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A Look at How Principals Really Drive School Improvement

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The nation's more than 90,000 principals are key to the long-term success of their schools—but maybe not in the way they might think, according to a new analysis by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

Principals are the linchpin of the Windy City's efforts to overhaul schools, according to Chicago's Schools Chief Janice Jackson, who has highlighted efforts to give school leaders more say in district policies. The study suggests the most effective leaders in the district are those who focus more on culture than curriculum.

"It's a shift in perspective from a focus on the curriculum and individual teachers to focusing on the collective work of the school," said Elaine Allensworth, co-author of the report. "A lot of times people think school climate is something you work on and take care of so you can get to the real work of teaching and learning, but what we find is learning is inherently social and emotional. If students don't feel safe and engaged, they aren't learning."

The consortium tracked seven years of data, from 2007 to 2014, from about 600 elementary and secondary schools in the Windy City, comparing student test results with surveys from teachers and students about their experiences in school. Then the group conducted 12 deeper case studies, comparing elementary and high schools with rising or declining test scores. 

Researchers found schools with the largest student achievement gains over the long-term had leaders who built and supported teacher teams and created an "opt out" school culture. That means principals in improving schools set up systems to automatically enroll at-risk students in support—rather than relying on students to "opt in" by asking for help—and to bring all teachers together to solve problems. For example, students who miss several homework assignments would be automatically enrolled in lunchtime tutoring or afterschool homework help; they could choose not to attend, but the school policies would make it easier to seek help than avoid it. 

"A lot of times principals are really concerned with improving test scores and they think that means they need to focus on the tests themselves. So they focus on test-prep or asking teachers to teach to the test, and we find there's no strong evidence for that," Allensworth said. "We just keep finding over and over again, the more students feel safe and supported in school ... the stronger the learning gains and the bigger the improvement in learning gains. It's easy to get caught up in all the other things you could be doing as a principal and lose sight of the importance of students feeling safe and supported."

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