School & District Management

Analysis Teases Out Ways Principals Boost Learning

By Debra Viadero — October 01, 2003 2 min read

Researchers and policymakers have long maintained that effective school leaders can improve student achievement. Now, an analysis of 30 years of research on the subject sheds some light on how key characteristics of effective school leadership interact.

Researchers at Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, an Aurora, Colo.-based research group better known as McREL, spent a year and a half reviewing more than 5,000 studies on educational leadership. They found 70 that statistically examined the relationship between effective school leaders and student achievement.

“Balanced Leadership: What 30 Years of Research Tells Us About the Effect of Leadership on Student Achievement,” is available from the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Using meta-analytic techniques to compare the size of the effects from all those studies, the researchers determined that, for an average school, having an effective leader can mean the difference between scoring at the 50th percentile on a given achievement test and achieving a score 10 percentile points higher.

The study also identified 21 leadership characteristics that seemed to be linked to changes in students’ test scores.

The strongest of those was “situational awareness,” which the study defines as the extent to which the leader is savvy about the details and undercurrents in the running of the school and uses that information to address problems.

Whether leaders recognized and rewarded individual accomplishments, on the other hand, seemed to have the least impact on test scores, though it still mattered enough to be listed among the top 21.

The report also goes on to say, however, that “just as leaders can have a positive impact on achievement, they also can have a marginal, or worse, a negative impact on achievement.”

‘Order’ of Change

What seems to make the difference, the authors conclude, is whether the leader focuses on the right change for that particular school and whether he or she understands the “order” of that change.

A “first order” change, for instance, is one that is consistent with a school’s existing values and practices and offers obvious benefits to everyone involved. More difficult-to-produce “second order” changes call on educators to break with their traditions.

“We believe this explains why, in some cases, people work hard to introduce improvements and things don’t get better. They get worse,” said Tim Waters, the president of McREL, which also houses one of the U.S. Department of Education’s regional education laboratories. He conducted the study along with Robert J. Marzano, the center’s senior scholar, and Brian A. McNulty, the organization’s vice president for field services.

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