Quality Leadership Matters Blog


Summary of Assistant Principal Report from the Wallace Foundation

May 11th, 2021 by


Summary of Assistant Principal Report from the Wallace Foundation

“Now is a critical time to reexamine the assistant principal role.” 

–Goldring, Rubin, & Herrmann (2021)

The UCEA community shares a deep commitment to the preparation and support of all educational leaders in K12 schools. A new report, sponsored by The Wallace Foundation, highlights a vital but under-researched role within this landscape: the assistant principal. Assistant principals are essential to the work of so many schools and the building of meaningful connections among schools, families, and communities.

Researchers Ellen Goldring, Mollie Rubin, and Melissa Herrmann authored the report “The Role of Assistant Principals: Evidence and Insights for Advancing School Leadership.” This report provides a synthesis of 79 research studies on assistant principals from 2000-2019. They also conducted an original analysis of shifts in assistant principal prevalence and demographics over time, using data from the Schools and Staffing and National Teacher and Principals Surveys, along with deep dives into data from Pennsylvania and Tennessee. 

Wallace also hosted a webinar with the authors that included analysis from leaders in the field and discussion of implications for policy and practice. 

This combination of a synthesis of the existing literature and a new analysis of state and national data provides numerous insights into the current state of the assistant principal role. These insights cover dynamics such as shifts in the demographics of assistant principals over time; their roles within schools; and their place within the principal pipeline and community. The authors also look for findings on possible links between assistant principals and student performance. 

Key Findings

  • Shifts in Prevalence
    The authors find that the number of assistant principals has increased in the last 25 years, and that growth has outpaced the growth of principals. This is particularly true for elementary schools, and the number of principals with prior assistant principal experience has increased across school levels. 
  • Variation in Leadership Roles
    Most assistant principals support schools in the areas of administrative management, instructional leadership, and student discipline. However, other areas of leadership–and levels of responsibility for them–vary widely. Assistant principals can be involved in a broad range of activities, but assignment of those activities is typically up to the discretion of the principal. 
  • Lack of Preparation that Focuses on Assistant Principals
    Although most assistant principals receive training through principal preparation programs, those programs generally do not tailor training for the assistant principal role. While some assistant principals have in-service supports and development opportunities available to them, those opportunities are inconsistent across the field. 
  • Racial & Gender Equity Concerns
    Educators of color are more likely than their white counterparts to become assistant principals but less likely to become principals. Women are less likely than men to be promoted to either leadership role. 
  • Opportunities for Future Research
    The research base on assistant principals is slim and varied in both focus and quality. The authors call for more research, in general, on assistant principals and note several advantageous areas for more and better research. They point to areas such as effects on student achievement and connections between assistant principal performance and the effectiveness of those who go on to become principals. 

What this Means for UCEA

As highlighted in this report, assistant principals are instrumental in the day-to-day work of school communities. In considering this research, several important implications come to light for stakeholders across the field of educational leadership. 

  • Program Analysis & Improvement
    We play an important role in supporting a skilled, diverse corps of assistant principals. To do so, we must begin with a review and analysis of our admissions policies and practices to ensure that we have diverse and inclusive student cohorts. We can also explore how to more intentionally develop assistant principal leadership skills, given that most people serve in those positions before becoming principals. Additionally, we have an essential role in helping the field learn more about assistant principals. This report makes clear that the field needs much more research on the realities and possibilities of the assistant principal role. 
  • Diversifying the Leadership Pipeline
    This research highlights the troubling issues of inequities in the assistant principal role and pipeline. We need to work with local district partners to provide consistent, ongoing, and equitable mentorship and professional development opportunities that promote the success and advancement of women and people of color in educational leadership. We should also support the building of a more accessible and diverse principal pipeline and align our efforts with our partners to promote greater diversity in the teaching profession. 
  • Strengthening Leader & Policy Partnerships
    The authors argue that the educational leadership field and policymakers should develop a unique set of evaluation standards for assistant principals. While this recommendation is a matter of some debate, discussions around current PSEL standards and their use to support assistant principals are important. Assistant principals are typically evaluated using principal evaluation standards. If that practice is to continue, explicit and detailed guidance from overseeing agencies regarding the application of those standards to assistant principal evaluation would be highly valuable. 

Final Thoughts

UCEA is dedicated to supporting the development and success of all educational leaders, including assistant principals. These educators need high-quality, equitable opportunities to learn, grow, and leverage the skills they have to offer schools and children. 

UCEA has an important role in fostering productive, supportive relationships among ed leadership stakeholders. This includes providing a bridge among leadership preparation programs; educational researchers; partners who work directly with practitioners; and policymakers. Our commitment to equity drives us to continually focus our conversations, research, and practices to align with current–and future–needs of schools, communities, and partners. 


Leave a Reply