Four Important Findings On Why Principals Matter

Principals’ jobs are changing. While principals once mostly focused on making sure their schools were staffed and running efficiently, they now take on a new and diverse set of responsibilities with an even greater focus on improving student learning. Whether it is providing feedback on a lesson or working with community stakeholders to address chronic absenteeism, these expanded expectations highlight the increasing importance principals play in our schools. In fact, studies have found that principals are second only to teachers in their school-level impact on student achievement.

In the SCORE Excellence for All report, we highlighted the instrumental role principals play in making sure all Tennessee students succeed and identified leadership development as one of five key priorities for improving student achievement in Tennessee. As a first step toward meeting this priority, SCORE’s policy and research team has been reviewing the research surrounding principal leadership and interviewing partners in Tennessee and nationally.

Our research brief, Why Principals Matter: Exploring the Research on School Leadership, examines this research. Here are some of our key findings:

School leaders have a different kind of impact on students than teachers. The most effective principals create a strong school culture, set a mission, and hire and retain effective teachers, all of which positively impact student achievement. Principals with less experience and lower evaluation scores are more likely to work in lower-performing and higher-poverty Tennessee schools—schools that need great principals the most.
Tennessee does not currently have a principal work force that reflects the racial and ethnic demographics of our students. In the 2013-2014 school year, there was a 20-point gap between the percentage of principals and students who were people of color. A representative principal force could help improve the achievement of historically underserved students in Tennessee because principals of color tend to hire and keep more teachers of color. Students of color who have same-race teachers have better rates of college attendance, higher student achievement, higher gifted identification, and fewer discipline incidents.
Many principals do not think their training prepared them for leadership. One national survey found that two-thirds of principals felt like their programs were “out-of-touch” with the realities of the job. A disconnect between preparation and the realities of principalship may be why nationally about one-fifth of new principals leave the job altogether in their first two years. This kind of principal turnover is associated with negative impacts on student achievement and teacher morale.
Successful programs have found ways to make sure principals are prepared to help all students succeed. For example, high-quality principal preparation programs have used rigorous selection processes to identify emerging teacher-leaders in partnership with school districts. Like medical training, those programs put future principals in yearlong residencies with high-quality mentors to expose candidates to the realities of the job. Some programs incorporating these practices, like those at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the New York City Leadership Academy, have trained principals that outperformed their peers in improving student achievement at high-needs schools.

In the coming months, SCORE will be using this research and the feedback from our local and national partners to develop recommendations to help ensure Tennessee is preparing, placing, supporting, and retaining strong principals. We have found that building effective principal leadership is a critical strategy to help our students be the highest achieving in the nation. Developing innovative strategies for strengthening principal leadership in cooperation with our local and national partners will help Tennessee become a national model for exemplary school leadership.

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Francisco Santelli

Francisco is a graduate fellow and a member of the SCORE Policy and Research team. Prior to joining SCORE, Francisco completed his first semester in the Masters of Public Policy program at Vanderbilt University while serving as associate editor for the Peabody Journal of Education. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Florida and taught high school English in Gainesville, Florida, for five years.

The SCORE Sheet is the online conversation on public education reform in Tennessee and is hosted by SCORE. The blog mirrors SCORE’s collaborative nature and features contributors from Tennessee and across the country including students, parents, teachers, policymakers, community groups, and members of SCORE’s team. Regardless of perspective, contributors share a common goal: that every child graduates from high school prepared for college or the workforce.

Posts on The SCORE Sheet are the opinions of the individual contributors and are not necessarily reflective of the opinions and positions of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).