Leading the charge: Why investing in school principals matters

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Man smiling Investing in school principals is an essential ingredient for improving children's educational outcomes. Copyright: Shutterstock

Unlocking the full potential of education systems requires more sustained attention to and investment in school principals, as they play a vital role in shaping children’s school experience and influencing education outcomes. Education systems worldwide have yet to prioritize the development and support of these essential leaders.

Despite the importance of school principals, many countries have not professionalized their education workforce for this role. Principals are often selected through informal arrangements and lack specific qualifications, role definitions, or clear career paths. They're also frequently burdened with multiple responsibilities, limiting their ability to focus on their core role of managing teaching and learning. And in many countries, there are no clear guidelines on the pedagogical role that school leaders and principals could have.

Why it matters and what needs to change

Strong school leadership is essential for creating a conducive learning environment and improving student outcomes. When principals are well-supported and equipped to lead, they can significantly impact both teacher performance and student achievement. Here are four ways to strengthen school leadership:

  1. Align the system towards learning: Education systems must prioritize learning and define the principal's role within that context. High-performing systems focus on the student learning experience and clearly articulate school principals' responsibilities, whether primarily administrative or pedagogic. For instance, prioritizing pedagogical support led by principals, inspectors, pedagogical coaches, or others ensures teachers receive practical, high-quality assistance to improve their classroom practices.
  2. Meritocratic recruitment: Open and merit-based processes for recruiting school principals are crucial for ensuring high-quality leadership. High-performing systems purposefully develop talent for managerial positions, particularly school principals, through early leadership experiences, pre-service training, mentoring programs, and highly meritocratic selection mechanisms. For example, Chile now selects school principals based on merit through an autonomous institution. At the same time, Egypt has instituted rigorous requirements, including specific training and supervised internships, and in Ghana the National Education Institute for Leadership Training will start operations, in 2023, to equip educational leaders with the necessary skills and offer postgraduate diplomas in educational leadership.
  3. Quality training and support: Provide practical training and support grounded in the student learning experience to equip principals for their roles. Rigorously evaluated professional development programs have shown significant impacts on student outcomes. For example, an intensive two-year training program for in-service principals in the United States yielded one of the highest internal rates of return for an education intervention. Similarly, Argentina experienced substantial impacts after implementing a "light" intervention that supported principals and other school stakeholders in interpreting and acting on student learning assessment data.
  4. Career framework: Develop a framework that attracts the best candidates to become school principals and system leaders. This includes clear requirements for applicants, processes to identify and attract potential leaders, pragmatic training based on a clear definition of the role, matching the best principals with the most challenging schools, integrating teachers and principals in a common vision of success, facilitating pedagogical and administrative aspects of school management, and motivating school principals to focus on student achievement and well-being.

How is the World Bank helping?

Investing in school principals is an essential ingredient for improving children's educational outcomes at scale, and the World Bank is well-positioned to support countries in making these critical changes and unlocking the full potential of their education systems. The World Bank has been supporting countries in prioritizing system management and strengthening school leadership through:

  • Lending operations: Assisting countries in designing, implementing, and assessing school principal policy reforms. These reforms must align with teacher policies and broader system reforms to ensure a consistent focus on teaching and learning.
  • Knowledge provision: Creating public goods like measurement instruments for management and leadership practices, management tools that leverage ICT to reduce administrative burdens and improve communication, and rigorous research on how principals impact student outcomes and how to support them effectively.
  • Global convening: Facilitating the exchange of ideas on school principals and supporting stronger policies and programs through events and other local, regional, and global initiatives.


Learn more from previous blogs on school leadership:
How to boost school leadership in 4 steps
Are good school principals born or can they be made?
Evolution of school principal training: Lessons from Latin America
The School Leadership Crisis Part 1: Making Principals Work for Schools
The School Leadership Crisis Part 2: From Administrators to Instructional Leaders



Juan D. Barón

Senior Economist, Education Global Practice, World Bank Group

Aija Rinkinen

Senior Education Specialist in the World Bank Education Global Practice, East Asia and Pacific, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Melissa Adelman

Senior Economist in the World Bank Group’s Education Global Practice

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