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Why principals matter more than ever

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As I’ve talked with school principals over the past year, I’ve consistently heard three themes. First, principals recognize that their leadership matters now more than ever before, and they are stepping up to meet the needs of their teachers and students.

Second, they realize that one of their important roles is building a supportive and understanding climate for their teams, who have had to facilitate teaching and learning in ways they never imagined.

Finally, principals keep schools moving forward by building on progress. During all the chaos that was the 2020-21 school year, that meant seizing on “early wins” to build momentum for the massive work ahead.

Those themes are consistent with what we are learning from new research on principals, and with resources that Learning Forward is creating to help principals thrive in these challenging times. Investing in principals is key to keeping us all on track.

Principal leadership matters

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that effective principals are essential for positive student and school outcomes, but we now have stronger research evidence than ever before, thanks to a report commissioned by The Wallace Foundation and authored by researchers from Vanderbilt University, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Grissom, Egalite, & Lindsay, 2021). The report, which was released in February 2021, synthesizes studies involving over 22,000 principals. Its findings build on previous research summaries about school leaders, showing that the impact of an effective principal is stronger and broader than previously thought.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that effective #principals are essential for positive student and school outcomes, but we now have stronger research evidence than ever before. Click To Tweet

For example, the researchers found that replacing a principal with an effectiveness level at the 25th percentile with a more effective principal (at the 75th percentile) yields an additional three months of learning in math and reading for students. To put that in context, the authors compare it with a previous study (Hanushek & Rivkin, 2010) that found a similar impact from replacing a less effective teacher with a more effective one. Although that study found a marginally larger impact of 4 months of learning, the authors point out that a principal’s impact is felt on a larger scale: principals impact 483 students, on average, compared with 21 students, on average, for teachers.

Principals affect school climate

Principals’ emphasis on creating a positive school climate as one important facet of leadership also resonates with research and with Learning Forward’s experience in the field. In fact, we included building a positive school climate as a core skill in the recently-released book, The Learning Principal – Becoming a Learning Leader, which I co-authored with Kay Psencik and Stephanie Hirsh. The book is full of principal-ready tools and resources that are aligned to the four key leadership behaviors discussed in the Wallace-commissioned study, of which building a positive climate is one. (The other three in the report are engaging in instructionally-focused interactions with students, facilitating collaboration and professional learning communities, and managing personnel and resources strategically).

In the Wallace-commissioned report, the authors highlighted several previous studies that made connections between school climate, teacher performance and turnover, parent support, and outcomes for students. According to the research, when teachers and students feel safe and supported by the principal, they are more likely to achieve collective goals. The recent pandemic is a textbook example of educators and students needing to feel safe and supported while nearly every practice and system had to be adjusted.

One of the questions we sought to answer in our book (see chapter 3) is: How do school leaders maintain a positive school climate while leading change? Our work has taught us that when principals can effectively manage the change process, they significantly contribute to teachers’ and students’ feelings of support. Understanding how to do that is vital.

We have found it helpful to ground change management work in Shirley Hord and James Roussin’s (2013) six beliefs about change:

  • All change requires learning, and improvement requires change.
  • Implementing a change through social interaction increases potential for success.
  • Individuals change before the school changes.
  • Change affects the emotional and behavioral dimensions of people.
  • People opt for change when they foresee potential for enhancing their work.
  • A change leader’s role is to facilitate conversations that invite others to own the desired change.

 

In keeping with those principles, we believe school leaders are more successful in building and maintaining a positive school climate when they see change as a learning exercise and understand that collaboration is essential for those impacted by change. Even during a crisis like the pandemic, when principals and their teams have to manage massive change efforts in order to continue to support teaching and learning in their buildings, having a learning lens is not only possible but helpful.

''When principals and their teams have to manage massive change efforts in order to continue to support teaching and learning in their buildings, having a learning lens is not only possible but helpful.'' @fbrownLF Click To Tweet

Early wins build a foundation

Given the significant number of changes during this past year, it was crucial that principals and their teams celebrate early wins – that is, recognize what was going well, take pride in it, and build on it. Taking time to celebrate early wins reinforces that the school is on the right path and creates energy and momentum to sustain efforts through the most challenging parts of the process.

''Taking time to celebrate early wins reinforces that the school is on the right path and creates energy and momentum to sustain efforts through the most challenging parts of the process.'' @fbrownLF Click To Tweet
Tool: Establishing and celebrating early wins

As schools were ramping up efforts to offer virtual and hybrid instruction, one early win many experienced was selecting a learning management system or online platform and supporting teachers to use it. Another early win was the creation and execution of policies and practices to help students feel connected and safe in a virtual environment. Districts also celebrated successful lessons from teachers, high-quality virtual professional learning, and examples of student engagement.

The Learning Principal includes a tool for establishing and celebrating early wins. The tool offers examples of early wins and strategies for naming and celebrating them in your context. Click the thumbnail to download an excerpt of the tool.

How we can all invest in principals

Clearly, principals matter, and effective principals rise to daunting challenges, including the pandemic. Investing in principal development and support can ensure that the good work already underway continues and grows. The federal dollars now available through the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Programs (ESSER) provide an opportunity for districts to make those investments.

Investing in principal development and support can ensure that the good work already underway continues and grows. @fbrownLF Click To Tweet

Here are three steps districts leaders should consider right now to support principals:

  1. Read the Wallace-commissioned report (or the executive summary) to understand the kinds of principal skills and actions that contribute to school and student success.
  2. Explore other resources, like The Learning Principal and Learning Forward’s journal, The Learning Professional, that offer specific content and tools to help districts support principals.
  3. Invest ARP and ESSER funds in efforts to strengthen and sustain principal effectiveness and track how those efforts are having an impact on principals’ actions, teacher responses, and outcomes for students.

 

Moving all principals to high levels of effectiveness will directly benefit student outcomes, especially at a time when students need all the support they can get.

References:

Grissom, J.A., Egalite, A.J., & Lindsay, C.A. 2021. How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research. New York: The Wallace Foundation. Available at http://www.wallacefoundation.org/principalsynthesis

Hanushek, E. A., & Rivkin, S. G. (2010). Generalizations about using value-added measures of teacher quality. American Economic Review, 100(2), 267-71.

Hord, S. & Roussin, J. (2013). Implementing change through learning: Concerns-based concepts, tools, and strategies for guiding change. Corwin.

Chief Learning Officer/Deputy at Learning Forward | + posts

Frederick Brown is Learning Forward’s chief learning officer/deputy, where he leads the association’s business services and membership teams as well as overseeing program content for the Learning Forward Academy and conferences and institutes.

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