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Prioritizing Principals Guidebook

Two sets of central office practices that enable true partnerships between central office and principals.

Report by Gina Ikemoto May 19, 2021

Why Focus on Central Office?

Principals play a critical role in school improvement and student success. Research shows that principals are second only to teachers in school-level factors that affect student achievement. A recent review found that replacing a below-average principal with an above-average principal tended to have larger impacts on student learning than other educational interventions. The principal role is particularly important in low-performing schools, where improvement does not occur without strong leadership.

Strong principals ensure that the school culture, instruction, staffing, and systems are all designed to support the achievement of every student. Principals have a multiplier effect, transforming classroom pockets of excellence into schoolwide systems of effective practice. Principals also play an important role in improving equity by disrupting systems of inequality and fostering culturally responsive classrooms.5 Strong principals are great bosses.

Principals need the support of their district’s central office in order to lead their campuses well. This guidebook addresses how the structure and behavior of central office teams can make or break what happens on campuses. Those who are organized and authentically operate with a students-first mentality support the equitable achievement of all students. Those who are focused on compliance and nonstudent-focused outcomes can distract and disrupt the work of principals.

Not surprisingly, a RAND study of six districts implementing comprehensive strategies to improve principal leadership found that their efforts had widespread positive effects on principals and in turn on students. Students in schools led by the impacted principals markedly outperformed those attending comparison schools in both math and reading, and principal retention improved. What is more, the strategies used by these districts were a feasible and relatively inexpensive approach to improving student achievement. The COVID-19 pandemic has arguably made central office support for principals even more critical as schools were called upon to solve not only a transition to remote learning but also operational issues such as lunch distributions, device and Internet access, and safety protocols. Many principals—especially those serving communities of historically marginalized students—need guidance, resources, and technical assistance from their central offices to address these demands.

The George W. Bush Institute’s School Leadership Initiative (SLI) District Cohort Research Project is a five-year effort with four school districts to test two frameworks—Principal Talent Management (PTM) and Effective Implementation. This collaboration is designed to improve how districts prepare, recruit, support, and retain principals.

This guidebook, which focuses on principals’ Working Environment, is the fifth in a series. Each guidebook addresses one or more components of the Bush Institute’s PTM Framework, including Principal Preparation, Principal Recruitment and Selection, Principal Supervision, Principal Professional Learning, Principal Performance Evaluation, Principal Compensation and Incentives, and the Working Environment for Principals.

Given the importance of context, there is no one right way to address the components for improvement. However, all SLI cohort districts found it helpful to start with establishing leadership standards that define the knowledge and skills expected of principals in that district.

This guidebook focuses on one aspect of the working environment: how central offices can organize themselves to serve schools so that schools can serve all children well.