They go by many titles—assistant principal, vice principal, associate principal—and their ranks are growing. The number of assistant principals has increased nearly six times faster than the number of principals in the last 25 years, surging 83 percent to more than 80,000. Roughly half of U.S. public schools today have at least one AP, up from one-third in 1990. As it proliferates, the AP role has the potential to promote racial and gender equity in school leadership and contribute to better outcomes for students.
That is a key finding of The Role of Assistant Principals: Evidence and Insights for Advancing School Leadership, a major new research review that synthesizes the findings of 79 studies about APs published since 2000 and includes fresh analyses of national and state data. The report was written by researchers Ellen Goldring and Mollie Rubin of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, and Mariesa Herrmann of Mathematica. They presented their findings at a recent webinar that also featured a panel discussion among education experts moderated by Nicholas Pelzer, a senior program officer in education leadership at Wallace.
Principals are more likely than ever to spend at least some time in their career as an AP, making the role an important “stepping stone” to leading a school, the authors found. The job varies considerably, with most APs engaging in a mix of instructional leadership, management and student discipline tasks. “APs wear many hats,” said panelist Debra Paradowski, an associate principal of 22 years who was named Assistant Principal of the Year in 2020 by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).
Yet despite being one chair away from the principal’s seat, APs are often overlooked for opportunities that would develop and strengthen essential skills needed to lead a school. “In short, assistant principals are not given systematic, sequential or comprehensive leadership-building opportunities or ongoing evaluative feedback in preparation for the principalship,” said Rubin.
School districts must think of APs as “principals-in-training” and encourage principals to assign challenging, hands-on leadership work that will best prepare them, said panelist Beverly Hutton, chief programs officer at NASSP. The shift to remote learning during the pandemic—and the many new leadership challenges and responsibilities it presented—underscored the fact that the job of running a school effectively is often simply too big and complex for one person. “Distributing leadership and allowing others to stretch, grow and contribute is the formula for success for everybody,” Hutton said. “It’s the key to succession, preparation, equity and even longevity in the [principal] role—you just can’t do it alone anymore.”
The research synthesis also found uneven opportunities for advancement in the school leadership pipeline. Across six states examined by the authors, 24 percent of APs were people of color compared with 19 percent of principals and 34 percent of students. Women accounted for 77 percent of teachers but only 52 percent of both principals and APs. Some research suggests that hiring discrimination and less access to mentoring may contribute to racial and gender disparities in advancement. Many educators are “tapped” for administrative jobs by school and district leaders, noted Hutton, and that could result in inequitable outcomes. “You don’t tap people that you can’t see,” she said.
A lack of mentors is common among APs working in urban schools, said panelist Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents larger urban school districts. A survey of APs by the organization a few years ago “found that there was very little coaching and mentoring for assistant principals, little professional development for principals on how to mentor assistant principals,” he noted. Hutton pointed out that the Professional Standards for Education Leaders (PSEL), which outline job expectations, clearly state that principals have a responsibility to develop staff members, including APs. Principals need to fulfill that mentoring role, she said, and APs must advocate for it.
The report’s authors suggested several ways to design the AP role as a stop along the way to the principalship, including developing job standards specifically for the position. Rather than creating separate standards, Hutton suggested that districts gather input from practitioners and further define PSEL to address the nuances of being an AP. “We need the voices of APs to help define their rightful place in the educational ecosystem,” she said.
There’s also the need for more research on APs to inform policy and practice. The authors cited numerous areas for deeper study, including how APs are assigned to schools, how well preservice programs prepare them, and which AP roles are most related to improved student and school outcomes. Paradowski said she hopes the new report brings heightened attention to the integral role that she and her peers play in schools. “We’re not the principal’s assistant but rather an assistant principal to help lead, guide and serve the community.”