Don’t forget about the principal

Don’t forget about the principal! Too often, any conversation about schools portrays teachers as working alone in their classrooms to improve student achievement. The school principal might as well be invisible. What most people don’t realize is that these educators — who often put in close to 80-hour weeks — have a profound impact on the students in their school, too, according to the Center’s latest report, The Principal Perspective. In general, schools that have highly effective principals: 

  • Perform 5 to 10 percentage points higher than if they were led by an average principal 
  • Have fewer student and teacher absences 
  • Have effective teachers stay longer Typically replace ineffective teachers with more effective teachers
  • Have principals who are more likely to stay for at least three years
  • Have principals who have at least three years of experience at that school

While teacher quality has been at the center of education reforms, what has gotten lost in the debate is the importance of the school principal. Reformers often point to the fact that teachers have the single greatest impact on student achievement, but many times they fail to realize that principals come in a close second. In the main, that is because principals have a significant impact on the effectiveness of the teachers in their school. Our report found that is due to two reasons:

1) Effective principals retain and recruit effective teachers, while schools typically lose their best teachers when a school is led by an ineffective principal.

2) Effective principals improve teacher performance by providing strong instructional support.

Effective principals not only build effective teaching staffs, they make the teachers they do have better. With that in mind, wouldn’t it be easier to improve student achievement by improving the quality of 99,000 principals rather than focusing primarily on improving 3.3 million teachers individually?  

Improving teacher quality is important to improving our lowest-performing schools, but improving the quality of their principals is just as important. Focusing more on recruiting and retaining highly effective principals will be essential to turning around our lowest-performing schools. Without effective principals leading these schools, the most effective teachers are going to leave the school to work for a more effective principal. So if we really want to improve the our lowest-performing schools, policies and resources need to be focused on improving principals as well as teachers. – Jim Hull

For more information on the impact principals have on student outcomes, check out the Center’s report The Principal Perspective.

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