Research News

Peabody College and Mathematica receive $1.42M from Wallace Foundation to study assistant principals and equitable pathways to the principalship

By Jenna Somers

The Wallace Foundation recently awarded a four-year, $1.42 million grant to Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development and Mathematica for a new study to expand knowledge about assistant principals and provide new insights on how the role can help diversify the principal profession and advance educational equity. 

“Effective school leadership incorporates collaboration, shared vision and collective responsibility to improve equitable outcomes,” said Will Jordan, research officer at the Wallace Foundation. “While there is an outgrowth of interest in strengthening principal leadership, there remains a gap in our knowledge of the significance of assistant principals. This study addresses the gap and will no doubt lead to a deeper understanding of demographic characteristics, career trajectories and the organizational importance of assistant principals.” 

The study—led by Ellen Goldring and Mollie Rubin of Vanderbilt Peabody College and Mariesa Herrmann of Mathematica—is a continuation of The Role of Assistant Principals: Evidence and Insights for Advancing School Leadership, the researchers’ and foundation’s initial research on assistant principals that showed women and educators of color encounter obstacles on their journey to the principalship. 

“The prior research shed a spotlight on the importance of this often-overlooked leadership role,” said Goldring, executive associate dean, Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor, and professor of education and leadership. “It is even more important to further understand the roles of assistant principals and pathways to the principalship given the large numbers of principals considering leaving the profession, especially in the context of the pandemic.” 

Several key questions will guide the study: 

  • What are the career paths of assistant principals, and how do they differ across contexts? What are the racial, ethnic and gender differences in advancement along the school leadership pathway?  
  • How do districts assign assistant principals to schools, and how do these assignments influence assistant principals’ roles and career paths?  
  • How do principals decide which tasks to assign to assistant principals? How do assistant principals’ roles differ by the characteristics of principals, assistant principals and schools?  
  • What explains differences in the career advancement of assistant principals? How do these differences relate to how districts assign them to schools and how principals assign tasks to them? 

The researchers will probe these questions through a mixed-methods study. They will gather 10 years of administrative data on educators and schools from four large, geographically and ethnically diverse districts to compare data across different contexts and develop an understanding of how the assistant principalship relates to educational equity for students of color and career advancement for educators of color. They will also interview district central office staff, principals and assistant principals on policies, practices and experiences concerning the assistant principal role.  

The research will describe career paths of educators of color, identify barriers they encounter, and name possible policies and practices for diversifying the principalship and mentoring and supporting assistant principals.  

“We are excited to have the opportunity to address the many questions that emerged from our prior research,” said Rubin, research assistant professor in the Department of Leadership, Policy and Organizations. “It is clear that assistant principals fill numerous, important roles in schools. This work will provide important information to assist district leaders and policymakers to develop assistant principals as effective leaders and to gain experiences that will prepare them to become successful principals.”