NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

School Leaders Matter

November 16, 2012

New research confirms what many already know: leaders make a difference. Specifically in a school setting, principals have an important impact on how the school operates and performs. New research looks at how individual principals' contributions lead to growth in student achievement, say Gregory F. Branch, program manager at the University of Texas at Dallas Education Research Center,  Steven G. Rivkin, professor of economics at University of Illinois at Chicago, and Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

  • The No Child Left Behind Act and the Obama administration have both encouraged and required the replacement of principals in persistently low-performing schools.
  • However, because of the lack of good performance measures and salary inertia, the labor market does not weed out ineffective principals.
  • This is especially troublesome considering that schools serving disadvantaged students have few options in acquiring more effective principals.

One problem with measuring the impact of school principals is that schools that serve affluent families often have high measures of student achievement based on what the child does at home. Therefore, the principal is perceived to be doing a better job than she actually is.

However, results from one study looked at indirect measures of a principal impact through student learning gains during a principal's tenure at school. Principals that have stayed at a low-performing school for more than six years have typically done a better job at increasing student performance. But in most low-performing schools, principals are turned over at a very high rate. This creates instability, which is cited as an impediment to improving student performance.

One primary avenue for assessing principal effectiveness is to look at the rate of teacher turnovers. Since the teacher is the most important factor in student achievement, a low-performing school should see an increase in teacher turnover. An effective principal normally fires low-performing teachers while increasing or retaining quality teachers.

Source: Gregory F. Branch, Steven G. Rivkin and Eric A. Hanushek, "School Leaders Matter," Education Next, Winter 2013.


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