A new report released by the Wallace Foundation Tuesday finds that above-average principals result in an additional 2.9 months of learning in math and 2.7 months in reading per year on average when compared to below-average principals. That impact is almost as large as that of above-average teachers, who studies show can increase achievement by four months, researchers said during a webinar.
The researchers also said the number of women principals has "grown dramatically," but that principal experience has fallen, especially in high-needs schools. They added there is a significant and growing racial and ethnic gap between students — who are increasingly diverse — and principals. According to 2017-18 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, principals are 78% White.
The report builds on a 2004 Wallace Foundation research review and takes into consideration 219 studies on school leadership published since 2000. It specifically focuses on six studies published since 2012 that include data on more than 22,000 principals in four states and two urban school districts.
The new report also notes that the impact of high-quality principals goes beyond achievement and can improve other areas of concern, including chronic student absenteeism and teachers' low job satisfaction and turnover.
"It is difficult to envision an investment with a higher ceiling on its potential return than a successful effort to improve principals' leadership," Jason Grissom, one of the report's coauthors and a professor at Vanderbilt University, said during the webinar.
The researchers narrowed down three leadership skills and four behaviors associated with better outcomes. The leadership skills are:
People — focusing on human development and relationships.
Instruction — supporting teachers in the classroom.
Organization — data usage and strategic allocation of time and resources.
The four behaviors are engaging in instructionally focused interaction with teachers, building a productive climate, facilitating collaboration and professional learning, and managing personnel and resources strategically.
For example, principals with better time-management skills, like those who schedule common planning time for teachers, were rated more highly by knowledgeable informants such as principal supervisors or teachers, according to Anna Egalite, another coauthor and an associate professor at North Carolina State University's College of Education. Egalite added that local contexts can influence which skills are given more weight and have greater impact.
During the webinar, the panelists said there are other skills principals need.
“I generally see the leadership that principals will be called on to exercise as we go forward, because of the pandemic, falling into three basic buckets: One is around instruction, the second is around SEL...and the third is around issues of equity," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.
Hal Smith, a senior vice president at the National Urban League, said principals also have to think about how to "reknit the school community" in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, something that will become “central to what a principal does."
The Wallace Foundation's new study follows a survey released by the RAND Corp. in 2020, which found effective leadership is considered a necessary part of school improvement. It showed larger districts were more likely than their medium-sized peers to have many principal pipeline activities that increase student achievement.
During the webinar, Casserly said while big districts have in place professional principal academies or other improvement efforts, like principal supervisors, there is an "uneven focus on the work that needs to be done." He added initiatives sometimes lack rigor, sustainability or goal alignment: "I think we’ve got plenty of room to improve the overall quantity and efficacy of those efforts."