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Match Between Principals' Skills and Schools' Contexts Essential, Study Says

Should a talented school leader with no experience with bilingual education be tapped to run a dual-language school?  Should strong community-outreach skills be a requirement for a principal being considered to lead a school with a track record of weak parental involvement?

Such questions about "matching" prospective principals with the needs and contexts of schools should be the first of several key focus areas for districts in need of beefing up its school leader ranks, a new paper concludes. Researchers at the RAND Corp., a Washington-based policy research group, are the latest to delve into what school districts need to do to develop and support principals.

Making the best possible match between a principal-candidate and a school, the study says, requires district leaders to closely track schools' culture and context over time. Then, to fully leverage a good match, principals need clear expectations for their performance, evaluation systems that provide feedback to help them improve along the way, and supports that foster improvement.

Autonomy for principals—or school-level decisionmaking authority—has to be strategic, the report argues. District leaders, the authors say, should consider offering levels of autonomy, depending on a school's needs and the principal's skill sets. 

Finally, the report zeroes in on the importance of resources and supports to help principals succeed, and not just of the monetary variety. Chief among these, the authors conclude, are empowering a principal to delegate responsibilities within the school as he or she sees fit. For example, state policies or union contracts that may stand in the way of principals tapping other experienced individuals in the school building to handle responsibilities related to evaluating teachers should be reviewed.

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