How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research

Over the past two decades, the policy landscape and the research landscape of school leadership have experienced major shifts. High-stakes accountability, multiple-measure teacher evaluation systems, heightened policy attention to educational equity, and other changes have altered expectations for what leaders need to know, how they spend their time, and the outcomes—both what and for whom—they pursue. In the world of school leadership research, new datasets and methodological advances have opened up new possibilities for measuring what leaders know and do. Longitudinal datasets that track large numbers of schools and principals over time allow researchers to better establish and understand the causal chains that link leadership to student learning and other outcomes, such as by examining how a school’s performance changes when a new principal takes the helm.

A new report from the Wallace Foundation summarizes what researchers have learned about the connection between school leadership and student achievement and other outcomes in the United States since 2000. Key findings include the following:

  • Effective principals are at least as important for student achievement as previous reports have concluded—and in fact, their importance may not have been stated strongly enough.
  • Principals have substantively important effects that extend beyond student achievement.
  • Effective principals orient their practice toward instructionally focused interactions with teachers, building a productive school climate, facilitating collaboration and professional learning communities, and strategic personnel and resource management processes.
  • Principals must develop an equity lens, particularly as they are called on to meet the needs of growing numbers of marginalized students.
  • Effective principals are not equitably distributed across schools.
  • Principals are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, but representation gaps with students are growing, which is concerning, given the payoffs to principal diversity.
  • Research on school principals is highly variable, and the field requires new investment in a rigorous, cohesive body of research.

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