Student Achievement Opinion

How Do Principals Influence Student Achievement?

By Urban Education Contributor — March 12, 2018 6 min read
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This week we are hearing from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium, @UChiConsortium). This post is by Elaine Allensworth (@E_Allensworth), Lewis-Sebring Director of the UChicago Consortium, and Holly Hart, Survey Director at the UChicago Consortium.

Today’s post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner’s perspective on this research.

Principals are often seen as the primary drivers of improvements in student achievement--and often held accountable for these improvements. But given the complex role expectations for principals, the question is, of all their responsibilities, what matters most for improving student achievement?

What The Research Examined

To explore this question, researchers from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium) looked at data from hundreds of Chicago schools to learn how principals were most effective at achieving higher learning gains on standardized tests. Then, we visited 12 schools, interviewing principals and teachers, to see firsthand what principals in schools with improving learning gains were doing that principals in schools without improving learning gains were not.

The mixed-methods study looked at teacher survey results and test score data from all Chicago Public Schools (CPS) schools: 458-509 elementary schools and 99-130 high schools (number of schools depends on the year and the specific analysis) over seven years, from the 2007-08 to 2013-14 school years. We conducted interviews in 12 schools, six elementary and six high schools, half with improving and half with declining/flat test scores--but all places where teachers had reported positively about their principals as instructional leaders.

What The Research Found

We found that principals primarily influenced student learning by fostering strong learning climates in their schools. Districtwide data showed that teacher leadership was a critical mechanism through which principals achieved this. Interviews indicated that in these schools teachers felt they had real ownership over finding solutions and knew their work contributed to overall school goals. Principals supported teacher teams by maintaining a collective focus on school goals and coordinating across teams so that solutions could be applied throughout the school.

What about other principal efforts to increase student achievement? We found other principal-led aspects of school organization that are associated with improving schools--such as teachers’ professional development, program alignment, and engagement with parents--matter for student achievement to the extent that they facilitate a strong school climate. Principals’ work with individual teachers can help those teachers, but if the learning stays with those teachers the overall impact on a school with 20-100 teachers could be small, and could be undermined by the broader school environment. A strong school learning climate facilitates teaching and learning so that all teachers and students are more successful than they would be without those schoolwide supports.

What does it mean when a school has a strong learning climate? Strong learning climates are safe, supportive environments with high, consistent, and clear expectations for students. Much of what contributes to a strong learning climate is associated with the expectations and actions of teachers and other adults in the school building to work together around schoolwide goals. School staff support each other and hold each other accountable for the success of all students, not just those in their classroom.

Key to maintaining these high expectations was a student-centered environment where neither students nor teachers had to opt-in to receiving supports. It was not up to students to come to a teacher when they fell behind. It was not up to an individual teacher to choose to reach out to students and assist them. Adults in the building developed common supports for all students with the engagement of all teachers. There was also a recognition that high expectations for students’ behaviors are equally important as their academic outcomes, and mutually reinforcing. Staff members at multiple levels continually examined student data of various types, including behavior, attendance, grades, student work, test scores, and other assessments.

In contrast, in schools where teachers thought highly of their principals but there were not strong gains, improvement relied on individuals rather than the entire system. A teacher or team of teachers may have received professional development, or developed an effective new way of supporting students, but that knowledge was not shared across the school. School leadership teams may have had strong goals around building an academically-focused environment, but did not meet regularly around student data to monitor how well they were meeting their goals. The principal may have empowered teachers to lead different aspects of work in the school, but then did not coordinate across teacher teams, or keep the work focused on reaching school goals.

Implications For Practice

With all of the responsibilities principals have, and the myriad leadership strategies at their disposal, it can be difficult to discern what will help them be most effective in improving student achievement. A safe and academically-focused climate is essential for improvements in learning. How do principals improve their school climate? Through teacher and staff collaboration around common goals and problems. Thus:

  • Successful principals empower school teachers and staff to take collective ownership of the school vision, to develop school-wide solutions to common problems, and monitor their progress.

  • Successful principals serve as bridges across a school. They manage shared leadership by guiding, coordinating, and monitoring the work of teachers and leaders in the school, using student data to help teachers and staff assess their efforts.

  • Successful principals help teachers and school staff develop systems of student support that are universal and opt-out, instead of opt-in, and focused on students’ behaviors as well as their academic outcomes.

We hope that this research will help principals and district leaders get a clearer picture of what distinguishes the practices of principals whose schools show improvements in learning from those that do not, helping them to make the best use of principals’ time and resources. Improvements in school climate through coordinated, school-wide supports set up all teachers and students to be successful.

Read more about these findings in the UChicago Consortium’s new research snapshot.

The research reported here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant #R305A120706 to the University of Chicago. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.

Previous blog posts by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research:

Curious about other research topics partnerships have written about for this blog? See this Guide to the NNERPP EdWeek Blog for all previous blog posts organized by research topic area to easily find other posts of particular interest to you!

The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.