Education leaders convened in Nashville, Tennessee, to discuss the impact assistant principals can have on building and diversifying education leadership pipelines in a Thursday morning session at the National Conference on Education, held by AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
According to a “2022 Voice of the Superintendent Survey” released Thursday by education company EAB, nearly half of district leaders say they are considering or planning to leave their job in the next two to three years.
Likewise, a National Association of Secondary School Principals survey released in December found 38% of principals expect to leave the profession in the next three years.
“We know, today, the issues superintendents are facing with staffing and the concern we have with what is, in essence, a diminishing pipeline,” AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech told attendees. “A very important part of that pipeline process, obviously, are assistant principals.”
“This has a particularly negative impact on schools that serve the poor, the vulnerable and students of color,” said Sharon Contreras, superintendent of Guilford County Schools in Greensboro, North Carolina. “We have a fractured principal pipeline right now.”
But capitalizing on the potential of assistant principals and building pipelines to top roles requires clearly defining what that role can be and focusing resources on building intentional pathways.
The state of the assistant principalship
According to “The Role of Assistant Principals: Evidence and Insights for Advancing School Leadership,” a report commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, the number of assistant principals jumped 83%, from around 44,000 to about 81,000, in the 25 years between the 1990-91 and 2015-16 school years.
More research is needed to understand exactly why that boom occurred, said Ellen Goldring, professor of educational policy and leadership at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College and a co-author of the report.
Additionally, the number of principals who have assistant principal experience has also increased, from about half to more than three quarters of current principals.
Assistant principals are more common in city and suburban schools, and schools that have higher percentages of assistant principals also tend to have higher percentages of students of color. Nearly 70% of secondary schools have assistant principals, compared to about half of elementary schools.
For instance, the average percentage of Latinx students and Black students in schools with assistant principals was 25% and 19%, respectively, compared to 19% and 11% in schools without assistant principals. Conversely, the average percentage of White students in schools with assistant principals was 47%, versus 61% in schools without the role.
The Wallace Foundation report also cites studies of administrative data across six states — Florida, Illinois, Iowa, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Tennessee — showing assistant principals are more likely to be people of color than are principals or teachers.
This, Goldring said, raises the question of whether educators of color have to take an extra step on the way to a principalship not required of their White peers.
It additionally highlights other barriers educators of color face on leadership pathways. Along with lack of access to mentorship, especially for women of color, and discrimination in the schools they’re placed at, educators of color who take on assistant principal roles also tend to be assigned different leadership tasks.
Frequently, this takes the form of Black and brown educators being pulled into these positions to essentially serve as disciplinarians of students of color.
“I implore us to stop doing this, to create these Black and brown men who are disciplinarians,” said Contreras. “All we’re really doing is asking them to come manage Black and brown bodies. It’s unfair. It’s unfair to the rest of the teachers in the building who should be honing their own skills in how to build relationships with all children so we don’t build these cultures of disciplinarians.”
This is part of the reason for the increase in assistant principals, rather than a desire to boost instructional leadership, Contreras said, adding it’s a culture that must be broken because the current model continues to force assistant principals into roles as disciplinarians or building managers and not much more.
Women also remain underrepresented among both assistant principals and principals, accounting for 52% of both roles, relative to their proportion among teachers (77%). Women face barriers into leadership that include mentorship opportunities, assigned tasks, family responsibilities, differences in aspirations or confidence, and discrimination, according to the Wallace Foundation report.
How districts can improve pipelines
While research suggests more of assistant principals’ time is spent providing instructional leadership, not all are getting leadership roles and responsibilities that best prepare them for the principalship, and there’s no research on how tasks are assigned to these roles or why the role varies, Goldring said.
While there are no unique professional standards for assistant principals, there are specific tasks associated with the role that improve school climate and student outcomes, she said.
These include coaching teachers, being visible in the classroom, and attending to cultural inclusivity. There are still many knowledge gaps to fill to inform policy and practice, Goldring said, but there are steps districts can take to improve access and equity, remove barriers, and better prepare assistant principals with operational and instructional leadership skills they’ll need to be principals.
To identify and address barriers to advancement for educators of color and women, the Wallace Foundation report suggested districts can:
- Conduct equity audits to help identify and remove barriers to advancement.
- Examine who is receiving mentoring and professional development, and who is being tapped for advancement.
- Collect and analyze data by race and gender.
To ensure assistant principals are being prepared to lead schools:
- Adapt standards and leadership tasks consistent with the role’s function as a stepping stone to principalship.
- Create assistant principal evaluations appropriate to the role.
- Ensure principals have the skills to mentor assistant principals and equitably delegate tasks to develop their leadership skills.
What this looks like in practice
Guilford County has taken steps on this front by creating both an Assistant Principals Leadership Academy, in partnership with New Leaders, a nonprofit focused on helping to prepare education leaders, and a Guilford Aspiring Leaders Academy.
Guilford’s APLA is focused on ensuring assistant principals are equipped with the knowledge, skills and resources to build capacity and provide support to prepare them for the principalship, Contreras said.
The goal is to create a collective culture of equity, efficacy and cultural competencies that drive student achievement, while building a sustainable talent pipeline to advance a culture of high performance and deeper learning, Contreras said.
GALA, on the other hand, focuses on creating transformational leaders to address inequity and systemic racism, and on building a strong pipeline for leaders of color, she said.
“We need to make sure we are placing Black and brown administrators across the board in schools across districts, irrespective of the demographics of that school, so they have these various experiences,” said Contreras. “And when they are struggling in low-performing schools that have, over time, not received the sort of support and funding they need, we stand by these administrators and provide them all the support they need.”
That includes making sure assistant principals are fully prepared to deal with the situations they’re going into, she said.
Greenville County Schools in Greenville, South Carolina, has developed similar pipeline initiatives, said Superintendent W. Burke Royster.
These efforts include the district’s LEAD (Lead, Empower, Advocate, Develop) Institute, which aims to establish a student-centered culture, head effective professional learning communities, conduct coaching cycles with targeted feedback, and use data to support improved instruction and student achievement.
The district has also partnered with nearby Clemson University to provide tuition assistance for an Education Leadership degree that leads to South Carolina certification as a building-level administrator.
Furthermore, Contreras advised there must be more leadership roles available in schools beyond just principal and assistant principal, such as master teachers. That model, for example, could help keep the best instructors in the classroom while still providing leadership opportunities.
“There’s a lot of work to be done in this area, but it is doable,” Contreras said.