Best Practices for Supporting Assistant Principals

While they are often overlooked, new research shows how to help assistant principals grow.

This article is part of a series focusing on The Principal Pipeline, brought to you with support from The Wallace Foundation.

November, 2016, Volume 40, Issue 3

One of the most overlooked roles in a school is the assistant principal, researchers say. And as assistant principals (APs) are being tapped earlier and more often for the principalship, their roles must include more training for that job in a shorter time frame.

Traditionally, the AP was most often delegated to handling bus routes and discipline issues, but as the need for new principals increases, APs are being tapped to take on school leadership roles with fewer years experience as teachers or in administrative roles. While most APs aspire to a leadership role, a lack of experience and knowledge can hinder student learning and the effective management of their school and can lead to higher turnover.

The Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline project is working with six large school districts across the country to better recruit and prepare APs to move into the principalship. The multi-year project is building effective practices that other school districts can replicate.

A 2014 Wallace Foundation survey found that 84 percent of new principals in these districts had worked as APs before taking the lead role at their school, with a median five years of experience in that role. In a survey of thedistricts’ first-, second- and third-year APs, the Wallace Foundation found that nearly all planned to move up to other administrative jobs, with 84 percent aspiring to become principals in their districts. The six school districts involved in the Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline project heavily relied on the AP role as a direct pathway to the principalship.

The assistant principal role is ideal to use as a stepping stone to the principals’ office, NAESP Executive Director Gail Connelly says. But instead of being used as a residency to learn the ropes of the job, and the importance of the instructional component of the job, assistant principals are often consumed by the day-to-day “buses and building” issues.

“For assistant principals to be effective as possible, they deserve to have training and development to lead to principalship,” Connelly says. “This is now a reliable and preferred pathway to becoming a principal.”

What Works

NAESP and the Wallace Foundation have found that the most effective principals are able to engage their assistant principals and teacher leaders to lead the instructional aspects of their schools. For instance, Prince George’s County in Maryland engaged NAESP to train experienced principals as mentors for new principals.

“The more open a principal is to spreading leadership around, the better it is for student learning. Effective leadership from a variety of sources—principals, teachers, staff teams and others—is associated with better student performance on math and reading tests,” the Wallace Foundation reported.

So how can that happen? Proper pedagogy is essential. The Wallace Foundation surveyed first-, second-, and third-year assistant principals in five of the Pipeline project’s school districts on their leadership preparation, and found that high proportions of this group reported that their academic training had emphasized leadership for school improvement and instructional leadership.

But pedagogy cannot take the place of hands-on experience—and the Wallace Principal Pipeline project has in its preliminary reports identified several promising practices and strategies from the cohort of six school districts.

These school districts modified their pathways to the principalship to give APs more opportunities to “try out” the job, including instructional models, structured curricula, final-stage programs before taking the helm, and better access to mentors. Among the projects:

  • Denver Public Schools built a “Learn to Lead” program that gives selected APs a one-year residency at either their current school or a new school. This program allows participants to take on additional principal-like roles and develop leadership skills and perspectives that assistant principals normally would not see. Participants conduct case studies and are expected to learn from leaders both in schools and non-education organizations, the Wallace Foundation reported.
  • Gwinnett County in Georgia lengthened and redesigned the clinical component of its final-stage Aspiring Principals Program. The district also has hired recently retired principals on a part-time basis as “leader mentors” for novice principals.
  • Hillsborough County in Florida overhauled its Preparing New Principals program by revising the curriculum and adding a mentoring component, and it strengthened its policy of selecting new principals from among graduates of this final-stage program.
  • Charlotte-Mecklenburg used partners in higher education to redesign its on-the-job support for novice assistant principals. Other school districts also used partnerships with local universities to hone curriculum and training programs.

For the induction and resident programs, district officials told the Wallace Foundation that they cautioned principals not to take on a protege if they thought of that person as an extra administrator. They expressed concerns that some principals were wary of assigning their trainees tasks that could negatively affect their schools’ performance.

One district offical noted, “As a principal, you are faced with the tension of what is best for my school and what does this person need to grow as a leader, and how closely these align varies. We tried to be intentional about that…[but principals could think,] ‘here is a low-cost way to get good staff.’”

Finally, the school districts also took a closer look at all their support for new APs and at the programs and procedures they use to recruit teachers and other staff to become APs. Hillsborough County, for one, redesigned its Assistant Principal Induction Program, seeking to tighten its focus on the subset of leadership competencies that applied to assistant principals. Gwinnett County instituted a more rigorous selection process for the Aspiring Leader Program for assistant principal candidates.

The Wallace Foundation expects to release findings from its Principal Pipeline Initiative in 2018, but preliminary findings focusing on the role of the assistant principal have brought about change in numerous school districts that are implementing better training and supports for prospective principals and APs.

Each year NAESP honors APs through its National Outstanding Assistant Principal Program and highlights their efforts as exemplary adminstrators. You can learn more about the program and the best practices of past winners by visiting the program’s webpage.

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