I know a lot of great school principals who are very modest when it comes to talking about how their effectiveness as leaders correlates with the success of their schools, but let’s be honest — school principals play an incredibly large role in the success (or failure) of their schools.

In an April 2021 Educational Leadership article, entitled “What Great Principals Really Do,” researchers and authors Jason Grissom, Anna Egalite, and Constance Lindsay completed a meta-analysis of six major research studies on principal effectiveness and concluded the following: “The quality of a school's principal is a big determinant of student achievement.”

The authors then added, “Principals also affect all students in the school. And principals impact not just student learning but the experiences that students — and teachers — have in their schools. The principal can influence how often a student is absent or suspended, and how likely a teacher is to stay in the school for another year. For these reasons, it is hard for us to imagine a better investment in a school than the quality of its leadership.”

Further analysis into research studies by the authors led them to a conclusion that effective school principals regularly exhibit the following types of behaviors and/or characteristics:

  1. They focus on improved instructions practice, and they do this by way of leveraging teacher evaluation and providing educators with quality feedback and coaching about their craft.
  2. They cultivate a positive school climate, and they do this by empowering their staff and working with students to help them feel safe, valued, and supported.
  3. They foster collaboration by way of teaming or a professional learning community model, whereby a group of people work interdependently to achieve a common goal for which members are mutually accountable.
  4. They strategically manage resources to optimize them to best support teaching and learning.

When done correctly, the authors argue that these traits promote equity in the school by all, and for all. They write, “Principals play an important role in the closing of achievement and opportunity gaps for historically marginalized groups. A growing body of mostly qualitative work demonstrates the channels through which principals' equity-oriented practices can serve these goals.”

With such high stakes, ensuring that a school can attract and retain an effective principal is paramount. In this 2019 MultiBriefs Exclusive, I explored what factors drive principal turnover and what can be done about it. It was determined that the biggest drivers to turnover for principals are inadequate preparation and professional development, poor working conditions, insufficient salaries, lack of decision-making authority, and high-stakes accountability policies. To combat that, the article pointed out these strategies that school districts could implement to keep their principals at their helms:

  • Develop high-quality professional development opportunities for principals.
  • Improve working conditions that influence principals’ satisfaction with their role.
  • Provide compensation for principals that is commensurate with the responsibilities of the position.
  • Provide principals with more autonomy and greater decision-making authority in school decisions.
  • Reform accountability systems to support principals in their efforts to improve student learning.

Success can breed further success. With the right principal at the helm, there is a positive energy in the school and a focus on continuous improvement. Staff feel it, and students feel it. Small gains become big gains, and the cycle of achievement continues and blossoms the longer the principal stays in the role.