These Funders See Principals as the Key to Better Schools

When it comes raising student achievement, much of the attention focuses on teacher quality. But there’s one critical area that many policymakers and funders are missing: better principals.

Years of education research concludes that quality teachers are the single most important factor driving improved student achievement. The same research, however, says quality campus leadership by principals runs a close second. In fact, quality principals may be a prerequisite for better achieving students. Research commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, covering 180 schools in 9 states, reached the following conclusion: “We have not found a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership.” Researchers from the universities of Toronto and Minnesota conducted the study.

Years ago, principals were seen as building managers, tasked with overseeing campus budgets, ensuring the proper maintenance of campus facilities, managing school schedules, and disciplining misbehaving students. This notion of campus administrators began to change in the 1990s. Today’s principals are expected to be instructional leaders, visiting classrooms to observe instruction, coaching teachers, and providing feedback.

The importance of principals is not news to Wallace, which has spent more than a decade working with states and school districts on school leadership, and commissioning research on the value of good principals. In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Wallace President Will Miller pointed to the need for more and better principals, and for greater support for these men and women on the job. Miller also called for Congress debating the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to make principals a priority, noting that only 4 percent of federal education dollars are spent cultivating these individuals.

Considering how much attention is paid to leadership in other professions such as business, politics, and the military, it is unusual that leadership in K-12 education receives so little investment from policymakers or from funders. Cultivating quality teachers and developing great principals are not mutually exclusive goals. Both are essential for good schools.

Wallace is not alone, however. There are other funders who tout the importance of school principals and are writing checks to support projects designed to grow and support these school leaders. Many of the funders listed below are supporting principal support and development at the local level. Organizations with ideas or projects aimed at developing and supporting better school leadership should reach out to their local foundations and philanthropists for similar support.

  • WALLACE FOUNDATION: Far and away the top funder interested in issues related to school principals. In 2011, Wallace awarded $75 million to six school districts under its Principal Pipeline Initiative to help the districts develop new instructional leaders. But the funder’s interest in school leadership goes beyond developing principals into instructional leaders. Wallace also wants to rethink the role of district central offices, making them function as more of a support system, freeing principals to spend more time observing and coaching teachers. Plus, if you’re a researcher interested in studying school leadership, this funder may be your best friend.
  • CHICAGO PUBLIC EDUCATION FUND: This funder noticed that the best public schools in Chicago have one thing in common: They are led by outstanding principals. In 2013, CPEF launched a five-year, $20 million program aimed at increasing the number of high-quality principals in Chicago Public Schools. The funder also supports professional development for principals through its Chicago Principals Fellowship, which also has support from the Crown Family Philanthropies. 
  • WALTON FAMILY FOUNDATION: Walton is often pegged as a charter school funder, but its education grantmaking also extends to traditional public schools in its home state of Arkansas. In 2014, Walton awarded nearly $2 million to the University of Arkansas for a Principal Fellows Program, designed to create a corps of new school administrators to provide more effective leadership in high-needs public schools in Arkansas. Fellows would undergo a year of training, after which they would complete internships where they would be mentored by master principals. Such programs have been used in other areas, including New York City and Dallas, Texas.
  • BROAD FOUNDATION: The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has also long worked to improve school leadership and management, which it sees as a linchpin of successful public schools. Training and supporting principals has been part of that work in different ways. This element of Broad's mission is undertaken through several initiatives and partnerships, most notably by the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems, an operation that is separate from the foundation and is not a grantmaker. 

Beyond these funders, there are various other efforts underway to strengthen leadership by principals, at different levels. Last year, for example, I wrote about David Tepper and Alan Fournier, two wealthy hedge fund guys from New Jersey with a background in education philanthropy and political activism in that state who put up $3 million for a principal training program in the Jersey City Public Schools.

Related: What Are These Two Hedge Fund Guys Doing in Jersey City?

We've seen other local efforts like that over time. What's surprising is that we haven't seen more given just how important principals are. Maybe that will start to change.