Five Differences a Great School Principal Makes

Great principals build great schools. The difference a good principal makes is lasting—for students, teachers, families, and communities. Here are the top five ways good principals create great schools.
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Some schools returned to virtual learning, while others are in-person for the first time since the pandemic started in March 2020. No matter the format, and the demands of yet another historic school year, one thing remains as true this year as it has in the past: Great principals build great schools.

Research, combined with our experience developing equity-focused leaders, point to the same resounding fact: There is no single instance of a high-performing school without a highly effective principal.

Yet, according to a recent report by the Wallace Foundation, the positive and lasting impact of school leadership is often underestimated. We know that school leaders make decisions every day, large and small, that reflect their fundamental belief in and commitment to the unlimited capacity of students to learn and grow. And, we know that effective school leaders can remove barriers to student success. Successful school leadership changes lives.

Here are the top five ways great principals create great schools:

1. Accelerate learning—up to an additional three months of learning each year

The impact of an effective school principal on student learning is the same as the impact of a strong teacher. On average, students in schools with effective principals gain up to three additional months of learning each year. The difference is scale. A teacher impacts 20-30 students. A principal impacts upwards of 500 students on average each year.

2. Keep good teachers

A great principal increases the likelihood that students will have effective teachers. Strong school leaders foster a school climate that attracts, energizes, and sustains great teachers. A successful principal also establishes systems that enable teachers to learn together and continuously improve instruction. And, a strong principal is less likely to retain poor teachers.  

3. Prioritize equity

An equity mindset is essential to student learning and success. An equity-focused principal builds an inclusive learning environment that allows students, teachers, and families to feel safe, valued, cared for, and known. Strong principals replace inequitable systems and act on the truth that all children can learn at exceedingly high levels. This is especially true when a principal of color is at the helm. Research shows higher student achievement and better school outcomes, specifically for teachers and children of color.

4. Improve attendance

Like teachers who elect to stay in schools with strong principals, students come to school more regularly. The reason? An instructional leader keeps the focus on learning and teaching, working to ensure students are learning to their maximum capacity and teachers are prepared to teach to their maximum potential.

5. Transform struggling schools

Research confirms that schools need effective leadership to reverse a long-standing pattern of underperformance. A good principal is a change agent, challenging the status quo and engaging with the school community to create lasting solutions. To turn around a struggling school, an effective leader fuels a sense of collective efficacy, galvanizing the entire school community to support students’ dreams for themselves and for our world.

The same magnitude of impact is true for New Leaders-trained principals. An independent evaluation by RAND Corporation found that students attending a school led by a New Leader principal demonstrate higher student achievement in reading and math than their peers.

RAND also found that New Leaders principals positively influence student attendance and teacher retention. Moreover, New Leaders principals stay in their roles at higher rates than their peers, serving as powerful and positive forces for change in their communities.

Not only is developing strong school leaders an effective strategy to create great schools, it is also cost-effective. The RAND Corporation found that comprehensive leadership reforms cost, on average, $42 per student and represent just 0.5% of districts’ budgets—compared to teacher professional development costs of $200 per student totaling 3% of districts’ budgets.

So why does a strong principal matter?

Because great principals create the conditions in which students and teachers thrive. Investing in educational leadership spurs impact at scale. Cultivating effective principals ensures that students have strong, engaging educators in every classroom, every year.

Now more than ever, as we face another unprecedented school year, it’s important to celebrate our school leaders. The difference a great principal makes is lasting—for our students, teachers, families, and communities.

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