standards;
  • Competitive compensation attracts higher quality candidates to schools with more difficult working conditions;
  • States need a sustained look at improving supports for principals. Doing this once and moving on doesn’t work; and
  • States and districts need to avoid one-size-fits-all solutions without evidence of their effectiveness.

At the same time, there are many things we don’t know. For example, we don’t know:

  • Exactly what components principal preparation should include;
  • Precisely which supports should be provided at which time for a new principal;
  • Which measures provide the most useful feedback to improve principal performance;
  • What attracts principals to work in low-performing schools; and
  • What monetary and non-monetary incentives help keep principals in their schools longer.

Under ESSA, states and districts alike will have the chance to focus on the principal pipeline. They can receive funding to invest in developing talented principals, and the opportunity to determine how that money will be spent.

Unfortunately, states and districts have not done this well in the past. But a state like New Mexico shows that it can be done.

* * *

Along with remembering our own principals, we have likely heard about that one great principal who, like Superman, swoops in to save the day. Yet what we know from stories of leaders like Katie Lundgren, as well as from ample research, is that districts can’t simply wait for superstars to appear. They are not afforded that luxury in a world where their students must know how to constantly keep up with changing global economic conditions.

Districts instead must be serious about identifying future leaders, equipping them with the skills to succeed on a campus, and supporting those principals throughout their careers.

No school district does this perfectly. But we know that districts in places like Washington and Denver are trying to do this. The more all districts can make the principal pipeline a priority, the more they can help students succeed.

The same is true for states. They have new power through the Every Student Succeeds Act to develop leaders like Katie Lundgren and support superintendents like Tom Boasberg.

May they, as well as school districts, succeed in this crucial quest. Nothing less than the progress of America’s students depends upon the making of a great principal.


Eva Myrick Chiang
Eva Myrick Chiang

Eva Myrick Chiang, Deputy Director for Education Reform and Research and Evaluation, manages the Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) program while providing support in other areas of the education reform initiative as well.

Prior to joining the George W. Bush Institute, she taught pre-k through college level students in a variety of teaching roles in private, public, and charter schools, and her passion is teaching students to read. She has been a trainer of teachers, and most recently she held the position of Director of Education in the central administration office of an urban charter school. 

Eva received her undergraduate degree from Baylor University, and received a master's in teaching with an emphasis on reading education from Texas Woman's University. Eva also earned her law degree from Texas A&M School of Law in Fort Worth. She is currently finishing her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Texas A&M University. 

Full Bio
Matthew Clifford
Matthew Clifford

Matthew Clifford, Ph.D. is a George W. Bush Institute Education Reform fellow. Dr. Clifford’s research uses the most rigorous methods to examine the impact of innovative principal preparation, performance evaluation, and professional development efforts by states and districts. Within his portfolio of studies, he is principal investigator for the George W. Bush Institute’s study of principal preparation program impact and district conditions supporting principal retention. He also currently co-directs an experimental study on principal professional development impact funded by the U.S. Department of Education, and four quasi-experimental studies examining the effects of innovative principal professional development.

In addition to his empirical work, Clifford consults nationally and internationally on educational policies and directs efforts to design state/district supports for improved principal practice. Through the , Center on Great Teachers and Leaders at American Institutes for Research, he regularly engages with state departments of education, governors’ offices, and other policymakers to develop school leadership pipeline initiatives and professional development programs that support the current and next generation of school principals. He has worked closely with districts in Idaho, Maine, Missouri, New York, and the U.S. Virgin Islands to design practical and fair principal evaluation systems, and co-wrote Rethinking Principal Evaluation (2012), which was published by National Association of Elementary School Principals and National Association of Secondary School Principals. He has authored several publications on principal evaluation design, including the Practical Guide to Designing Comprehensive Principal Evaluation Systems(2011), The Five Essential Practices of School Leadership (2014), Framework for Evaluating Assistant Principal Performance (2015), and Quality School Leadership Identification (2010) guides. He is currently validating principal observation instruments to support school leaders’ practices as teacher evaluators and data team leaders. He has published multiple academic works on school leadership and principal professional development. Clifford has been studying and working with school principals as a researcher for the past 17 years, and is a lifelong educator, having worked as a teacher, administrator, and professional developer. 

Full Bio
William McKenzie
William McKenzie

William McKenzie is editorial director for the George W. Bush Institute, where he also serves as editor of The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute.

Active in education issues, he co-teaches an education policy class at SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development. He also participates in the Bush Institute’s school accountability project.

Before joining the Bush Institute, the Fort Worth native served 22 years as an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News and led the newspaper’s Texas Faith blog. The University of Texas graduate’s columns appeared nationwide and he has won a Pulitzer Prize and commentary awards from the Education Writers Association, the American Academy of Religion, and the Texas Headliners Foundation, among other organizations. He still contributes columns and essays for the Morning News and The Weekly Standard.

Before joining the News in 1991, he earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Texas at Arlington and spent a dozen years in Washington, D.C. During that time, he edited the Ripon Forum.

McKenzie has served as a Pulitzer Prize juror, on the board of a homeless organization, and on governing committees of a Dallas public school. He also is an elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, where he lives with his wife and their twin children.

Full Bio