Researching the AP’s Role

The lead author of “The Role of Assistant Principals” report discusses the rise in AP numbers and where the position fits into educational leadership development.

Topics: Assistant Principals

There are more assistant principals in schools than ever before, says “The Role of Assistant Principals: Evidence and Insights for Advancing School Leadership,” a report released in April from Vanderbilt University and Mathematica and commissioned by The Wallace Foundation. But their position and career paths continue to be highly individualized.

The lead evaluator of The Wallace Foundation’s Principal Supervisor Initiative and lead author on the report, Vanderbilt University Professor Ellen Goldring has long focused her research on leadership’s impact on education policy and school improvement. But even she was surprised to find a lack of uniformity in the AP’s role.

APs Rising sat down with Goldring for an informal Q&A at NAESP’s Leadership Conference in July to talk about the report and what it reveals about the AP’s role and career trajectory. Here’s what she had to say:

Were there any surprises in the research?

Goldring: We were very surprised by the amount of growth in the numbers of APs. So many schools have assistant principals today, and it is such a linchpin in leadership development, but we really don’t know that much about it. [There’s a] lack of clarity around strategic resource allocation: What do district leaders think they are buying when they put their funds into the AP role versus, for example, reducing class sizes or hiring more teachers?

What explains the proliferation of APs?

Goldring: We don’t actually have the answer. One of the hypotheses is that the principal role has become unmanageable in both expectations and scope. The natural progression is toward more leaders to help the principal or school implement its programs.

The second hypothesis is that principals burn out, and there is a lot of turnover. By providing additional support and personnel, schools can help retain principals. The third [hypothesis] is that—especially in schools with more disadvantaged students—the school environment is more complex and schools need more adults and leaders to manage it.

Has this led to the development of other leadership roles?

Goldring: In general, I think this is the case, but I haven’t seen any research. If you think about the careers in education over the last decades, there has been a lot of differentiating among roles. We have instructional coaches we never used to have; we have teacher leaders we never used to have; we have social-emotional support teachers, and so on.

There has been the argument that education should provide more differentiated careers for teachers who want to stay in a classroom, but have options in the field. Principals, department chairs, and assistant principals have come into play. It’s probably a good thing, but we don’t have any research on what the best pattern might be.

What kinds of experiences does the AP need to move up?

Goldring: Things such as coaching teachers to be highly effective, especially in states where there is a clear evaluation rubric and the assistant principal is getting feedback about standards. Also, having the opportunity to work with highly effective principals.

If you are in a nonproductive school environment or not being given the opportunity to enact the tasks of a principal, it will be harder to move into the principalship. If you want to be a principal, [you need] the opportunity to engage in a broad swath of leadership responsibilities, not be tagged to one thing.

What should an AP do if there are no clear paths to building leadership?

Goldring: Each individual needs to take charge of their own situation and their own career, however difficult that may be. Be “planful” and clear about those goals. Seek out mentoring and support; social networking is important. Being open to learning is the key—putting yourself in opportunities where you can take risks, both in school and outside of school in the district and the community.

Every industry faces these “middle leader” situations. If districts have forward-thinking HR departments, career and professional development is really about thinking creatively about how to grow leaders and setting up those pathways. We need much better longitudinal studies to try to untangle what parts of the role should be emphasized to best prepare people for that next step.

Is it acceptable to think of the AP role as a terminal position?

Goldring: I think that’s an individual conversation, not something research is going to reveal. It’s wonderful if someone likes [the AP] role; they should be the best at it. Not everyone has to have the same pathway or goal.

Did the study find any evidence that having APs is better for students?

Goldring: If you are an AP in the same school in which you become a principal, it seems to have some effect. Principals value the experience; they think it made them better principals. [Having APs] indicates a positive school culture, but the number of studies is still very small.

Ian P. Murphy is senior editor of Principal magazine.