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Three Questions About Education Leadership Research

Taking over the guest blog this week is Anna Egalite, assistant professor of leadership and policy at NC State. Previously, Anna taught elementary school and did a postdoc at Harvard. She'll be writing about education-leadership research—what we know, where we have good intuitions, and where we're still very much in the dark. Today, Anna is joined by NC State's Tim Drake, who she's been collaborating with on a project to redesign NC State's principal training program and share lessons learned with others.

A commonly cited statistic in education leadership circles is that 25 percent of a school's impact on student achievement can be explained by the principal, which is encouraging for those of us who work in principal preparation, and intuitive to the many educators who've experienced the power of an effective leader. It lacks nuance, however, and has gotten us thinking about the state of education-leadership research—what do we know with confidence, what do we have good intuitions (but insufficient evidence) about, and what are we completely in the dark on? With this in mind, we've brainstormed three big questions about school leaders. The research in this area is incomplete, but a recent development makes us hopeful that better data are on the horizon.

1. Do principals impact student performance?

Quantifying a school leader's impact is analytically challenging. How should principal effects be separated from teacher effects, for instance? Some teachers are high-performing, regardless of who leads their school, but effective principals hire the right people into the right grade levels and offer them the right supports to propel them to success.

Another issue relates to timing: Is the impact of great principals observed right away, or does it take several years for principals to grapple with the legacy they've inherited—the teaching faculty, the school facilities, the curriculum and textbooks, historical budget priorities, and so on. Furthermore, what's the right comparison group to determine a principal's unique impact? It seems crucial to account for differences in school and neighborhood environments—such as by comparing different principals who led the same school at different time points—but if there hasn't been principal turnover in a long time, and there aren't similar schools against which to make a comparison, this approach hits a wall.

Grissom, Kalogrides, and Loeb carefully document the trade-offs inherent in the many approaches to calculating a principal's impact, concluding that the window of potential effect sizes ranges from .03 to .18 standard deviations. That work mirrors the conclusions of Branch, Hanushek, and Rivkin, who estimate that principal impacts range from .05 to .21 standard deviations (in other words, four to 16 percentile points in student achievement).

Our best estimates of principal impacts, therefore, are either really small or really large, depending on the model chosen. The takeaway? Yes, principals matter—but we still have a long way to go to before we can confidently quantify just how much.

2. What skills are needed to ensure success as a modern school leader?

The fundamentals haven't changed, as a quick read of Dale Carnegie's classic text will reveal—smile; don't criticize, condemn, or complain; show appreciation. Specific applications to the field of education administration are obvious: Be a good manager, be organized, and follow the policies you set. These are concrete skills that can be taught in a preparation program and their value has been quantified. See, for instance, Grissom and Loeb, who point to the importance of practical managerial skills; Hess and Kelly, who write about the principal's role in supporting curriculum and instruction; and Grissom, Loeb, and Master, who demonstrate the value of teacher coaching. 

But there are also intangible skills that cannot be easily taught—being visionary and motivating, showing compassion, being a force for good, keeping children at the center of the work, and being cognizant of whether civil rights are being advanced or inhibited by the culture you build. This latter list highlights the skills that principal candidates need to bring to the table before their preparation program even begins, and it's this latter list that matters the most in our current context.

3. What are the characteristics of high-quality principal preparation programs?

Principal preparation programs have two primary responsibilities: Identify and admit the most promising candidates, then provide them with concrete skills that will equip them to be successful upon graduation. Studying exemplary programs offers a roadmap for how to do this well, but data limitations restrict how closely we can actually monitor their success in meeting these responsibilities.

We can show that there is sufficient systematic variation between programs in terms of test-score growth, for instance, that allows us to sort them into high, medium, and low performance categories. But we know too little about differences in the actual training received across programs. Administrative datasets rarely allow us to link principals to the specific program from which they graduated. Most programs can't even self-evaluate because they don't have data systems to track their graduates.

So what are we doing about all this?

With support from the Wallace Foundation's $47 million initiative to improve the quality of principal preparation, NC State has been engaged in redesigning our program to train principals who are ready to meet the demands of a constantly changing job. We joined forces with local school leaders to identify the skills and attributes of effective school leaders. We then developed our program selection criteria, curricula, assessments, and internship to align with this framework. We're now partnering with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and SAS to develop a leadership-development dashboard that tracks the career pathway and performance of our graduates, with a vision of scaling the system state-wide to include all North Carolina-based principal preparation programs and school districts.

The data don't exist yet to answer the most pressing questions about the relationship between principal preparation and leadership effectiveness. It's our hope that's about to change.

Anna Egalite and Tim Drake

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