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Stats in Brief November 2020 NCES 2020-045
U.S. Department of Education
A Publication of the National Center for Education Statistics at IES

Statistics in Brief publications present descriptive data in tabular formats to provide useful information to a broad audience, including members of the general public. They address simple and topical issues and questions. They do not investigate more complex hypotheses, account for inter-relationships among variables, or support causal inferences.

We encourage readers who are interested in more complex questions and in-depth analysis to explore other National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) resources, including publications, online data tools, and public- and restricted-use datasets. See and references noted in the body of this document for more information.


  • Laurie Lewis and Jenna Scott

Project Officer

  • Maura Spiegelman
    National Center for Education Statistics

Principal professional learning, such as various professional development activities and coaching or mentoring, enables principals to cultivate more effective leadership skills and strengthen instructional practices (Herman et al. 2017). Effective principals are important because they play a role in higher levels of student achievement and lower levels of staff turnover (Gates et al. 2019; Herman et al. 2017). Many districts report that they tie school leadership to school improvement in their district goals, strategic plans, and initiatives (Gates et al. 2020).

Professional learning opportunities are frequently most intensive early in a principal’s career or placement at a school (Gates et al. 2020; Herman et al. 2017). These early career opportunities may be particularly important, since fewer than half of the districts in a recent study of principal pipelines reported moderate or high satisfaction with their pool of principal candidates (Gates et al. 2020).

Principal professional development includes a wide range of administrative and instructional topics. Competencies identified by principal professional organizations and academic research as important include instructional leadership, building or operations management, community relations, school culture or climate, resource allocation, and human resource management (NPBEA 2015; Marzano, Waters, and McNulty 2005; Mendels 2012; Reeves 2009; The Wallace Foundation 2013).

National surveys show that most principals participate in professional development (Lavigne et al. 2016; Taie and Goldring 2019). Some professional development activities are associated with stronger demonstrations of principals’ leadership skills, school culture, and student achievement. For example, principals who have mentors or receive coaching are more effective leaders than those who have not participated in these forms of professional development (Grissom and Harrington 2010). Further, research shows a positive impact on leadership practices or student achievement when principals participate in activities such as learning communities, mentoring, or ongoing coaching and collaboration (Herman et al. 2017). Principals frequently report participating in principal networks, which is a form of learning community, as well as in mentoring and coaching (Lavigne et al. 2016; Taie and Goldring 2019). However, some activities, such as taking university courses, are not associated with leader effectiveness (Grissom and Harrington 2010). Few principals report taking university courses related to their role as principal (Lavigne et al. 2016; Taie and Goldring 2019).

This report uses data from the 2017– 18 National Teacher and Principal Survey (NTPS) Public School Principal Survey to describe professional development topics and activities reported by principals. Principals who were in the same school for 2016–17 and 2017–18 reported for the 2016–17 school year about their participation in professional development activities to help understand how it might be affecting principal practices during the 2017–18 school year. The data do not address the quality of the professional development activities or their effectiveness in improving principals’ leadership practices or student learning. Because principals were reporting about professional development activities undertaken as a principal at their current school in the previous school year, the analyses presented in this report are for principals with at least one year of experience at their current school.1

The purpose of NTPS is to collect information that can provide a detailed picture of U.S. elementary and secondary schools and their staff. Although the 2017–18 NTPS collected data from both public and private schools, this report focuses on the types of professional development activities public school principals are participating in and the topics covered during professional development.

All comparisons of estimates were tested for statistical significance using the Student’s t statistic, and all differences cited are statistically significant at the p < .05 level. No adjustments for multiple comparisons were made.

This report was prepared for the National Center for Education Statistics under contract No. ED-IES-12-D-0005. Mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

1 Eighty-four percent of principals reported at least one year of experience at their current school.