Student Achievement: Principals Do Make a Difference

The principal’s role has become increasingly complex and difficult as the nature of society, political expectations, and schools as organizations have changed.  Principals today can no longer simply “run a tight ship” and expect things to sail along nicely.  The modern principal must become an educational leader, operating with all the skill and finesse of a successful CEO of a large corporation – but with a much smaller salary!  To be effective, principals must study leadership theory and be knowledgeable of practices and behaviors that impact student achievement.

Do principals affect student achievement?  We would like to think so, and common sense tells us that they do, although it may be through indirect processes.  Attempting to help answer the question, I conducted an extensive study as part of my dissertation.  The study examined the relative impact that principal managerial, instructional, and transformational leadership had on student achievement.  The study has been published in the March 2011 NASSP Bulletin, 95:1 (pp. 5-30).  The full article can be accessed online for those with a subscription to the Bulletin. Additionally, you can find a shorter discussion of the study through the “Publications” tab at the top of the page, or simply click here.  I would be happy to send anyone a full copy of the dissertation if you wish.

Without using too much “researchy” language, I want to discuss the various important findings from the study over the next few weeks.  First, I can say that the study very definitely answered in the affirmative.  Principals DO make a difference in student achievement! Here is a quick outline of the study: 131 high schools in Missouri participated in the study.  443 teachers from those schools gave survey responses measuring their perception of the principal’s leadership skills.  Those responses were then compared to the schools’ performance on the MAP, Missouri’s high-stakes annual test. Briefly, here are the highlights of the findings:

  • Factors from all three leadership types – managerial, instructional, and transformational – had an impact on student achievement, leading us to believe that all three are important in developing a model of principal leadership.
  • The only principal demographic variable that was linked to student achievement was education level.  Even when controlling for all other factors, the education level of the principal impacted student achievement.
  • While all leadership behaviors were linked to student achievement, five were significant statistically: Instructional Improvement; Curricular Improvement; Providing a Model; Identifying a Vision; and Fostering Group Goals.

 I will discuss the results in more detail in future blogs, especially focusing on several areas of competence that can inform principals who wish to become more effective.  But suffice it to say for now that the answer is clear. YES! Principals very definitely make a difference in their buildings.  It is clear that principals who are perceived to be more competent influence student achievement in spite of school and community contexts in which they operate.




About mprater

I'm a recently retired school teacher/administrator continuing to help people grow through personal learning. When not blogging, I do consulting work for schools and organizations, make presentations at conferences, and research for publication. At the same time, I have to set aside enough time to enjoy the "good life" of retirement!
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6 Responses to Student Achievement: Principals Do Make a Difference

  1. That’s a valuable study, and I’m glad it’s getting some fresh air in the NASSP Bulletin. Although nothing you wrote really surprised me, seeing it laid out in statistically significant form is reassuring.

    I’m also interested in what leadership characteristics tend to have no or inverse effects on student achievement. For example, are there traits that principals exhibit–perhaps out of well-intentioned beliefs that they are important–that actually do not generate student success? I’m tempted to believe that the inverse of the various behaviors you describe in the abstract might lead to declines in student achievement, but that’s not automatically a safe assumption.

    Thank you for sharing these important ideas.

    • mprater says:

      Thanks for your comments. It’s interesting to think about the principal behaviors that work adversely in the school. Something I didn’t discuss in this short blog was that I divided the schools up into quartiles by student achievement. Bottom 25%, next 25%, and so on. Then I ran a test of mean differences. Schools in the upper quartile were led by principals who exhibited strong leadership behaviors. I suppose that would be expected. But to address your comment, the schools in the lowest quartile were led by principals who scored lowest in all nine leadership behaviors that I tested. And they were significantly lower than even the schools in the second quartlie. That is, those principals who were perceived to be weakest were very definitely in schools with poorest achievement. Which raises the question, what do we do about that? Thanks again for your input.

  2. Greg Waddell says:

    Mike: I have great respect for principals. My wife works for the Desoto county school system in Northern MS. The is a ELL Teacher and recently received her M.A. in TESOL from the U. of M. (at 53 mind you, don’t tell her I gave away her age). One of the things you don’t mention in your post is the effect that a good principal has on the teachers. My wife loves her and respects the principals she deals with on a daily basis. As you are probably already aware, an ELL teacher has several schools she has to shuffle between. So, a great principal creates a chain reaction to the teachers to the students and to the parents of the teachers. That’s a high calling and you should be honored as heroes. You might be interested in a post I recently made to my blog about paradoxes in the workplace as I’m confident that the job of a principal entail all sorts of paradoxical forces that you have to contend with. Here is the link:

    • mprater says:

      Thanks for your comment, Greg. Yes, my blog didn’t speak to the specific leadership behaviors that effective principals exhibited in my study. I plan to expand on that in future posts, but you are absolutely right in saying that one of the behaviors is establishing relationships with teachers, empowering them, validating them, and giving them time to collaborate with each other. Even mundane managerial tasks that are taken care of efficiently tells teachers that they are important. Many leadership behaviors don’t impact student learning directly, but rather indirectly as the principal establishes a culture of caring, high expectations, and a calling toward collective goals. Thanks again for your input, and pass my congratulations along to your wife for receiving her Masters at such a ripe old age! *smile*

  3. Amy Wilborn says:

    Hi Mr. Prater,
    I enjoy reading your realistic viewpoint on what it takes to be a good principal and how it effects student achievement. I remember how the principal was involved in my high school over 20 years ago and he is still there doing great things. Thank you for your thoughts and putting them into the light.

    • mprater says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Amy. My favorite job as an educator was high school principal. The action, the direct involvement with teachers, parents, students, the sense that you are making a difference is a wonderful feeling. My best wishes are with you in your studies and future career.

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