Improving Student Outcomes: Why You Shouldn't Overlook the Impact of Principals
Do you really know what the average principal does all day? Today's principal is so much more than a paper-pushing manager. The best principals bring the learning culture of a school together.
The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) cited the Wallace Foundation in asserting that principals bring together variables that, when combined, can demonstrate a powerful effect on student learning. In addition, John Hattie found that elements of instructional leadership—disruption-free climates, clear objectives, and high expectations—were more effective than so-called transformational styles.
Too often, NASSP argues, the principal's role is relegated to things they do, like keeping the school safe and clean, instead of the more abstract elements that can take student learning to the next level—organizational improvement and the overall strengthening of a school's professional community, going beyond to-do lists to the "why" behind those items, and other key functions of principal leadership.
The Role of Principals in Improving Student Outcomes
Principals impact student learning through the collaborative establishment of vision, personal behavior, and the strengthening of professional communities. Stronge, Richard, and Catano described the principal serving as lead learner. It's important for them to pay attention to the learning of everyone in the school, include current research in staff development, and include the expertise of teachers.
DuFour and Marzano highlighted the importance of the principal in leading professional learning communities (PLCs) in which the principal impacts collaborative teams, which in turn impact student learning.
The principal's role as lead learner and the facilitator of effective collaboration is vital to the health and progress of their schools, but as mentioned before, their impact in this area can be overshadowed by oversimplified preconceptions. Let's take a quick look at how the more abstract characteristics of principals mesh with the approaches of formal research.
Three main types of research have traditionally helped to understand leadership's effect on student learning—qualitative studies, large-scale quantitative studies focused on overall leadership effects, and large-scale quantitative studies focused on specific leadership practices. Recent research has also attempted to study how leaders work within specific contexts.
If factors such as the school's mission and vision or participatory decision-making structure are critical for student achievement, perhaps school leadership studies need to focus more on how the successful principals influence those factors.
5 Key Functions of Principal Leadership
The Wallace Foundation has identified the following five key practices of principal leadership:
#1 Shaping a Vision of Academic Success for All Students
It is critical that principals work to ensure high standards for the learning of all students, not just those who plan to go to college. In my role as a leader, I try to make sure that we have structures in place (e.g., the building of the master schedule) to support all students. In every team meeting I try to contribute by steering the conversation toward what goals and outcomes will represent academic success for each individual student.
#2 Creating a Climate Hospitable to Education
Healthy school climates put student learning front and center in everything they do. You can feel these values in action when you enter such a school. I try to encourage collaboration amongst professionals and to serve as a "connector" between teachers, sharing interesting ideas, research, and more to spark collaborative conversations about student learning.
#3 Cultivating Leadership in Others
There is an old saying, if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
In an emergency, it may be prudent to exercise directive leadership. When working toward a vision, however, it may be much more critical to think in terms of sustainable success. Thus, building capacity for leadership in others is necessary.
For example, I was once placed in charge of a large event. I flew solo to get it up and running, but I immediately started developing an event committee. Today there are a half dozen other people who are now involved. The event will survive long after I am gone because we built a system. The same must be true for leadership and student learning.
#4 Improving instruction
Improving instruction requires you to fight the "close the door and teach" stereotype that is still all too prevalent in schools. The good news is that doing this doesn't even require a formal evaluation process!
I find that the most valuable conversations I have with teachers are informal but still targeted. For example, a teacher in my building wanted to incorporate a more meaningful participation grade into his classes. We brainstormed, I shared some research, and we collaborated on what a rubric might look like with student input. This all took place in a series of brief conversations and e-mails, but will have a huge impact for that teacher next year.
5. Managing People, Data, and Processes
Management skills sometimes get a bad rap in this new age of school leadership, but having efficient systems in place often precedes a principal's ability to effectively lead. I once asked a 30-year veteran teacher why the perception was that she no longer liked kids.
The question was not meant to belittle or embarrass, but to send the message that we need to keep growing as professionals or think about transitioning from the profession. The management of personnel, resources, and workflows are critical to the life of a school.
Research and Continued Reading
For those of you interested in more detail about the role of principals, effective leadership, and leading change in your school, below is a solid list of research in that area:
- How Leadership Influences Student Learning, by Leithwood, Louis, Anderson, and Wahlstrom
- Leadership Matters: What the Research Says About the Importance of Principal Leadership, by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and National Association of Elementary School Principals
- Leaders of Learning: How District, School, and Classroom Leaders Improve Student Achievement, by DuFour and Marzano
- The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning, by The Wallace Foundation
- Qualities of Effective Principals, by Stronge, Richard, and Catano
- Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, by Hattie