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What does a typical Tuesday look like for a school principal in Minnesota?

"Everything everywhere all at once."

That's how one veteran principal recently described the parade of hallway chats, staff meetings, student assemblies, sporting events, parent-teacher nights and school board meetings that keep these leaders on the go from dawn to dark.

There are good reasons principals are so busy: The role they play is critical to meeting the needs of teachers, parents and other community members who support our students and their academic success. They're also uniquely positioned to see what's happening in schools and gauge what's coming.

That's why everyone who cares about education should be interested in the findings of the Minnesota Principals Survey — and why lawmakers should seize the opportunity to continue gathering the insights of these school leaders.

Released this month by the University of Minnesota's Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI), this trailblazing survey includes responses from nearly 1,000 school leaders statewide. It asked principals a range of questions about the educational ecosystem, their working conditions, challenges they face and key topics in education policy.

Its findings underscore the importance of listening to these school leaders. Consider, for example, the most common response that principals gave when asked to name their biggest challenge: student mental health. Ninety-four percent of respondents agreed or somewhat agreed that student mental health challenges pose a major barrier to learning at their schools — and yet only 45% said they had adequate resources for students who need support. Principals believe these mental health challenges are primarily caused by student trauma, social media engagement, and the mental health challenges of caregivers.

The survey also found that principals report spending far more time than they would like on administrative tasks, at the expense of providing the instructional leadership and building the family relationships they know are so important in their schools. This finding has already led some experts at the U and elsewhere to recommend revamping the job of principal by dividing these responsibilities among several leaders in a building.

Principals pay attention to state policy and asked lawmakers and the Minnesota Department of Education to be clear about their expectations related to laws passed last year. In both its quantitative findings and written comments from principals, the survey shows the need for more resources and clearer guidance as school leaders work to implement the READ Act, updated graduation requirements, ethnic studies courses and other policies.

Regardless of whether lawmakers and principals agree on every policy change, enacting these new laws requires the partnership of school leaders statewide. For that reason alone, it's critical for policymakers to pay attention to what principals say about what they need to create success in their buildings.

The Minneapolis Foundation provided key support that enabled researchers at the U to conduct the inaugural Minnesota Principals Survey in 2021. Why do we care what principals think? Because the impact of good principals is profound. Research from the Wallace Foundation backs up what's common sense: Schools with more effective principals have higher teacher job satisfaction and lower turnover (particularly of effective teachers), lower student absenteeism and higher academic achievement.

They also have enormous influence on the culture of their buildings. A school where teachers and their principal are clicking is a sight to see. But without good principals, our great teachers struggle to thrive and sometimes even leave the profession.

Through the longstanding Minnesota Student Survey and more recent MNSPIRE survey of teachers, the state has an established track record of collecting key data to inform education policy decisions.

The Minnesota Principals Survey has earned a place on this list. Findings from the 2021 survey have already influenced preparation and professional development programs for principals and informed the work of their statewide associations, as well as the state Education Department. The 2023 survey promises to be just as impactful.

Lawmakers can help ensure Minnesota continues to benefit from the insights of principals. Pending legislation at the Capitol would provide ongoing state funding for the Minnesota Principals Survey, at an estimated cost of just $210,000 per biennium. This investment promises outsized returns for our schools, and it's one I hope our state will make.

Patrice Relerford is vice president of collective impact and giving at the Minneapolis Foundation.