Why Investing in School Leadership Matters
“The impact of an effective principal is greater and broader than previously stated,” a new research synthesis from The Wallace Foundation reveals, “with positive impacts on learning and attendance, and teacher satisfaction and retention.” Principals matter, the report concludes.
We could not agree more. Principals are change agents. Charged with driving excellence and equity within their school communities, principals challenge the status quo. New findings from the Wallace report show that strong principals generate close to three months of additional learning for students in both reading and math annually. The same student achievement gains are true for a strong teacher. School leadership makes a difference.
By investing in school leadership and developing transformational school leaders, we ensure that all students have effective, engaging educators in every classroom, every year. A multi-year study from the RAND Corporation found significant student achievement gains in schools led by principals trained by New Leaders. Like the Wallace report, RAND also found that New Leaders principals are retained at higher rates and influence teacher hiring and retention as well as student attendance.
We also know that high-performing principals are not go-it-alone superheroes—especially now as the pandemic and systemic racism continue to increase the inequities in our school systems. Effective school leadership views challenges from an equity lens. Principals consider who is affected and identify key partners and human resources. They interpret existing data. They mobilize and engage all stakeholders in forging solutions for their unique context. Working together, they fuel collective efficacy and accelerate student learning.
New Leaders alum and successful principal coach, Claire Fisher, reflects on her own leadership development and how she learned quickly to engage her whole school community.
As a new school principal in Oakland Unified School District, I faced a huge budget shortfall. A grant was sunsetting at my school, and I had to be the holder of that change whether I wanted to be or not. Small class size was the hallmark of the school but without the grant, that was fading fast. Layoffs for teachers were on the horizon.
There was no easy answer. I wanted to engage my staff in the decision-making process, but to do that, I had to build their knowledge. I needed them to understand the broader implications of our financial situation. I had to do my homework fast. First, I had to learn how to balance the school’s budget even though I struggled with my own checkbook. Then, I had to figure out how to make the budget crisis palpable enough so they’d feel empowered to find a viable solution.
At the next staff meeting, I laid out the numbers. Then I reframed the question of layoffs into a question about our vision: What did we think was the most important thing at our school that allowed us to do good things for our students? Was it class size? Was it educational resources? What drove student success?
In the end, after weeks of rigorous discussion, my staff voted unanimously to increase class size so they could reach more students and continue to do what they do best: teach.
My first year as a school principal taught me how important it is for schools to make decisions for themselves. Principals cannot lead by themselves. We need thought partners, instructional leadership teams, family councils. Principals need to tap into the leadership capacity of every teacher, teacher leader, parent in their schools if we want students to thrive.
Like Fisher, transformational principals galvanize the whole school community to advance learning and teaching. Findings from the Wallace report identify several key leadership practices that fuel school improvement: engaging in high-leverage instructional activities (e.g., feedback and teacher evaluation); cultivating a productive school culture; building collaboration and professional learning communities; and managing staff and resources strategically.
Our evidence-based Transformational Leadership Framework (TLF) 2020 translates these findings into action. The TLF 2020 articulates leadership actions at three key levels - system, school, and team. In the wake of COVID-19 and national outcry for racial justice, we wanted to support leaders in tackling widening educational disparities, ensuring the well-being of their community, and replacing inequitable systems. Our Leadership Toolkit for Supporting Remote Instruction also offers ready-to-use resources to stay focused on student learning and teaching.
“It is difficult to envision an investment with a higher ceiling on its potential return than a successful effort to improve principal leadership,” the Wallace report states. When we develop school leaders who expect excellence and demand more equitable systems, we create change-makers who impact the whole school community. At a time when school systems are looking for ways to do more with less, strategic investments in leadership development and principal pipelines are cost-effective and deliver lasting pay-offs for adults and students alike.
As today’s crises continue to impact historically marginalized communities, a great principal must rise, again and again, to meet this moment - and whatever comes next. Now more than ever, our schools need the kind of leadership that brings out the best in everyone. Effective school principals like Fisher show us how strong leaders turn challenges into opportunities.