Oct 27 2020

Elementary School Principals' Professional Learning: Current Status and Future Needs

Woman speaking in front of audience

NAESP logo and LPI logo

School principals are essential for ensuring that students have access to strong educational opportunities. They shape a vision of academic success for all students; create a climate hospitable to education; cultivate leadership in others so that teachers and other adults feel empowered to realize their schools’ visions; guide instructional decisions that improve teaching and learning; and manage people, data, and processes to foster school improvement. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and its revelation of stark inequities in educational opportunity, the role of the principal has become even more critical in meeting students’ needs. Principals’ many responsibilities are consequential, affecting teacher retention, school culture and climate, students’ social and emotional learning, and, ultimately, student achievement.

Principals’ many responsibilities are consequential, affecting teacher retention, school culture and climate, students’ social and emotional learning, and, ultimately, student achievement.

Research has found that high-quality professional learning opportunities for principals—including preparation programs, induction supports for early career principals, ongoing training, one-on-one support through coaching and mentoring, and peer networks—can build leadership capacity. Such learning opportunities can develop principals’ competence in leading across their full range of responsibilities, empowering them to foster school environments in which adults and students thrive. Principals who have access to high-quality professional learning are typically more likely to remain in the profession. Additionally, teachers appear more likely to remain in schools led by principals who participate in these types of professional learning programs.

To learn more about principals’ opportunities for professional learning, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) and the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) collaborated on a national principal study. LPI surveyed a random sample of 1,000 principals who were members of NAESP and who were selected to represent U.S. elementary school principals proportionately by state. The survey garnered a 41% response rate, with 407 principals responding. LPI analyzed survey data that addressed professional learning experiences for all principals using descriptive statistics, and examined differences among groups of principals with different experience levels and those working in schools with distinctive characteristics (percentages of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, percentages of students of color, and community type).

The report's findings add to the literature on professional learning for principals. Many elementary school principals reported having had access to professional development content that research identifies as important for developing school leadership capacity. This professional development could be delivered in a variety of ways, from short presentations to authentic learning opportunities, such as applied learning experiences, working with mentors or coaches, and networking with colleagues. While most elementary school principals reported access to professional development content, far fewer indicated that they were able to participate in authentic learning opportunities, despite the research finding that these learning opportunities are associated with principals’ improved leadership capacity.

Additionally, elementary school principals reported wanting more professional development content, with the need for content related to supporting whole child education—a range of practices that involve engaging in deep learning and tending to the social-emotional and physical health of students—identified most frequently. Principals also reported wanting more professional development content in leading equitable schools by supporting diverse learners and addressing issues of equity in their schools.

Lastly, although most elementary school principals indicated that their districts supported their continuous improvement, they also reported facing obstacles to participating in professional learning. These obstacles were related to time constraints, insufficient coverage for leaving the building, and lack of funds.


This report is published jointly by the Learning Policy Institute and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

This research was supported, in part, by the Wallace Foundation. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.

Elementary School Principals' Professional Learning: Current Status and Future Needs by Stephanie Levin, Melanie Leung, Adam K. Edgerton, and Caitlin Scott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.