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Five practices of effective principals

The report notes that support from district and state officials is essential if school-level leadership is to be successful.

Strong leadership is essential to a positive school culture and student success, and effective principals use five key practices to ensure that their schools are successful, according to a new report from the nonprofit Wallace Foundation.

The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning,” a Wallace Foundation Perspective, distills lessons from school leadership projects and major research studies supported by the foundation since 2000.

“After more than a decade of investment in school leadership, we can confirm the empirical link between school leadership and improved student achievement,” said Will Miller, president of The Wallace Foundation. “No longer seen as glorified managers of buildings and bus schedules, today’s principals must be their schools’ chief improvement officers, strengthening instruction, building a culture of high achievement, and marshaling the skills of other educators to boost student performance.”

The report gleans lessons from Wallace-supported scholarship by leading researchers at institutions including the RAND Corporation, Stanford, Vanderbilt, the University of Washington, and the Universities of Minnesota and Toronto, as well as Wallace-funded projects in 24 states and numerous districts. It concludes that five practices are central to effective principal leadership:

1. Shaping a vision of academic success for all students.

The literature evinces a broad consensus that setting clear, rigorous learning expectations for all students is crucial to closing the achievement gap between advantaged and less-advantaged students, and for raising achievement overall.

An effective principal makes sure that the notion of academic success for all gets picked up by the faculty and underpins what researchers at the University of Washington describe as a school-wide learning improvement agenda that focuses on goals for student progress.

2. Creating a climate hospitable to education.

For students to reach learning goals, and for teachers to be able to help them, principals must establish such basics as safety and orderliness, but these alone are not sufficient to create a positive instructional climate. Research indicates that effective principals also focus on building a sense of school community that is upbeat, welcoming, solution-oriented, and professional.

To change negative school climates–and begin to combat teacher isolation, closed doors, negativism, defeatism, and teacher resistance–the most effective principals focus on building a sense of school community, with the attendant characteristics. These include respect for every member of the school community, professional and solution-oriented environments, and efforts to involve staff and students in a variety of activities, many of them school-wide.

3. Cultivating leadership in others.

Consistent with scholarship on leadership in general, effective school principals empower those around them, including influential teachers and staff teams. Hallmarks of this practice, which correlates with better student performance on math and reading tests, include consistent and well-defined student learning expectations, and frequent discussion and pedagogical critiques among teachers.

Principals who get high marks from teachers for creating a strong climate for instruction in their schools also receive higher marks than other principals for spurring leadership in the faculty, according to research from the University of Minnesota and University of Toronto.

4. Improving instruction.

Research indicates that, next to teaching itself, principal leadership is the most important in-school factor in driving student achievement, but the report also shows that effective principals work to get the most out of the teaching staff. They do this by promoting high expectations, attacking teacher isolation and instituting research-based strategies to improve learning through professional development.

Whether they call it formal evaluation, classroom visits or learning walks, principals intent on promoting growth in both students and adults spend time in classrooms (or ensure that someone who’s qualified does), observing and commenting on what’s working well and what is not. Moreover, they shift the pattern of the annual evaluation cycle to one of ongoing and informal interactions with teachers.

5. Managing people, data and processes to foster school improvement.

Researchers found that effective leaders nurtured and supported their staff members, but were also not averse to “aggressively weeding out individuals who did not show the capacity to grow,” in the words of one study.

The report also notes that, despite the rule of thumb that a principal should be in place five to seven years in order to have a beneficial impact on a school, the average length of a principal’s stay in 80 schools examined by one study team was 3.6 years. This high turnover was associated with lower student performance on reading and math achievement tests.

The report singles out the need for support from district and state officials if school-level leadership is to be successful. It also notes that school leaders cannot transform failing schools by themselves, but that without effective principals, there is little likelihood that these schools can be turned around.

Subsequent reports in the Wallace series will focus on:

  • The district role in building what the Wallace calls the “principal pipeline,” consisting of four interlocking practices: defining the job of the principal and assistant principal; providing high-quality training for aspiring leaders; hiring selectively; and evaluating principals and giving them the on-the-job support they need.
  • The state role in improving school leadership.
  • An update of a 2007 report on principal training, based on new research.


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