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Why Struggling Schools End Up With Less Effective Principals

Schools with the most disadvantaged students—those with low average test scores and those serving high percentages of students in poverty and students of color—tend to have less experienced and lower-rated principals.

And that's true regardless of whether those schools are located in urban, suburban, or rural settings, though the problem is more acute in urban and rural areas.

That's according to a new research brief from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, which looked at a decade of data on Tennessee principals.

"We see this pattern consistently for teachers virtually everywhere that anyone has looked at it," said Jason Grissom, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University and the faculty director of the Research Alliance. "So, in that sense, it seems sort of obvious that the same would be the case for leaders."

But because school districts play a bigger role in making principal assignments than they do with teachers, the inequitable distribution of effective and experienced school leaders should not necessarily replicate the pattern for teachers, Grissom said.

Districts Are Hiring Lower-Rated Principals for Disadvantaged Schools 

There are several factors that may influence why disadvantaged schools end up with less effective and less experienced principals. High poverty schools tend to have higher turnovers. As a result, they are more likely to be hiring newer principals more often, and research does suggest that principal capacity is much lower in the first year on the job, Grissom said.

But the research found that districts were hiring lower-rated principals for the jobs in schools serving high percentages of low-income children and students of color. New principals in high-poverty schools and those serving other disadvantaged students had lower ratings the year before they were hired than new principals in more advantaged schools, according to the brief.

The research also found that new principals in urban and rural schools have less experience as assistant principals.

"In short, principals in the schools with the greatest needs are the least positioned to drive improvement, and the patterns of principal sorting we observe likely to contribute to opportunity and performance gaps between schools serving higher and lower concentrations of marginalized student populations," the researchers wrote in a working paper accompanying the brief.  

Why Does This Matter?

Research has shown that principals are second only to teachers among the in-school factors that affect student learning.

Principals also set the tone and climate in the schools and are a major reason in determining whether effective teachers stay or leave. Grissom's previous research also showed that under good principals, lower-rated teachers were also more likely to leave the school building.

Can the Results Be Extrapolated Beyond Tennessee?

In the working paper accompanying the brief, the researchers examined data from the national 2011-12 Schools and Staffing Survey, which is published by the National Center for Education Statistics, and found that the pattern that they saw in Tennessee was generally true nationally. 

What Can Districts Do?

Districts can take more intentional steps to ensure that the schools most in need of effective and experienced principals get them, Grissom said.

They can offer more money to principals to work in those schools. But they must also change the culture to one where a job in a high-poverty school is seen as the capstone to an education career. In many cases, principals who excel in challenging schools are rewarded with new assignments at schools with more resources, and many principals see jobs in high-poverty schools as a stepping stone to a more more-advantaged school, Grissom said.

"Part of it is shifting the mindset around what it means to be a leader of a challenging school environment," Grissom said. "What I would really like to see is that districts reorient the way they think about those positions, so that the thinking when there is an opening for a leader in a low-achieving school...is, 'how do we get the best possible person into that school?'  I'm not saying that districts aren't doing that, but the data at least aren't reflecting success at doing that if that is the typical district's intention."

States, too, can play a role by offering opportunities for districts to differentiate compensation for principals in those challenging school environments and providing more resources to high-poverty or low-achieving schools that would allow districts to increase supports for principals in those schools. 

You can read more of the brief and working paper here.

Related stories:

Under Good Principals, Low-Performing Teachers Head for the Door 

A Look at How Principals Really Drive School Improvement

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