Principals – a key to student success

Principals are the key leverage point in a school community to deliver on the vision of success for all students.

African-American principal

If I had to choose the single point of greatest potential influence on student success, among the many that exist, I would choose the school principal. I realize that for many parents, their choice would be the teacher or teachers for their children, after all, teachers are the ones who spend the vast majority of classroom time with their children. While absolutely important, teachers often can make a heroic, individual effort that impacts a single child or several children, and therefore be deemed to be central to their success. It is the principal, however, who has the greatest opportunity to have a broad-based impact on everyone who is interested in children’s success at school via a sustained strategy.

Principals set the tone for a school – they share the vision of academic success for all students in everything that they do. They speak about this vision regularly. They write about it in every message about the school. They promote signage that shouts it and subtly communicates it throughout the building. They regularly celebrate student and teacher success. They exhibit leadership themselves and give leadership opportunities to others.

How it works

First and foremost, principals engage with students and teachers on that vision to clearly communicate that learning is central to the school’s activity and that high standards apply to everyone. All students are expected to perform. Principals work with teachers and specialists to ensure that the supports and services that individual students need to succeed are brought to bear.

Principals support teachers with regular classroom visits and observations. They provide immediate and frequent feedback to help teachers elevate their practice. They establish an environment that strongly communicates that teachers must actively engage with each other to share and learn. Collaboration is a key tenet of a high-performing school and principals establish the conditions for collaboration.

High expectations

Principals are also demanding of their teachers. A vision of success, collaboration, data-driven decisions and improvement does not resonate with all teachers. Teachers may self-select out of schools led by demanding principals. Other teachers will self-select to join those schools to do what they wanted when they entered the profession – to have a profound impact on children as they grow and develop.

Engagement and support

Principals engage with parents and the community to ensure that they both know about and are aligned to the school’s vision. They welcome parents into the school and make them feel part of the learning community. They support parents in engaging with their children at home around the things that will contribute to their learning and development. They communicate clearly and often about school and student progress.

Principals establish the expectations and structure around the school’s professional learning community. Learning in a school starts with the continual learning and progress of teachers. When teachers learn and grow, so do their students. Principals lead with a message of improved instruction for all – no teacher is so experienced to be unable to learn something new.

Data driven

Principals are driven by data – all manner of data about student success. They look for pointers to success and areas for improvement. They use data regularly to drive decisions. They make the data public in aggregate to ensure that all interested parties understand where things stand – what has been accomplished and what needs to be done.

Think all of this happens with every principal? Think again. These are the actions and behaviors of the best principals in setting up their entire school for success. Every school deserves a great principal if it is to deliver on the vision of success for all students.


Some thinking about how to achieve success for all students will be the subject of further articles.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.