What role do principals play in improving teaching and student achievement?

A new report from the Institute of Education Sciences in the US has found that an intensive approach to helping principals (headteachers) improve their leadership practices did not improve pupil achievement or change principal practices as intended.

The study looked at the effectiveness of a professional development (PD) programme for elementary (primary) school principals that focused on helping them to conduct structured observations of teachers’ classroom teaching and provide targeted feedback. It provided nearly 200 hours of PD over two years, half of it through individualised coaching. One hundred schools from eight districts in five US states took part in the study. Within each district, schools with similar characteristics were paired together, and within each pair, one school was randomly assigned to participate in the programme for two years while the other did not.

To measure the effects on pupil achievement, the researchers compared pupil test scores in grades 3 to 5 (Years 4 to 6) for both years of programme implementation plus one additional school year. They found that, on average, pupils had similar achievement in English or maths whether they were in schools that received the principal PD programme or not.

The results of the study also found that although the programme was implemented as planned, principals did not increase the number of times they observed teachers. In fact, teachers whose principals received the PD reported receiving less frequent teaching support and feedback than teachers whose principals did not receive the PD.

Source: The effects of a principal professional development program focused on instructional leadership (October 2019), Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education

What makes a good principal?

The Florida Department of Education and REL Southeast have reviewed research on the effect of principals’ (head teachers) characteristics on pupil achievement. Researchers categorised “principal characteristics” as relating to a principal’s experience, behaviours, or beliefs and leadership styles.

 
Reviewers examined more than 800 studies published between 2001 and 2012, of which only 52 met inclusion criteria. The review found mixed results for all categories. However, there were several principal behaviours associated with improved pupil achievement, all of which showed an indirect influence on pupils. These were:
  • Providing feedback to teachers about their classroom performance;
  • Protecting teaching time;
  • Promoting high standards for learning;
  • Supporting teacher professional development;
  • Using data to make decisions; and
  • Establishing positive, professional relationships within the school.
Only one study reviewed was a randomised control trial addressing the relationship between principal characteristics and pupil achievement. It found that eighth grade pupils (Year 9) randomly assigned to talk with their principals about upcoming state tests had higher state scores than the control group who didn’t have such conversations.
 
The authors discuss how this data may be used to determine why some principals are so effective. In particular, it can inform the structure of principal preparation programmes and help them understand which parts of their jobs influence pupil achievement.
 
Source: A Systematic Review of the Relationships Between Principal Characteristics and Student Achievement (2015), Institute of Education Sciences.

Student test scores a reliable measure of principal performance?

The US states of Tennessee, Florida, and Louisiana have linked hiring, promotion, and dismissal of principals (head teachers) to student test scores. A recent paper in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis modelled three approaches to assessing principal performance through student test measures and compared these with each other and against non-test methods.

Approach one: school effectiveness

This method takes a simple measure of school effectiveness and attributes this performance to the principal. Drawbacks of this approach include that it does not account for factors such as neighbourhood effects, student backgrounds, and the legacy of previous leaders.

Approach two: relative within-school effectiveness

This method compares school effectiveness under different principals. It has the advantage of accounting for neighbourhood effects, but it does not reflect changes in challenges over time and can only be used where schools have data for more than one principal.

Approach three: school improvement

This method measures school improvement between years. Unlike methods one and two, this does not assume that principal performance is reflected immediately in student scores. A main difficulty of this method is that it requires a principal to serve enough time to enable multiple-year comparisons.

The researchers analysed data on 523 principals in Florida public schools from 2003 to 2011. The three methods provided different results (particularly method three, which rarely correlated with the other two). Compared against non-test school outcome measures, method one showed the best correlation and method three was negatively correlated.

Source: Using student test scores to measure principal performance (2015), Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis