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Operating in the Dark

What outdated state policies and data gaps mean for effective school leadership

Report by By Kerri L. Briggs, Gretchen Rhines Cheney, Jacquelyn Davis, Kerry Ann Moll July 29, 2013

Operating in the Dark, an analysis of the Alliance to Reform Education Leadership’s Principal Policy State Survey findings, is a first-of-its-kind report on states’ policies that affect principal preparation, licensure, tenure, and data collection.  This report explores how states are using their authority to increase the supply of effective principals focused on raising student achievement.  The findings are based on self-reported data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Executive Summary

The United States faces a shortage of high-quality school leaders at a time when the importance of principals is more obvious than ever. Principals oversee the hiring, development, and management of teachers who account for the largest share of a school’s impact on student learning. Because principals manage the teaching force, they are the ones who are best positioned to ensure that every student has a great teacher year after year and thus the student learning growth needed to be college and career ready. The key to improving schools is giving students consecutive years of access to effective teachers.

Being a principal is not easy work. Effective principals need strong instructional and leadership skills to promote growth in student learning, manage their human capital, develop and support teachers, use data to drive student learning improvements, and build a culture of high expectations for the adults and students in the building. We need to do more to boost the supply of high-quality principals to ensure that every school is led by a highly prepared leader who can drive student achievement.

States play an important role in cultivating leadership talent. While districts hire principals, states control the entry point to the principalship, overseeing the preparation and licensure of school leaders.

The George W. Bush Institute’s Alliance to Reform Education Leadership launched a study to explore how states are using their authority to increase the supply of high-quality principals who could raise student achievement in schools.


The Alliance to Reform Education Leadership and this publication would not be possible without the generous would not be possible without generous support from: AT&T, Bass Foundation, Sid W. Richardson Foundation, and The Prudential Foundation.  Additional funding has been provided by CME Group Foundation.