No one can deny the pandemic’s devastating impact on America’s public schools. Since March 2020, districts across the country have experienced alarming declines in student achievement in math and reading, a mental health crisis among students and widespread job dissatisfaction among educators.

The pandemic also made it impossible to ignore the inequities faced by Black and Latino students — such as limited access to digital resources, rigorous coursework and skilled educators.

And while it’s tempting to blame the pandemic for creating these challenges, the truth is that they existed long before schools transitioned to remote learning three years ago.

Federal and state policymakers have since suggested various solutions — from increasing access to tutoring to boosting teacher pay. However, one of our greatest potential solutions is often missed in the national conversation: providing professional development for principals.

The public appreciates and understands the important role that CEOs, college presidents and other leaders play in the success of their organizations. Yet, the significance of the key leadership position in our schools is largely overlooked and under-supported.

Principals often lack access to professional development opportunities. Research suggests that this is one of the top reasons why so many principals are exiting their jobs.

Consider what principals take on when they agree to lead a school. They recruit and develop teachers who are in front of our kids each day. They meet with families to discuss their children’s academic performance and social-emotional progress. They advocate for the needs of students in front of district leaders and school board members. Most of all, they set a school’s vision and culture.

Research shows that effective principals can have a dramatic impact on absenteeism, teacher satisfaction and, importantly, student achievement.

Related: OPINION: We know principals are important, so why doesn’t anyone want to be one these days?

One study found that replacing a below-average principal with an above-average principal results in gains of an additional three months of learning in math and reading for the average student.

We need to remember that a principal presides over an entire school, meaning that their impact extends far beyond students and teachers, reaching exponentially more people. Principals have the power to positively change a community.

So how can K-12 districts capitalize on this outsized potential role that principals can play in creating an atmosphere of excellence?

The answer lies in giving them authority to lead — especially those who serve in the most disadvantaged schools. It also lies in providing principals with the proper financial support and resources to develop great teachers, improve student outcomes and create learning environments that foster success.

Effective principals can have a dramatic impact on absenteeism, teacher satisfaction and, importantly, student achievement.

Take the work happening in Memphis-Shelby County Schools in Tennessee, where my colleagues at New Leaders have broadened the principal pipeline and helped develop future and sitting principals. A recent study found that schools led by principals who received New Leaders training outperformed their peers and met more standards than the district average.

In some instances, principals may benefit from development programs that put them in proximity to their peers. Some programs bring together entire leadership teams for joint summits, where they learn strategies for working collaboratively, including creating action plans, using systems to scale best practices and looking at curricula through an equity lens.

Other times, principals need expert coaching from a more experienced colleague, like a former education leader or former principal, who can provide immediate feedback about the challenges that pop up on any given day — from confronting thorny disciplinary situations, to navigating complex staffing challenges, to keeping track of students’ mental health and well-being.

Regardless of the format, professional development opportunities need to be designed specifically with principals in mind. That means that the curricula must include research-based content, provide high-quality feedback and focus on continuous opportunities for practice.

This would allow our schools’ key leaders to create learning environments in which everyone thrives.

School districts task principals with tremendous responsibilities and, rightfully, hold them accountable when their schools fall short of their goals. In return, principals deserve opportunities to develop their skills and discover new ways to drive improved outcomes for students and unite teachers and families in this shared mission. Principals can only be a solution when they’re given the professional development necessary to succeed, including opportunities to learn and grow — just like the students they serve.

Jean S. Desravines is the CEO of national nonprofit New Leaders.

This story about professional development for principals was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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