Report details principals’ impact on student achievement

Teacher effectiveness. The term has become a buzzword for policymakers, researchers and educators alike as they talk about the pressing need to improve our nation’s worst schools. But the rarely discussed factor of principal effectiveness is nearly as important, according to a new report by the Center for Public Education.

The principal perspective: at a glance” takes a look at the small but growing body of research on principals’ influence of student achievement to make the case that school leadership cannot be neglected. “Education policy and education research [have] focused primarily on teachers,” said Jim Hull, senior analyst at the Center for Public Education and the study’s author. “The impact principals have on student outcomes has largely been ignored until recently … [Policymakers] should focus more on recruiting and retaining effective principals in the schools that need them most.”

Things are changing, though, Hull said, with the principal position receiving more attention than ever before. The Hechinger Report has also found that whether in charter or traditional public schools, training and retaining good leaders are top priorities, if also major challenges.

In part, the focus is a result of recent federal policies. Almost all of the schools that received federal School Improvement Grants (SIG)—reserved for the lowest-performing institutions in the country—had to fire principals in an effort to turn their schools around.

It’s also partly because of advances in research. The studies that Hull examined for his report all measured principal effectiveness slightly differently, but each relied on student test-scores—more specifically, value-added measures in which a student’s test-score is predicted based on his or her characteristics and past test-scores. A school is held responsible for getting the student to reach at least his or her predicted result. Researchers attempt to take into account all of the factors that influence a student’s performance but that are outside a principal’s control.

“There are a lot of other variables to come in to [play that] really impact the performance of the school, and to be able to isolate the impact of the principal is quite difficult,” Hull said.

Hull’s report, which combs the primary research on principal effectiveness, concludes that principals have a clear impact on student achievement, he said, especially at challenging, high-poverty schools. Not only do effective principals help raise student test-scores, but they also make a difference on other indicators, such as reducing the number of student suspensions and absences or increasing graduation rates.

Ineffective principals drive effective teachers out of a school—or out of the district entirely. Effective ones are able to work with teachers to help them improve while simultaneously recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers.

Hull also found that effective principals observed teachers more often and made more unannounced visits to classrooms than their less-effective peers. And, notably, “effective principals almost always provided immediate feedback to their teachers,” he said.