Joán Álvarez is presented with the 2019 Ryan Award

New report shines a light on principals’ impact on student performance

A recent report from New York City-based Wallace Foundation reaffirms the profound impact high-performing school principals have on student achievement.

The new report, “How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research,” is a follow-up to Wallace Foundation’s 2004 report, “How Leadership Influences Student Learning.”

While the earlier report offered powerful insights, “How Principals Affect Students and Schools” makes use of rich longitudinal data on schools and principals that had previously been unavailable. The findings reveal that the role principals play in improving student performance is even more crucial than once thought.

“Our results on the importance of principals’ effects suggest the need for renewed attention to strategies for cultivating, selecting, preparing, and supporting a high-quality principal workforce,” the authors wrote. “The payoffs to successful strategies appear very large for student learning and for other important outcomes, such as student attendance and teacher turnover.”

The authors estimate that a principal in the top 75th percentile of effectiveness has the potential to elevate student achievement in reading and math by almost three months. That’s nearly as profound as the estimated impact of teachers, who are capable of advancing student achievement by almost four months.

While principals’ effect on students is indirect and of a lesser magnitude, it is far more widespread. Teachers are able to impact about 21 students based on the average elementary school classroom size. The average elementary school contains 483 students—all whose education is affected by principals.

What’s more, principals act as the driving force responsible for hiring, retaining, and developing the teachers who directly impact student learning in the classroom.

“It is difficult to envision an investment in K-12 education with a higher ceiling on its potential return than improving school leadership,” the authors noted.

“How Principals Affect Students and Schools” identifies the following four behaviors as key for every high-performing school principal:

  1. Collaborating with teachers hands-on to guide instruction
  2. Fostering a productive school climate
  3. Promoting collaboration and coordinating professional development opportunities
  4. Strategically leveraging personnel and resources to maximize output

While the findings are not surprising for experienced educators, the authors called for additional studies to further uphold the important impact of principals. Since 2012, just six such studies have been conducted in select states and districts.

Follow the links below to learn more about Accelerate Institute's mission of developing transformational principals and other school leaders who accelerate achievement for America’s underserved students.

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