The Real ROI of Investing in Principal Preparedness

February 5, 2021

By Brian Biddulph-Krentar

School-based simulations provide authentic experiences for principal preparation programs equipping current and aspiring school leaders to meet future challenges. Simulations play a vital role in closing the preparedness gap by teaching through doing and offer a unique opportunity for peer-to-peer learning. Peer-to-peer learning is one of the most sought-after forms of principal preparation with more than 52% of principals stating that this is a key method for developing capacity1.  Simulations are an effective training tool when played asynchronously or can be completed online with a group. Online, facilitated sessions offer leaders an opportunity to collaborate and connect with others over a shared experience. This is more important than ever during this COVID-challenged environment.

Principals are managing through extraordinary times and yet remain focused on improving student achievement. Nine out of 10 principals say that they are ultimately accountable for everything that happens in their school however, most feel unprepared to do the job.  That lack of preparation results in average principal tenure of fewer than four years, and even shorter in low-income areas2.  Simulation training gives leaders the confidence to face real-life challenges and can reduce principal churn. 

 The building of a principal pipeline is vital to the success of school reform. According to the article “How Leadership Influences Student Learning” by Kenneth Leithwood, et al., “The chance of any reform improving student learning is remote unless district and school leaders agree with its purposes and appreciate what is required to make it work…. There seems little doubt that both district and school leadership provide a critical bridge between most educational-reform initiatives, and having those reforms makes a genuine difference for all students.” Schools and districts experiencing frequent turnover of leadership are at a significant disadvantage and will likely be unable to maximize student achievement. 

In addition to school leadership continuity, “It is also the principal who both recruits and retains high-quality staff. The number one reason for teachers’ decisions about whether to stay in a school is the quality of administrative support – and it is the leader who must develop this organization.” (Preparing School Leaders for a Changing World, Linda Darling-Hammond, et al, Stanford University, 2007).  Research reveals that principals, right after teachers, are the most significant school-level factor correlated with student achievement. This argument is supported by several studies that connect improved principal efficiency with increases in high school graduation rates.  Turnover in school leadership hurts; it not only impairs student achievement, on average, it costs $75,000 to replace a principal.

According to  CHURN: The High Cost of Principal Turnover by the School Leaders Network, it is critical to select qualified and prepared principals to lead students whose success depends upon their tenacious leadership.  Investing in principals is an investment in their student’s futures and creating policies and priorities to ensure ongoing principal professional development should be a priority. Principals need sustained access to support and training, far beyond their first two years on the job. As is done for teachers, doctors, and lawyers, there must be continued investment in principal skill development and ongoing support for them in the complex work of leading schools.

Continuous professional development should be closely related to preparatory work and intentionally develop expertise consistent with district management competency structures. While strong partnerships between districts, colleges, and other synergistic organizations should be established, it is important to note that current and aspiring leaders also need easy and affordable ways to continue to grow.  That is where simulations come into play. Principals surveyed for the article Supporting a Strong, Stable Principal Workforce, stated that the two biggest barriers to preparation are time and the cost of preparation programs. The SchoolSims library consists of 35+ simulations that have been developed in partnership with districts and higher education institutions from across the country; they align with PSEL and NELP standards and start at only $100 per participant for unlimited use. 

To improve student achievement, we need to strengthen school leaders and prepare them for the challenges they will face.  Districts must build and retain strong and ready principals who will make a difference in their school, the district, and the community.

1- Supporting a Strong Stable Principal Workforce by Stephanie Levin, Caitlin Scott, Man Yang, Melanie Leung, Kathryn Bradle

2- Smartbrief Why principals must delegate February 2019