Breaking Down a New Study about the Effectiveness of Top-Tier Principals with The Fund’s Director of Data & Policy

A new study from the Wallace Foundation synthesizes two decades of research about principals to highlight the impact that top-tier principals can have on student learning. To better understand the study’s findings and implications, Fund team member Wayne Zhang had a short conversation with Director of Data and Policy, Nelson Gerew

Wayne Zhang: What are your biggest takeaways from this report?

Nelson Gerew: I’d say I have two main takeaways. First and foremost, the study reinforces just how important strong principals can be for student performance. The authors reviewed six longitudinal studies using data from more than 22,000 principals from Chicago and other districts, and found that principals can have a significant impact on student achievement, almost as much as teachers. While teachers were shown to have slightly larger effects on student learning than principals of a similar effectiveness level, the impact on learning from principals were felt across the entire school, and were not confined to just individual classrooms. The study authors note that replacing a principal in the bottom 25th percentile of effectiveness with one in the 75th percentile can add the equivalent of 2.9 more months of learning in math and 2.7 more months of learning in reading during a just single school year. That’s large in terms of educational interventions.

Second, I think the study underlines just how much data supports the idea that top-tier principals can affect student outcomes. While the study itself looked at six longitudinal studies, the outcomes are also situated with a larger in-depth review of hundreds of different studies that have been done about principal effectiveness over the past two decades.

And one final point: Those longitudinal studies reflect a type of research that wasn’t really possible until relatively recently. Carefully looking at principal job histories is important; it’s something we look to leverage at The Fund to inform our work.

WZ: What do you think this report means for Chicago’s principals?

NG: I hope that it means that Chicago’s principals can take a step back, congratulate themselves and feel proud of the value and work that they bring to their school communities! The report specifically calls out the effectiveness of Chicago’s school leaders, noting that some high school leaders have directly affected instruction by establishing “safe, college-focused school climates.” In elementary schools, meanwhile, the strength of some principal-teacher relationships has also resulted in accelerated reading achievement for students. This is all to say: If we haven’t already expressed how grateful we are for everything principals have been doing during this crazy year, now is the time to really appreciate and celebrate them! 

WZ: What is the implication of this report for The Fund’s work?

NG: Simply put, this report tells us that our present mission of cultivating and supporting leadership in Chicago’s public schools is still urgent and worthwhile. Through our programming, we aim to build a strong pipeline of qualified leaders and simultaneously support in-role school leaders with resources, community-building and professional development. Meanwhile, on the data and policy side, we aim to work with the district and other partners to create the best possible conditions for Chicago’s principals. We’re also gathering information from and about principals in things such as our annual Principal Engagement Survey and Principal Overview reports. By analyzing who principals are, where and how they work, and how they transition between jobs, we hope to better understand how to maintain a strong group of school leaders in Chicago who will in turn do the best by our students. This report underscores how important quality school leadership can be; it’s our job to keep working with our partners to increase and sustain such leadership citywide.

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