The Good Principal

Everyone agrees that principals are crucial to a school’s success. But what makes a principal effective? By Anita Neal Harrison. Illustrations by Blake Dinsdale

In an oft-quoted passage from the Spring 2000 edition of Northwest Education, journal editor Lee Sherman neatly summed up why the job of school principal is a particularly daunting one:

“Research tells us that principals are the linchpins in the enormously complex workings, both physical and human, of a school,” Sherman writes. “The job calls for a staggering range of roles: psychologist, teacher, facility manager, philosopher, police officer, diplomat, social worker, mentor, PR director, coach, cheerleader. The principal is both lowly and lofty. In one morning you might deal with a broken window and a broken home. A bruised knee and a bruised ego. A rusty pipe and a rusty teacher.”

Add to this an additional, more recent burden—enormous pressure on principals to hire and retain teachers whose students meet achievement benchmarks—and you’ve got a job that few can be expected to carry out with distinction.

Yet each school year thousands of principals beat the odds and do excel, women and men who love their leadership positions, relish the challenges and take pride in running schools that perform well year after year. Who are these people? And what are they doing that so many others aren’t?

“We know that principals matter for a school’s success, but we don’t know much about why and how they matter,” says Jason Grissom, an assistant professor of public affairs in MU’s Truman School of Public Affairs. Grissom and Susanna Loeb, a professor of education at Stanford University, are working to provide answers, thanks in part to a $1 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, the self-described “research arm” of the U.S. Department of Education.

“Our goal at the end of this study is to be able to offer some tangible recommendations for making principals more effective in terms of improving student outcomes,” Grissom says. “We’re excited about the proposal because it’s pretty ambitious. The kind of study we’ve proposed is essentially the first of its kind.”

If it seems implausible that no one has previously studied what makes principals effective, understand that what Grissom and Loeb seek to do involves more than just asking the question, “What makes a good principal good?” Their goal is to provide data-driven answers, conclusions drawn from large-scale samples collected over long periods of time.

“What differentiates the older research from what we’re doing now is, almost uniformly, previous principal studies have been based on really small data sets,” Grissom says, often case studies or samples from one or two school districts. “The kind of education research I do, using quantitative analysis of large-scale data sets, up until, really, now, has been focused on teacher effects.”

Attention on principals has increased as state and federal school reform policies have demanded more performance accountability at the school level. The result, Loeb says, has been a change in job descriptions for principals, who are being invested with much more power and responsibility.

“School-level accountability just naturally places more control at the level of the school leaders,” she says. Today’s principals, for example, are likely to be responsible for budget allocations, choosing teachers, and developing long-haul strategies for improving student performance.

Unfortunately, Loeb says, the same system that demands these new tasks has done little to support the principals hired to implement them. This new research should help.

“It’s a natural progression for the research to be more focused on principals as the job becomes more central to student opportunities,” she says.

It’s natural but not at all simple. Unlike teachers, principals do not interact with students each day, nor do principals start with a new set of “subjects” each year.

“With the principal, it’s different,” Grissom says. “They have an entire school under their care each year. They’re not impacting the students directly because they’re not interacting with them directly. What they’re doing is creating an environment where students can learn and where teachers can teach.”

Consequently, it’s much trickier to tease out principal effects than it is teacher effects. Grissom and Loeb are hoping to get quite specific in sorting out the effects various principal characteristics have on the school environment. Namely, they’re looking to identify personal attributes, skills, orientations and behaviors that might promote a better learning environment—as evidenced by advances in student test scores, higher graduation rates and better teacher-satisfaction levels.

“Education research is about finding ways to help kids learn better,” Grissom says, adding the aim is to get a “360-degree view” of principals to identify specific points for interventions. “We want to know what kind of skills they need, what training they need, what pre-service experiences they need,” Grissom says. “Then we will examine how those factors contribute to the management and leadership practices that are associated with strong school performance.”

The study focuses on “malleable factors,” traits and behaviors principals can acquire through education and training and that school districts can look for in hiring.

