The amount of research on education leadership is staggering. Plug “school leadership” into Google Scholar, a search engine that indexes scholarly literature, for example, and you’ll find more than 90,000 books, studies and reports published on the topic since 2000. Fortunately, a group of prominent education researchers is sifting through the mountain of literature for the benefit of the rest of us.
This summer, we announced the commissioning of reports from three research teams that will examine the state of knowledge in critical areas of education leadership. Two of these research syntheses will offer a fresh analysis of topics explored in previous Wallace reports. The first will focus on the impact of leadership on student achievement, providing an update to the landmark How Leadership Influences Student Learning, published in 2004 and still one of our most popular publications. The second will examine the characteristics of effective principal preparation programs, revisiting a topic that was first covered in Preparing School Leaders for a Changing World: Lessons from Exemplary Leadership Development Programs, published in 2007. The third report will explore the role of the assistant principal, a new area of inquiry that has emerged from our school leadership work over the past 15 years.
“Having reliable, high-quality reports that identify and analyze key findings across different research sources in a systematic way is very useful both for the field and for us at the foundation,” says Elizabeth Ty Wilde, senior research officer at Wallace. As important, she adds, the teams will also pinpoint areas where research is lacking and that could benefit from future study.
A number of developments justify taking a fresh look at how school leaders influence student learning, notes Jason Grissom, associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University and leader of the team investigating the topic. For one, the research base has exploded since our 2004 report by Kenneth Leithwood, Karen Seashore Louis and other scholars, who reviewed the research literature of the time and found that leadership is second only to instruction among school-related factors contributing to student achievement. The rigor of the research has improved as well. Thanks to the advent of state-level longitudinal data systems, scholars can now track the impact of school leadership on student outcomes over time, an analysis that wasn’t as feasible back in 2000. The job of a school principal has changed too, with a greater focus on instructional improvement, which has opened new avenues of research in recent years.
“This project is an opportunity to take stock and look across all the studies to determine the consistent findings regarding the connection between school leadership and student outcomes, and which attributes of leaders are most important to that connection,” says Grissom, who is collaborating with Constance Lindsay of the University of North Carolina and Anna Egalite of North Carolina State University on the synthesis.
The team examining principal preparation programs is taking a multi-faceted approach to its work. In addition to reviewing the research on pre-service training, the team will study the evolution of state policies on principal preparation and survey principals nationwide about how well their training prepared them for the job. The analysis “will give us a sense of how big of a mountain we have yet to climb” to prepare effective school leaders, says Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and co-principal investigator of research team. Darling-Hammond, who co-authored the 2007 report on principal training, is joined by Tina Trujillo of the University of California, Berkeley, and two colleagues at the Learning Policy Institute, an independent research organization dedicated to improving education policy and practice, co-PI (principal investigator) Marjorie Wechsler and Stephanie Levin.
Spending time as an assistant principal is a common route to the principalship, but how can the experience best prepare aspiring leaders? That’s one of the central questions guiding the analysis by Vanderbilt education professors Ellen Goldring and Mollie Rubin, along with Mariesa Herrmann of Mathematica Policy Research. The team will analyze state and national data as well as existing research to explore the characteristics of assistant principals, their preparation and the support they get on the job, among other topics. They’ll also investigate issues of equity, such as whether assistant principals have equal opportunities to become principals. The team doesn’t expect to find all the answers. “Because the literature on assistant principals is less robust, in terms of rigor and replication, this particular synthesis will help the field begin to think about future areas of research,” says Goldring.
While each team is working independently, all of the researchers are sharing ideas and advice as they dive deeper into the project. Darling-Hammond and her team, for example, called Grissom to pick his brain about his research on principal preparation programs. Grissom for his part has wandered down the hall to talk with his Vanderbilt colleague Rubin about ways to extract data from qualitative research. “So often, researchers operate in a vacuum,” says Rubin. “It’s been very helpful to talk out loud about the decisions we’re making.”
Wilde hopes the collaboration continues after the three reports come out next summer. “I jokingly told everyone at our first meeting, ‘At the end of this project, I hope that you can email anyone in this room and they’ll email you back—soon.’”