Education

Why Struggling Schools End Up With Less Effective Principals

By Denisa R. Superville — February 01, 2019 3 min read

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

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.

Events

School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Branding Matters. Learn From the Pros Why and How
Branding your district matters. This webinar will provide you with practical tips and strategies to elevate your brand from three veteran professionals, each of whom has been directly responsible for building their own district’s brand.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
How to Make Learning More Interactive From Anywhere
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. school districts are using hybrid learning right now with varying degrees of success. Students and teachers are getting restless and frustrated with online learning, making curriculum engagement difficult and disjointed. While
Content provided by Samsung

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Clinical Director
Garden Prairie, IL, US
Camelot Education
Principal-Elementary School
San Antonio, TX, US
Southwest Independent School District
Principal-Elementary School
San Antonio, TX, US
Southwest Independent School District
Principal-Elementary School
San Antonio, TX, US
Southwest Independent School District

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: January 13, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read