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Data and Research: School Leadership

A wealth of data and research sheds light on principals, their impact, working conditions, and turnover.

Principals’ Impact:

The biggest takeaway from this 2021 report, How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research, is the finding that replacing a principal in the 25th percentile with one in the 75th percentile can lead to the equivalent of adding nearly three more months of learning in both math and reading during one school year.

The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching details concrete ways school districts can use principal supervisors to make the principal’s job more manageable in this 2021 report.

Principals are only behind teachers among the in-school factors that affect student achievement, a landmark 2004 review of research finds.

The Principal Pipeline:

A report on the role of assistant principals from 2021 concludes there’s not enough quality research on APs, and districts must do more to ensure these future leaders get the right experiences.

A study of 4,689 assistant principals in Texas found Black principals spent more time as assistant principals before becoming principals. Also, at the high school level, female principals worked as APs longer than men, the 2020 study found. 

Public schools led by principals in the Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline Initiative outperformed similar schools in their states in reading and math three years after the new school leaders were hired, a 2019 report commissioned by the philanthropy concluded. New principals also stayed longer.

This 2005 assessment of school leadership preparation programs by education expert Arthur Levine concluded that many leadership-preparation programs fail to adequately prepare principals for the job. (An update on this seminal review of university-based principal-preparation programs is expected this year or in early 2022.)

A 2014 analysis by the RAND Corporation on graduates of the New Leaders Aspiring Principals program finds some positive outcomes, including slight gains in reading and math on state student assessments after three years in schools led by New Leaders alumni. But the results varied across the 10 districts in the study and were negative in at least one subject in other districts.  

Turnover Among School Leaders

A three-part series on principal turnover by the Learning Policy Institute and the National Association of Secondary School Principals includes a review of research, principals’ views collected from focus groups, a national survey, and policy recommendations

Principal turnover can reduce student performance the following year and increase teacher turnover, a 2019 study finds. 

Although turnover rates are large for highly-effective principals, low-performing principals are more likely to leave their buildings – and the profession, a 2019 report finds.

Race and School Leadership

Research conducted in Missouri and Tennessee found that hiring a Black principal increased the likelihood that Black teachers would be hired at a school. The 2019 study also found that Black teacher tenure also increased under Black principals, and Black students’ math scores rose even when Black teachers weren’t hired.

Though results on the effects of principals’ race on student outcomes are mixed, studies have found evidence of increased enrollment in Advanced Placement courses and higher attendance for students of color in schools led by principals of the same race.

Using data from the federal Schools and Staffing Survey and the Civil Rights Data Collection researchers concluded in a 2017 study that Black students attending schools with a larger number of Black teachers or led by a Black principal and Hispanic students in schools with large numbers of Hispanic teachers were more likely to be enrolled in gifted classes. They did not find a similar same-race effect on Hispanic students in schools led by Hispanic principals.

Other

This 2019 special report by Education Week, Inside the Principal-Teacher Relationship, focuses on how to make one of the most important relationships in schools work.

A 2019 report using data on Tennessee principals from 2002 to 2017 found that schools serving higher percentages of students of color and lower-income students were led by less qualified and less effective principals.

Additional Resources

These organizations produce research on principals and other leaders in education. 

  • The Annenberg Institute at Brown University: EdWorkingPapers, which provides access to studies and other research before they appear in journals, is one of the gems at the Annenberg Institute and frequently publishes research on school leadership.
     
  • The Learning Policy Institute: The left-leaning California-based think tank, which conducts a wide array of education studies, frequently collaborates on research with the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. 
     
  • Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE): Based at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, CPRE is a network of education schools – including Teachers College at Columbia University and the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. It produces an array of education research, including on school leadership. It also runs “Research Minutes,” a podcast that often breaks down research. 
     
  • The University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA): This is a group of universities that offer education leadership programs. The council conducts occasional research on principals and preparation programs and is a good resource to learn about trends and ongoing research.
     
  • The RAND Corporation: In addition to conducting independent evaluations and assessments on education issues, RAND hosts the American Educator Panels—The American Teacher Panel, the American School Leader Panel, and the American School District Panel—which are surveyed periodically on education policy and practice.

 

READ MORE ON SCHOOL LEADERSHIP:

History and Background: School Leadership