What 20 years of research says about the importance of principals

3 realms in which a leader's expertise is essential: instruction, people and the organization
By: | February 17, 2021
Equity-focused principals lead differently, and can make schools more inclusive and instruction more culturally responsive, education researchers say. (AdobeStock/Lorelyn Medina)Equity-focused principals lead differently, and can make schools more inclusive and instruction more culturally responsive, education researchers say. (AdobeStock/Lorelyn Medina)

Two decades of education research proves that principals impact student learning as much as teachers do, says a new report.

Replacing a below-average elementary school principal with an above-average principal results in nearly three months of additional math and reading gains, according to “How Principals Affect Students and Schools”  from youth equity nonprofit, The Wallace Foundation.

Such a replacement in leadership is more effective than two-thirds of math interventions compiled and about half of reading interventions, the report finds.

These impacts match those of replacing an less effective teacher with a more effective teacher, said the study’s authors, Jason A. Grissom of Vanderbilt University, Anna J. Egalite of North Carolina State University, and Constance A. Lindsay of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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“Of course, this comparison of principal impacts to teacher impacts is not an ‘apples-to-apples’ one because principals’ effects on students come largely through their effects on teachers, including how principals hire, retain, develop, and encourage teachers and create appropriate conditions for teaching and learning,”

And while a strong teacher is the most important in the success of students in a class of about 20, a strong principal has a much bigger role in the success of a typical elementary school of 480 students.

“It is difficult to envision an investment with a higher ceiling on its potential return than a successful effort to improve principal leadership,” the authors wrote.

Instruction, people and the organization

The researchers identified “instruction, people and the organization” as three realms in which a leader’s expertise is essential.

Schools succeed when a principal manifests these skills in the following ways:

  • Engaging in instructionally focused interactions with teachers: Teacher evaluations, instructional coaching and the establishment of a data-driven instructional program should drive these relationships.
  • Building a productive school climate: An effective school environment is one marked by trust, efficacy, teamwork, engagement with data, organizational learning and continuous improvement.
  • Facilitating productive collaboration and professional learning communities: Student learning is enhanced when teachers work together authentically with systems of support to improve their practice.
  • Managing personnel and resources strategically

How principals establish equity

Principals, particularly principals of color, can have particularly positive impacts on students, teachers and staff members of color.

The research also shows that equity-focused principals lead differently, and can make schools more inclusive and instruction more culturally responsive.

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Principals can have instill equity by changing disciplinary policies, working with teachers to implement culturally responsive teaching practices and by hiring greater numbers of teachers of color, among other actions.

The report noted, however, that “representation gaps” are growing between principals and students of color.

“Effective principals are not equitably distributed across schools. If principals must develop an equity lens, we suggest that school districts develop one also,” the authors wrote. “School districts undermine pursuit of equitable outcomes when they do not focus on hiring, placing, and retaining effective principals in schools that serve large numbers of historically minoritized students.”