Blog: The Educated Reporter

Study: Replacing Principals Tied to Boost in Student Test Scores

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As more research emerges on the sizable effect school principals have on student learning, some experts are asking whether removing principals who are rated poorly can lead to learning gains among students.

A new report scrutinizing schools in the nation’s capital suggests replacing low-performing principals with new ones is correlated with a modest boost in student academics.

After three years at the helm, elementary schools under new principals saw their reading scores edge upward by four percentage points, lifting the number of students deemed proficient in that subject from 36 to 43 percent. The changes were more modest in math.

Middle schools witnessed more substantial gains after three years under new principals: math and reading scores jumped 9 and 8 percentile points, respectively.

Mathematica Policy Research analyzed performance data at 54 schools within the DC Public Schools system, measuring changes in student performance between 2006 and 2012, and compared that data to 22 schools where there was no change in leadership.

With the arrival of D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, the district began aggressively replacing principals, dismissing 39 percent of all school leaders in 2008-2009. More dismissals followed in subsequent years.

The report notes that changes in school performance happen gradually: No noticeable effect on student performance was measured in the first two years of a new principal’s tenure. The report’s authors also note that the methodology they used isn’t affected by schools that closed or merged with other campuses.

Education Writers Association has a growing collection of items that cover principal effectiveness and hiring trends.. In November we spoke to Katharine Schimel, then of Chalkbeat Colorado, who explored principal churn at Denver Public Schools. Her reporting showed that district dynamics were contributing to many principals leaving their posts well before they could leave their mark on schools. A district mandate challenged principals to improve student test scores after two years; research cited by Schimel notes a principal often need seven years to turn a school’s fortunes around. 

A study by the RAND Corp. showed that principals who stay for only one or two are unlikely to contribute positively to schools, and may in fact contribute to declining student test scores, as Education Week reported. Another report quantified the average number of principals who leave their jobs each year, concluding that, “principal turnover is positively associated with teacher turnover and negatively associated with student achievement.” Studies have also shown principal tenure is shorter at schools that serve low-income students than at schools with more affluent students.

Sometimes districts call on principals with successful track records to lift student performance in other schools, to detrimental effect. EWA hosted a webinar on covering principals in 2013 featuring a documentary maker who profiled both a veteran principal and a rookie principal. The veteran school leader oversaw improved test scores at a struggling school, only to have the district’s superintendent relocate her to a new campus. The principal quit.

Here are some EWA resources to help you better cover principals – and their morale, quality and turnover: