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Principal Effectiveness and Leadership in an Era of Accountability: What Research Says

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Document date: April 23, 2010
Released online: April 23, 2010


In an era of greater school accountability, leadership matters. For decades, principals have been recognized as vital to the effectiveness of schools, but strong empirical evidence on the extent to which, and the ways in which, school leaders matter has not been available. CALDER researchers have advanced our knowledge in this area by skillfully drawing on rich state longitudinal databases. This brief synthesizes new findings on the effectiveness and distribution of principals, the characteristics of good leadership, and how best to prepare principals for this increasingly demanding job.

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For decades, principals have been recognized as important contributors to the effectiveness of schools. In an era of school accountability reform and shared decisionmaking and management in schools, leadership matters. Principals constitute the core of the leadership team in schools. We know from existing effective schools research that ?effective principals influence a variety of school outcomes, including student achievement, through their recruitment and motivation of quality teachers, their ability to identify and articulate school vision and goals, their effective allocation of resources, and their development of organizational structures to support instruction and learning? (Horng, Kalogrides, and Loeb 2009,1).

While the importance of principals has long been recognized by educators and researchers, empirical studies on the effectiveness and distribution of principals have been undermined by the lack of data to study principals, their complex work, and their impact on school outcomes. In fact, ?little systematic evidence exists about the quantitative importance of principals, making it difficult to sort through alternative policy proposals? (Branch, Hanushek, and Rivkin 2009, 2).


Recent work by CALDER researchers has advanced our knowledge base on school leadership, and specifically principal effectiveness, by drawing on longitudinal state data to estimate the effects of principals for different kinds of schools and students. Taken together, this work sheds some light on important issues related to school leadership and principal effectiveness.

  • These studies provide evidence that the quality of a principal affects a range of school outcomes including teachers' satisfaction and their decisions about where to work, parents' perceptions about the schools their children attend, and, ultimately, the academic performance of the school.
  • The evidence demonstrates that the school principal's job is complex and multifaceted, and the effectiveness of principals depends on their level of experience, their sense of efficacy on particular kinds of tasks, and their allocation of time across daily responsibilities.
  • Findings from this work also demonstrate that principals with the experience and skills found to be related to effectiveness are less likely to be working in high-poverty and low-achieving schools, raising equity concerns about the distribution of effective principals.

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Topics/Tags: | Education

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