Effective principals have an even greater impact than previously thought, benefiting not only student learning and attendance but also teacher satisfaction and retention, according to a major new research review. How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research draws on 219 high-quality research studies of K-12 school leadership conducted since 2000 and updates the landmark 2004 literature review by Kenneth Leithwood, et al., that concluded that principals are second only to classroom instruction among school-related factors affecting student achievement.
The authors of the new synthesis—Jason A. Grissom, the Patricia and Rodes Hart professor at Vanderbilt University, Anna J. Egalite, associate professor at North Carolina State University, and Constance A. Lindsay, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—presented their findings at a recent webinar hosted by Wallace President Will Miller and attended by more than 1,450 people. The event also featured a panel of education experts who shared their reactions to the report, which set out to answer three main questions: How much do principals contribute to student achievement and other school outcomes? Which behaviors are critical to that work? Who are principals today and how have they changed over time?
To get at the first question, the researchers dug into six rigorous studies that together followed more than 22,000 principals and the schools they led over time, allowing the authors to assess the impact of the same principal at different schools and the same school under different principals. Principal effects are large, they found. Further, they translated the effect size into months of learning, finding that replacing a below-average principal—one at the 25th percentile in terms of raising student achievement—with an above-average principal at the 75th percentile resulted in nearly three more months of learning a year for students, almost as much as the four months of increased learning generated by a teacher at the 75th percentile. Principal effects are broader in scope than those of a teacher because they are felt across an entire school rather than a single classroom. Still, the effects stem in large part from a leader’s work with teachers, including how principals hire and coach staff members and create a school environment conducive to learning. The report’s authors also found that great principals yield benefits for outcomes beyond achievement, such as student attendance, exclusionary discipline (i.e., suspension), teacher satisfaction and teacher retention.
The new report identifies four observable behaviors of school leaders that the best-available research suggests produce positive school outcomes:
- Focusing on high-leverage engagement in instruction, such as through teacher evaluations and coaching
- Establishing a productive school climate
- Facilitating collaboration and professional learning communities
- Managing personnel and resources strategically
As schools gradually reopen for in-person learning, nurturing a positive school climate and helping students reconnect must be a priority for leaders, noted panelist Hal Smith, senior vice president at the National Urban League. During the pandemic, “we’ve seen students report that the loss of relationships has been particularly unsettling…they don’t know where to look for support,” he said. Having a principal who’s attuned to the social-emotional needs of students and staff and thinking about how to “reknit” the school community will be critical in the months ahead, he added.
State education agencies have a vital role to play in helping current principals strengthen the skills that manifest themselves in these four inter-related behaviors, in addition to ensuring a strong pool of future principals, said Carissa Moffat Miller, chief executive officer of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents top-ranking state education officials. Below-average principals can become above-average ones if they have access to the right in-service learning opportunities. The new synthesis provides a “map” of where states might consider directing their investments and their work with partners to support school leaders, she noted. “Sometimes we just think of the [principal] pipeline in terms of recruitment, but it’s also about retention and skill-building,” she said. Panelist Michael Casserly noted that more needs to be learned about improving the skills of current principals. He is executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents larger, urban school districts. “How is that we can move principals from being less effective to more effective?” he asked. “The research is not very clear on that but would be enormously important.”
The report also calls on principals to embed equity in their leadership practices, given the growing number of marginalized students, such as students from low-income families and English learners. The authors examine emerging research on how equity-focused principals exhibit the four behaviors linked to positive school outcomes. For example, equity-oriented leaders promote a productive school climate by implementing alternative strategies to student expulsions. They use data to identify children who are falling behind and work with teachers to create a plan to get them back on track. They engage families in the life of the school and coach teachers on culturally-responsive instructional practices to better serve marginalized students. Noting that some teachers “simply want to be excused” from tough discussions about equity because they find them uncomfortable, Casserly said it is imperative for principals to push forward with the work and encourage teachers to adopt an equity mindset.
Principals of color appear especially likely to have positive impacts on students and teachers of color, according to the report, yet the racial and ethnic gaps between school leaders and the students they serve are stark. Nearly 80 percent of principals today are white while the student body is only 53 percent white. Diversifying the principal workforce will require taking a closer look at how emerging leaders of color are identified, noted panelist Mónica Byrne-Jiménez, executive director of the University Council for Educational Administration, a consortium of higher education institutions committed to advancing the preparation and practice of principals and other school leaders. “If you want to diversify the leadership pipeline, we have to diversify the teacher pipeline,” she said. Future leaders of color may begin their studies at community college or start as teacher assistants, she added. Schools and districts need to identify these rising stars early on, give them opportunities to cultivate their budding leadership skills, and provide a viable career path to the principalship.
Whether they’re aspiring to the role—or already on the job—investing in principals makes sound financial sense given the magnitude and scope of their effects on a broad range of school outcomes. “Principals really matter,” conclude the report’s authors. “Indeed, it is difficult to envision an investment in K-12 education with a higher ceiling on its potential return than improving school leadership.”