“Not everybody is cut out to be a school leader,” Loeb says. “It may be success has everything to do with whom you select, or it could be you can improve principal performance with the right supports... We’re trying to get at the combination of selection and supports that are required to get good leaders in schools.”

Grissom became involved in the study thanks to Loeb, director of Stanford’s Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice, or IREPP. In 2008, IREPP launched its School Leadership Research project, a multiyear, collaborative effort aimed at “providing a systematic, data-rich analysis of school leadership, including the school leadership labor market and what makes some school leaders more effective than others.” Grissom and Loeb’s work is part of that ongoing project.

Grissom began working with Loeb as a graduate student at Stanford. When he arrived in Palo Alto, Grissom says, he had four bachelor’s degrees—in statistics, economics, political science and multidisciplinary studies in education policy—all earned at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C.

At Stanford, Grissom added a master’s in education, with a specialization in education policy and, eventually, a doctorate in political economics. His dissertation examined the causes, consequences and implications of centralized authority in public schools. He chose his subject, he says, because it combined all of his academic interests: using economic tools to study school systems’ politics of administration and management.

It was an ideal preparation for Grissom’s current work, Loeb says, particularly since her own background focuses more on labor markets. “His background in political economics and training in public leadership are particularly useful. So much of how school districts are run has to do with local politics and the state politics that govern schools... He’s also familiar with literature in the business world on how to measure leadership qualities, which is useful when studying leaders.”

Grissom likens principals to “middle managers in a complex educational bureaucracy.” Because principals are usually at least a step removed from students, enormous amounts of data are required to link specific traits and behaviors among principals with particular school outcomes, and to differentiate principal effects from school effects.

Grissom and Loeb will collect data from four urban school districts over three years. The sources will include surveys and assessments administered to teachers, assistant principals and principals; annual interviews with school and district leadership; and observations from specially trained “shadowers” in classrooms.

Grissom and Loeb will also have access to district and state administrative data on students, teachers, administrators and schools, including student test scores, district demographics and human resources data.

“There are lots of different moving parts, but having a lot of data over a long time period is important if you want to be able to attribute specific gains in the learning environment to specific principal characteristics or behaviors or orientations,” Grissom says.

To better demonstrate relationships between these many moving parts, Grissom and Loeb have developed a visual representation of the study variables. The diagram shows that the skills and orientations a principal brings to the job affect school success chiefly by influencing executive behaviors. These behaviors, in turn impact the school’s total “learning environment,”—a concept that includes “everything from keeping the lights on and making the buses run to making sure teachers have the resources they need and space to teach,” Grissom says.

Among the most important questions the researchers will tackle are two of the most basic: Who gets hired, and why? Or, to put it another way, how does a district go about recruiting principals? What traits, experiences, and other qualities are they looking for?

The study will also seek to better understand the effects of experiences and characteristics that principals bring with them to their jobs.

Questionnaires, the researchers say, will help them get baseline data on education, previous administrative and teaching experience, demographic qualities and traits principals bring on day one.

They hope gathering such “pre-service information” might reveal personal traits and learning experiences that the most successful principals share in common.

For example, Grissom and Loeb think that some development programs probably do a better job than others, “but we don’t know much about that,” Grissom says. “Also, maybe it’s useful for principals to have a lot of teaching experience before becoming principals, or maybe that doesn’t matter very much.”

The study will also consider in-service training. Are new principals getting mentoring, continuing education and other advantages that might boost their performance, or is it all on-the-job experience? For more experienced school leaders, the questions will involve years of service and challenges met. Finally, the study will attempt to gather hard data on what the researchers call “management skills.”

Grissom and Loeb have developed a measurement tool called a “task-effectiveness inventory” that asks questionnaire responders to rate a school leader on some 40 tasks related to administration, instruction and relationship building. These questions will focus on what the researchers describe as the “sub-category of management;” this because Grissom and Loeb’s pilot work in the Miami-Dade County public school system found that good management was the trait most consistently associated with positive school outcomes—more so than, say, building positive relationships with teachers.

