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Perspective | A qualified, well-prepared principal in every school

The following is Mary Ann Wolf’s “Final Word” from the Feb. 20, 2021 broadcast of Education Matters: “A qualified and well-prepared principal in every school.” 

A principal is critical in establishing and building a school’s culture, vision, and approach to teaching and learning. In fact, a study commissioned by the Wallace Foundation found school leadership to be the second most important school factor influencing student learning, after teacher effectiveness.

As I think about the schools across our state, so many dedicated, phenomenal principals stand out. They empower their teachers each day, and they know their students. Like the leaders the latest episode of “Education Matters,” they are courageous, tireless, and deeply committed to our students. And we only see a small part of the work they do each day.

This year has only exacerbated the challenges principals face and the complexity of leading their schools. When teachers, staff, families, and students have gotten discouraged or scared, it is our principals who are leading the way and modeling how we can move forward together.

In recognition of the importance of the principal in each school, the Leandro short-term action plan calls for “a system of principal development and recruitment that ensures each school is led by a high-quality principal who is supplied with early and ongoing professional learning and provided competitive pay.”

The recommendations include steps to expand access to high-quality principal preparation programs, expand professional learning opportunities for current principals and assistant principals, and update the state’s school administrator preparation and principal licensure requirements to align program approval standards with effective practices.

We must also continue to improve how we recruit and retain our school leaders, as we’ve seen a reduction in candidates for these positions over the past several years. Assistant principals in our schools provide the potential for building the pipeline to the principalship; and we should work together to strategize on how to incentivize that talent pool and identify additional strategies to attract and retain candidates of color into the profession.

North Carolina has significant programs, including those described by NCPAPA today, the Northeast Leadership Academy, the N.C. Principal Fellows Program and programs through our Institutes of Higher Education that support educators to pursue the principalship.

Addressing and improving principal working conditions is critical to optimizing learning conditions for our students. After ranking as low as 50th in the nation in principal pay within the last decade, North Carolina has worked to improve compensation.

BEST NC shares that we are now ranked third in the Southeast; but we must remain competitive. We can do more to improve how we compensate principals, and to incentivize principals to lead low-performing schools. And, we must ensure that principals have the human and financial resources and tools they need to attract high quality and well prepared educators.

We must also reinstate retiree health benefits for principals, teachers and all state employees, as this key recruitment tool was lost at the beginning of this year. New hires after Jan. 1, 2021 won’t be able to look forward to retiring with state subsidized health care and we must work to regain that important benefit for those who enter public service.

Finally, we must acknowledge the complexity of a principal’s role. Principals typically oversee 50 or more staff members, and even more in many of our high schools.

They lead their teachers and staff so that they have the resources and support they need to meet the needs of our students.

They maintain significant budgets and have many stakeholders, including our students and families. Principals make thousands of decisions each day that affect the lives of our students.

We must continue to strive to honor these leaders through our actions.

Mary Ann Wolf

Mary Ann Wolf, Ph.D. has served as President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina since June 2020, bringing with her more than 20 years of educational policy and leadership working directly with schools and districts across North Carolina to improve equity and build capacity for innovation.