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Examining Effective School Leadership

March 21, 2012 posted by Nithya Joseph

Nithya Joseph was program analyst and manager in Washington, DC government before joining StudentsFirst over a year ago. In her current role at StudentsFirst, she is a senior policy analyst and writer.

Bookstores are full of texts about effective leadership and biographies of legendary leaders. This is no surprise - effective leadership is key to any successful organization; and schools are no exception.

Anecdotally, there is no end to the stories an educator or a parent can recount about the impacts, both negative and positive, a principal has on a school, its students, its culture, and its entire staff. We rarely see a great school without a great principal. But while there is a wealth of studies on the importance of teacher quality, until recently there has been very little written about the impact of principal quality.

Recently, researchers Gregory Branch, Eric Hanushek, and Steven Rivkin, released a working paper with the National Bureau of Economic Research, which looks into the impact of principal effectiveness on schools. Estimating the Effect of Leaders on Public Sector Productivity: The Case of School Principals presents three main findings that provide important implications for policy-makers.

A few quick highlights of the findings include:

Trends in teachers exiting a school are related to principal quality.

  • Teachers have a higher transition rate in schools with the least effective principals, no matter the level of school poverty.

  • More effective teachers tend to stay at schools led by high quality principals.

  • There are large levels of teacher turnover in grades with low levels of student achievement, when there is a high quality principal.

In the highest poverty schools, both higher and lower quality principals are more likely to exit.

  • Many lower quality principals who leave positions at high-poverty schools transition to other schools.

  • The majority of high quality principals who leave high-poverty schools leave the profession altogether.

These findings have important policy implications. First, high quality principals are able to retain effective teachers. Principals should be evaluated on both their ability to raise student achievement across the school, but also their ability to attract, develop, and retain effective teachers.

Second, we must put into place programs to retain high quality principals at high poverty schools. Principals should be rewarded based on their effectiveness – their ability to develop and retain effective teachers and to raise student achievement.

Third, principal evaluations must identify and support ineffective principals. The research shows that while ineffective principals have a high turnover rate at high poverty schools, they are likely to move to another high poverty school. We have to stop this cycle of ineffective leadership.

Lastly, the findings support the argument that principals should have real decision-making power over the hiring and placement decisions of their teaching staff. High quality principals move ineffective teachers out of their schools. If we want more effective leaders, we need to give them the decision-making power to build their own effective teaching teams.

Principals, just like teachers, are critical to student success; they are equally as essential to their school and teachers’ success. High quality principals have the potential to transform schools and communities. Let’s advocate for policies that will identify, retain, reward, and empower these leaders.

Click here to read the StudentsFirst Policy Agenda on Evaluating Principal.