Qualities of Effective Principals

By Jim Hull

When I was in graduate school over a decade ago, I wanted to focus my research on principal quality. The hot topic at the time was teacher quality, where teachers were found to have the single greatest in-school impact on student achievement. I wondered what impact principals had on the effectiveness of their teachers and how that in turn had an impact on student achievement within the school.

As it turned out, I found no one really knew what influence principals had on their school’s performance. There was very limited research on principals, and the research that did exist wasn’t able to isolate the impact of principals.

Following graduate school, I got a job to, in part, identify high-performing, high-minority, high-poverty schools. Not only would I identify such schools in a given year, but I also would go back in future years to see if those schools kept up their high achievement. In some cases, I found, schools’ performances dropped significantly.

Some researchers would simply chalk up such a decline to the statistical phenomenon called “regression to the mean,” where a very high score one year is likely to drop back closer to the true average the next. But I prefered to check out what changes, if any, took place at those schools. In almost every case of declining scores, I found that the principal had left the school. Of course, such anecdotes don’t prove that principals cause higher student achievement, but it was further evidence to me that there seemed to be a relationship. To know for sure, researchers would have to isolate the impact of a principal on the school’s overall achievement.

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