Do High Quality Principals Matter? A Review on the Importance of School Leadership
  • By admin
  • August 7, 2019

By Grace Shelton



Why Principals Matter 

A few years ago, Hechinger Report released an article detailing the importance of school leadership in both student achievement and teacher retention. This article was hardly the first of its kind—in fact, one of the most cited research articles on leadership was published almost thirty years ago.  It’s interesting to note, then, that policymakers and states continue to focus much attention on teacher quality (among other things), with very little obvious change to principal preparation and evaluation. Ineffective principals, it turns out, are the primary drivers of instability in schools, and effective principals have the capacity to retain teachers at higher rates and boost student achievement. Knowing this, why has so little been done to provide adequate measures of quality and correct the inequitable distribution of high-quality principals in high income schools? 

In 2011, the Hechinger Report stated why school leadership matters. In the article, it was made clear that principal quality is “second only to teacher quality in terms of importance”. The more difficult the environment surrounding a school, the more the school needs a high-quality principal. Interestingly, as I will note later, high-quality principals tend to cluster in areas with higher-income schools. While some may argue that teacher policy is more pertinent because teachers are directly interacting with students on a day to day basis, principals have the ability to impact more than just a single classroom. Principals, in this regard, impact the entire student body, and although that impact per student might be smaller than a teachers’, it reaches further, and therefore demands attention. 

The impact of an effective principal extends beyond students as well. Principals influence school culture, staff culture, and the quality of instructors in the building. Principals create conditions that foster great teachers. If a principal lacks the ability to do this, schools and teachers may suffer. So, the work of a principal is complex: not only to do they need to possess the skills of a teacher and remain abreast of the latest in classroom learning, but they must also foster a culture of success that encourages continued professional growth. In addition to all this, they must also engage their local community and families to establish a safe and positive culture both within and outside the school building. For many, this information is hardly surprising. We all know that principals have a big job. However, it can often be overlooked how far a principal’s responsibilities extend, and how easily an ineffective principal can create damage within those systems (or how a highly effective principal can bolster tremendous success). We haven’t always looked to the principal as the key agent of change. That is why the Hechinger Report calls for “changing the name of the game” and creating conditions that allow for leaders to deepen their practice and improve for the sake of their schools. In other words, giving principals access o high-quality and consistent principal preparation programs that give them the tools to succeed as school leaders. 

Successful principal preparation programs, according to the report’s discussions with Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, include similar characteristics. They must have a strong focus on instruction, curriculum coherence, field-based training experiences, strong mentoring, problem-based learning strategies, collaboration, district buy-in, financial support, and rigorous recruitment methods…to name a few. Little is known about which programs offer all of these elements in an effective way, and while these provide a clear roadmap for what makes a program great, access to leadership curriculum and programming seems somewhat scant. Perhaps investing in these preparation pipelines is the key to school success.

How Principals Impact Schools 

So, why invest so much in principal preparation? A recent report from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance examines just how much a high-quality principal can influence schools. According to the report, students in Tennessee benefited tremendously when attending schools with highly-rated principals. In particular, “the practice ratings that Tennessee principals are given as part of the evaluation system predict growth in student achievement…highly rated principals enjoy more positive teacher perceptions of school leadership and climate…high rated principals retain effective teachers at higher rates.” 

In terms of student achievement, the report found significant gains in student math scores when students had a higher rated principal on the Tennessee evaluation rating system. The finding on teacher perception is of particular interest, because leading teachers is a principal’s primary role. Therefore, teacher perceptions of their “leader” should be positive and will provide researchers with the most insight into a principal’s performance. Additionally, previous work notes how important teacher retention is for student success, and this particular report found that teacher turnover rates were far lower in schools with higher quality principals. 

All in all, the TERA report shows that leadership really matters. While teacher policy receives lots of attention, principal policy is often overlooked. This report contributes to the growing body of research indicating that principals matter a lot, and low-performing schools suffer from poor leadership. There is clearly a large need to study further the distribution of principals in schools. 

What Researchers Have to Say 

In 1993, a researcher Dominic J. Brewer suggested that principals have a measurable and significant impact on student achievement, particularly though their selection of teachers and the setting of academic school goals. These two job responsibilities directly impacted student performance. Additionally, Brewer found that principals with higher salaries had better student performance. This finding might be attributed to the tendency of higher pay to be associated with higher performing and higher income schools. 

Almost three decades later, researchers Sebastian and Allensworth conducted similar work examining the effectiveness of principals on school and student outcomes. They discussed the shifting governmental priorities, as now the lowest performing schools are required to replace principals—clearly indicating a new focus on principal effectiveness at the national level.  In this particular article, however, the authors consider principal’s influence over professional development and programs selection as the primary driver of the effects of principal quality. It’s clear, however, that the multitude of principal responsibilities indicate how important it is to have a high-quality candidate in the position. 

Where Do the Good Principals Go?

After all this discussion, it seems reasonable to believe that many educational inequities can be helped by placing high-quality principals in low-performing and low-income schools. Why then, is it so difficult to find schools where this is the case? Recent research from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance suggests that principals are inequitably distributed in the state of Tennessee.

In other words, the best principals routinely work at the best schools, and inexperienced or ineffective principals are usually placed in hard-to-staff low-performing schools. Policymakers and district leaders should consider ways to attract high-performing principals to the schools that need them the most and create principal preparation programs that adequately prepare all principals for the added barriers and difficulties associated with working in these high-needs schools. 

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