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Study: Good Principals Make a Difference in High-Poverty Schools

From guest blogger Jaclyn Zubrzycki

How important is school leadership? Where are the most effective leaders, and how can we tell that they—and not circumstance—are responsible for their schools' success?

"Estimating the Effect of Leaders on Public Sector Productivity: The Case of School Principals," a new working paper from Gregory F. Branch of the University of Texas, Dallas, Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford University, and Steven G. Rivkin of Amherst College sets out to answer these and other questions about effective principals, using data on 7,429 principals from the University of Texas, Dallas's Texas Schools Project.

The report focuses in particular on principal transitions and on principals in schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students, to test the argument, echoed in public debate on education, that leadership is "especially important in revitalizing failing schools."

Overall, the researchers find wide variation in principal quality. The variation is greater among schools with large concentrations of low-income students. The researchers found that high-quality principals—as determined by a value-added model that includes student achievement and school characteristics—had a large positive impact on their students' achievement:

"A principal in the top 16 percent of the quality distribution...will lead annually to student gains that are .05 standard deviations or more higher than average for all students in the school (emphasis is the authors')."

They also tended to be associated with teacher turnover in the lowest-performing grades in their schools—indicating, perhaps, that these principals are trying to replace low-performing teachers with more-effective ones.

The report finds that schools with a high number of low-income students are more likely to have first-year principals. First-year principals are also more likely to be present in schools with low achievement as measured by scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS).

An interesting note is that "the operation of the labor market...does not appear to screen out the least effective principals. Instead they frequently just move to different schools." The researchers call for a separate investigation into this issue, which brings to mind this recent Texas-to-D.C. principal transition.

Does this ring true? Where are the effective leaders in your district?

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