Principals will use the inventory to rate themselves, and assistant principals and a random sample of teachers will assess their principals with the tool as well. This “multi-rater framework” is designed to provide a check on the reliability and validity of the survey. Responses will be used to determine how effective principals are at tasks as diverse as evaluating curriculum, hiring teachers, interacting socially with staff, disciplining students and working with local community members.

Pull Quote: Given a better understanding of what makes a good principal good, districts would be able to improve leadership based on specific, verifiable, outcome-oriented practices and qualities.

“Leadership orientations” are considered a separate variable from management skills. The researchers will measure the orientations by use of the so-called Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire—an instrument that has seen extensive use in the business world.

The MLQ is a 45-item questionnaire used to determine a leader’s style, whether “transformational,” that is, focused on behaviors that stir and inspire; “transactional,” centered on clear chains of command and motivating subordinates via a system of rewards and consequences; or “passive/avoidant,” being more hands-off and delegating decision-making authority to others.

“In practice, principals exhibit characteristics of all three styles,” Grissom says. “The questions for the researchers are whether principals whose style falls more in one camp than another tend to achieve better results and whether some styles of leadership work better in some school environments than in others.”

As with the task-effectiveness inventory assessment, the MLQ will be given to principals, who will rate themselves, as well as to assistant principals and teachers, who will rate their principals. Grissom is especially interested in seeing how various leadership orientations are or are not linked to positive school outcomes.

“A lot of leadership literature suggests that what makes someone successful doesn’t have much to do with their capacity to budget or hire, but with personality—being transformational, getting people to get on board with your vision for the organization. Actually, a lot of the educational administration literature focuses on this,” he says. “One of the things we want to see is whether that contention is actually true: Does it matter that you are a transformational leader if you don’t know how to budget? We really have no idea. We’re testing for both of those.”

All of the factors mentioned so far, pre-service traits and experiences, management skills, and leadership orientations, ultimately affect what researchers classify as “executive behavior”—a category that includes what the principal does on a day-to-day basis.

Gaining insight into day-to-day traits is as important as it is elusive. Questionnaires, because they are completed outside of the rough-and-tumble of everyday experience, will not alone accomplish the task. Instead, Grissom and Loeb are relying on the aforementioned “shadowers,” trained observers who will record in 5-minute intervals how principals divide their time among a preset, exhaustive list of tasks.

“It’s a nifty piece of data,” Grissom says of the observations, “and a major part of the grant funding goes toward doing the shadowing. It’s not cheap, but it’s very useful. When you go in and observe, it gives you an opportunity to triangulate and see how the surveys are or are not backed up by what you observe.”

The principal’s day-to-day behaviors, then, feed directly into the learning environment which, in turn, affects student and teacher outcomes. Student outcomes are measured through such factors as achievement test scores, school completion rates, attendance rates and disciplinary actions. While these are the outcomes that most people use to measure school success, Grissom emphasizes that, for the present study of principals, they are “distal outcomes.”

“They are pretty far down the chain from what a principal actually does on a day-to-day basis,” Grissom explains. “So you need to find proximal outcomes, things that are closer. That’s why it’s important to also collect data from teachers and ask teachers, ‘How satisfied are you?’ and to look at teacher turnover rates.”

Drawing data from so many sources will help Grissom and Loeb to provide a unique view not only of which attributes, skills, orientations and behaviors help create good principals, but also how those various factors might foster school success. The payoff, the researchers say, is helping school districts get effective leaders into the schools that need them most. “There are equity issues involved,” Grissom says.

What’s more, conclusions Grissom and Loeb draw in the study could have implications for principal education, selection, training and incentives. Given a better understanding of what makes a good principal good, districts would be able to improve leadership based on specific, verifiable, outcome-oriented practices and qualities.

This next level, Grissom says, “would be to build on what we find to develop new interventions for school leaders so that you can translate the research into actual changes in practice at the school or district level.”

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