The Top Funder Working to Bolster K-12 Principals Has Some Advice for Policymakers

With all of the attention paid to preparing, recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers in classrooms across the country, another important aspect of K-12 education has received far less attention: the quality of leadership by school principals.

A number of ed funders have been working this niche, but probably none have worked it harder or longer than the Wallace Foundation. Since 2000, when its school leadership initiative began, the New York-based funder has awarded more than $300 million in grants for programs and research centered around recruiting, supporting and promoting effective leadership by campus principals. We've reported before on Wallace's funding in this area, as well as that of other funders who care about principals. 

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Now comes a new report from Wallace that focuses on the crucial role that state policies can play to ensure a supply of great principals. The foundation is hoping to broaden the thinking of lawmakers in most states that so far have paid little attention to the crucial role played by principals, choosing instead to concentrate on teachers. 

The emphasis on teachers is understandable. After all, an effective teacher is the single most important school-based factor driving student achievement. However, quality principal leadership runs a close second among school-based influences on student achievement. This is especially true in high-needs schools, such as those serving large concentrations of students from socioeconomically disadvantaged families. Principals shape the conditions for high-quality instruction in their schools and are a crucial factor in determining whether teachers stay in such schools.

In the Wallace report, Developing Excellent School Principals to Advance Teaching and Learning: Considerations for State Policy, author Paul Manna, a political scientist at the College of William and Mary, asks what actions state policy makers can take to ensure that schools have outstanding principals to advance effective teaching for all students. He outlines three areas for state policy makers to consider: state agendas, policy levers that identify and train aspiring principals, and contextual factors that impact how state policies are likely to be implemented.

It's not surprising that Wallace is hoping to sway state officials on this issue, since it's already working with these folks and a host of other players to boost principals. Wallace's school leadership grants have gone to a wide range of organizations. While many funders have focused on national education nonprofits and charter school organizations, recipients of Wallace funding have included institutions of higher education, policy research firms, and state education agencies. Even local school districts, including urban school systems, have received school leadership funding from Wallace. School districts that have received funding in the past year or so have included the Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma, the Hillsborough County School Board in Tampa, FL, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education in North Carolina.

Emphasis on strong school leadership is long overdue on the part of state lawmakers. Fortunately, school districts and others who want to ensure a supply of good principals have an active and engaged partner in Wallace.