The role of principals in driving positive outcomes at high-growth schools

What makes a strong school principal, and how can schools and systems recruit and retain them?

That’s a question the Future Growth and Impact and Learning and Improvement Services teams at NWEA have been exploring after visiting three high-growth schools in Illinois toward the end of the 2021–2022 school year. The visits were part of an effort to learn about what fueled the schools’ success and, as it turned out, strong school leadership was a key factor in each case.

The schools were part of our High Growth for All study, which looked at annual growth patterns for more than 17,000 students over five years prior to the pandemic. The study identified 789 schools that showed greater than expected growth for students at every achievement level consistently over multiple years.

The fieldwork that NWEA conducted this past spring was part of an ongoing effort to try to understand the teaching, learning, and leadership taking place in these schools. Next, the team plans to study how teachers in high-growth schools differentiate instruction.

One of the key observations from this spring fieldwork was that, in each of the high-growth schools we visited, principals played a strong role in creating student-centered environments and positive team climates that valued collaboration and strong professional learning opportunities for teachers.

How principals drive school success

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that principals fuel positive outcomes in schools. Research shows school leadership is among the most important factors influencing school outcomes, including student achievement. Yet school leadership doesn’t always get the attention it deserves in conversations about school and system improvements.

Here’s what we observed: When it came to fostering student-centered learning environments, principals at the high-growth schools we visited insisted on high expectations and support for all students. “A cornerstone of our beliefs is that kids can learn if met at their instructional levels and given exactly what they need at that moment,” said one principal we interviewed.

When it came to fostering student-centered learning environments, principals at the high-growth schools we visited insisted on high expectations and support for all students.

School leaders also empowered teachers to innovate and try new things that supported personalized, student-centered learning experiences. Such approaches thrive in teaching and learning environments with a strong, trusting culture and high teacher engagement. As one principal explained, “We can have every shiny program and curriculum, and it doesn’t matter if the culture of the building and the climate are negative.”

In the schools we visited, principals modeled positive behaviors, were themselves collaborative, and shared responsibilities with staff. They gave teachers time to work together and ensured teachers received meaningful and constructive feedback. That feedback might come from an administrator, a coach, or a peer. “When it comes to our staff, it’s understanding that your greatest resource may be just right next door to you our down the hall,” said a principal.

The school leaders also provided teachers with a range of coaching and professional development opportunities. Teachers were frequently invited to participate in leadership development opportunities and asked to lead committees and engage with the school community.

There is no doubt the strong leadership we observed at these high-growth schools had a huge impact on the success of the schools and their students. These observations from high-growth schools align with what research, such as from UChicago Impact’s 5Essentials® Framework, shows leads to improved student outcomes. Based on these observations, I have also been considering ways that education leaders and policymakers can support school leaders and further develop the principal pipeline in US schools to ensure all school communities can benefit from having effective principals. Recruitment and professional learning are key.

Focus on targeted recruitment and professional learning for principals

States and districts can develop principal programs that elevate and support aspiring leaders through apprentice programs and other forms of targeted recruitment efforts. These should include efforts to attract talent from within schools. States and districts should also focus on providing principals with continuous development opportunities to retain and support effective principals.

Principal certification in many states requires principals to have teaching experience, providing natural opportunities to recruit potential school leaders from the teaching pool. One model to learn from is in Tennessee, which has a targeted recruitment plan and requires professional assessments. Tennessee’s School Leader Certification for principals’ requirements include attendance in a state-approved preparation program, a passing score on theSchool Leaders Licensure Assessment, and three years of teaching experience. In addition, Tennessee has rigorous leadership criteria, referred to as the Tennessee Instructional Leadership Standards (TILS), which inform the state’s recruitment plan. Tennessee is transparent and collaborative about the selection process, communicating effectively with teachers, staff, districts, and interest groups.

The recent teacher shortage in some states, and attrition of eight percent in the field, has led to an increase in recruitment programs. With the pandemic placing additional stress on principals, who were already wearing multiple hats, principal recruitment programs could bolster the principal pipeline at a critical time. The New York City Leadership Academy and Aspiring Principals Program recruitment efforts rely on mentors, former graduates, and principal networks for the recommendation of promising candidates. They also use information sessions and other forms of outreach and information sharing to attract potential principal candidates.

In the schools we visited, principals modeled positive behaviors, were themselves collaborative, and shared responsibilities with staff. They gave teachers time to work together and ensured teachers received meaningful and constructive feedback.

The continuous development of principals as effective school leaders means keeping principals informed about promising new trends, tools, and other resources. One way states and districts can support principals’ growth is by providing coaching opportunities, using federal funds. Additionally, providing principals with trainings on how to leverage data and understand school assessment results at an individual student growth level allows leaders to better assist teachers and foster a culture of teamwork at the school level. At the same time, principals and teachers need to consider multiple factors that impact test scores and support teachers in building practices that create a learning environment that meets student needs.

Policymakers and system leaders can also support principal development through a two-tier license-renewal process and strong leadership rubrics. Principals require licensing renewal every few years, depending on the state, and requirements may vary. Frequently, the process requires school leaders to take development classes or workshops and complete related coursework. To ensure principals continue to align with state leadership goals, additional in-person observation may provide insights during the renewal process. A two-tier license renewal model consisting of in-school evaluations, paired with development courses, can help principals as they continue their professional growth.

Creating strong leadership skill rubrics, as used in Tennessee, in combination with two-tier evaluations, will benefit schools and foster positive outcomes. State policymakers can leverage the principal license renewal process to encourage the continuous growth of educational leaders and ensure state standards are upheld. State and system leaders, however, should always be clear about their expectations for principals and provide them with aligned support. Evaluators, typically principal supervisors, should focus on high-priority issues like teaching and learning and school climate.

I believe these ideas can help develop future school leaders who will have the tools and know-how to improve a school’s climate, close opportunity gaps, and provide better outcomes for all children.

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