The Role of Assistant Principals: Evidence and Insights for Advancing School Leadership

The Wallace Foundation recently released a report focusing on the potential for Assistant Principals to help foster educational equity, school improvement, and principal effectiveness. 

Recent years have seen a surge in the number of assistant principals and the percentage of schools with them, but despite its growing presence, the AP role is often overlooked. With the proper training and development, APs could make more powerful contributions to important efforts. That is the central conclusion of this report, which is based on a synthesis of 20 years of research on assistant principals in U.S. public schools (79 studies published since 2000) as well as analyses of data from national and state sources.   

The authors, researchers at Vanderbilt University and Mathematica, find that the number of APs jumped from about 44,000 to 81,000 over the 25-year period from the 1990-1991 school year to the 2015-2016 school year, while the percentage of schools with APs rose significantly as well—from about one-third to one-half of public schools. The job of these APs is complex, generally including a mix of instructional leadership, management, and student discipline responsibilities, and the amount of time APs devote to the tasks varies, often at the discretion of the principal. APs typically work with students, teachers and families, and there is some evidence that effective APs could help improve academic outcomes and school climate, and, especially in handling student discipline, foster culturally responsive environments.

Along with the expanded number of APs has come substantial growth in the proportion of principals with AP experience, suggesting that a stint as an AP has become an increasingly common stop along the pathway to the principalship.

Still, not all APs are assigned responsibilities that best prepare them to become principals, and there are numerous other indications that the role needs new consideration. Findings suggest the need for greater attention to the AP role by both the education community and researchers. The authors offer a number of suggestions to that end, including identifying and removing barriers to leadership advancement for educators of color and women; developing job standards consistent with the AP’s function as stepping-stone to the principalship; ensuring that principals have the skills to mentor APs and delegate tasks to them; and carrying out a research agenda to narrow gaps in understanding about the role.

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