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History and Background: School Leadership

Photo credit: Christian Horz/Adobe Stock

Back to School Leadership


The first formal principals emerged in urban school systems in the early 19th century as one- and two-room schoolhouses expanded to accommodate growing classrooms, according to a history of the principalship authored by Miami University Professor Kate Rousmaniere in History of Education Quarterly.

The role evolved from a single teacher managing the building and overseeing a group of students, to the head-teacher, teaching-principal, building principal, to the supervisory principal we know today, as a 1927 article by the National Education Association explained. Each step took principals further away from teaching and added more administrative responsibilities.

By the 1860s, building principals were common in cities. Duties ranged from overseeing discipline to ringing the bell, as the History of Education Quarterly article explained. Even as principals emerged in cities, the majority of rural schools continued without them.

At the outset, teaching experience was the only requirement for becoming a principal. Standards, duties, and qualifications became more common in the early 20th century. By the 1950s nearly a third of states had academic requirements for principals that were separate from those required for superintendents and other district leaders.

Women ran more than two-thirds of the nation’s elementary schools between the 1900s and 1950s, the History of Education Quarterly article notes.  A confluence of factors, from school consolidations, higher-education requirements, and male World War I and World War II veterans entering the profession, reduced the share of women leading schools.

The 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka dealt a blow to educators of color as Southern states demoted and fired Black educators and closed segregated schools.[8]

The Council of Chief State School Officers developed national standards for school leaders in 1996. Although they were not mandatory, the standards were adopted or adapted for use in 45 states and the District of Columbia. They were overhauled and renamed the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders in 2015 to reflect developments and research in school leadership and changing school demographics.


So, what exactly is the school principal’s role?

The principal sets the school’s vision, creates an environment that’s conducive to learning and makes sure that teachers have the necessary tools– training, knowledge, and resources—to help students succeed.

Practically, that means they’re responsible for hiring and assigning teachers and staff and providing them with professional development opportunities and other supports; evaluating teachers; managing school budgets; developing school schedules; working with parents, families, and the larger school community; and using school data to make decisions related to staff and students. Principals are also responsible for ensuring their buildings are in good condition and for implementing district policies and procedures.

The tension between how principals should divide their time between the operational parts of the job—things like transportation and facilities—and the instructional components—such as teacher evaluations and classroom visits—has been present since the beginning.

landmark study in 2004 by the Wallace Foundation demonstrating how principals affect student achievement sparked a push to develop principals as instructional leaders. Principals were expected to spend more time working with teachers and coaching them. But they and their central office bosses didn’t always know what activities improved teaching.

Principals in traditional public schools earn $98,700 a year, on average, more than their peers in charter and private schools.

Autonomy over hiring, spending, and curriculum vary from district to district. The vast majority of principals believe they have more influence over hiring and evaluating teachers than they do over discipline policies, curriculum, and choosing professional development for teachers.

A series of federal actions in the 2000s sparked a wave of complex, sometimes annual teacher evaluations that changed the principal’s job, seemingly overnight.

In a 2018 study, researchers found that while principals were spending more time in classrooms observing teaching, they were also devoting extra hours at nights and on weekends to finish their evaluations.

The Obama administration’s Race To the Top competitive grant program (launched in 2009) and waivers from certain provisions of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act increased pressure on principals to turn around low-performing schools or lose their jobs. (In late 2015, NCLB was replaced by a fresh overhaul of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act that rolled back many of its provisions.)

Race to the Top and NCLB waivers sparked principal-evaluation systems in which student-test scores factored heavily.

Today, the majority of aspiring principals attend university-based preparation programs, which typically consist of courses in school law, assessments, and budgets. Most programs include a clinical component during which principal-candidates work in a school under the direction of a mentor principal.

School districts and others, including the Wallace Foundation, have criticized the quality of traditional university-based preparation programs.

There are few studies linking preparation programs to principals’ effectiveness. (See Data/Research section for more information.)

An issue of rising concern is the racial mismatch between educators, most of whom are white, and the nation’s increasingly diverse student population by race and ethnicity. Efforts are growing to recruit and retain more teachers and principals of color. And the two may go hand-in-hand, as a study of Missouri found that hiring a Black principal increased the likelihood of a given school hiring, and retaining, teachers of color.

Some districts, such as Edgecombe County Public Schools in North Carolina, have started ‘grow your own’ programs to encourage students of color to become teachers.

Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles is working with the Los Angeles-based Diversity in Leadership on a fellowship for aspiring principals of color.

The College of Education at N.C. State University has removed several barriers of entry for educators of color, including eliminating standardized tests from its entrance requirements and providing generous financial support that makes the program free to candidates. The program also holds classes in the local school districts to make it easier for those juggling families and heavy workloads to attend. As a result, more than 55% of NC State’s leadership-preparation candidates are people of color or from marginalized communities.