Quality Leadership Matters Blog


New Wallace Report: Quality Principals Matter

February 25th, 2021 by


“It is difficult to envision an investment in K-12 education with a higher ceiling on its potential return than improving school leadership.”

–Grissom, Egalite, & Lindsay (2021)

The UCEA community is dedicated to supporting the preparation and development of equity-oriented and highly skilled principals. We know this requires supporting both faculty and program improvement efforts that prepare those future educational leaders.

To that end, we are excited to share a new research report that came out last week that provides rigorous and substantial evidence for something we’ve known for a long time: Quality leadership matters

With support from The Wallace Foundation, researchers Jason Grissom, Anna Egalite, and Constance Lindsay authored the report “How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research.” This work follows-up on findings from the foundational Leithwood Report (2004) and provides a comprehensive analysis of education research on principals over the last 20 years. Wallace also hosted a webinar with the authors and a discussion of impact on the field.

The authors’ approach lends essential new insights on the state of the principalship; the effectiveness and attributes of high-quality principals; and the vital role of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the profession. They investigate these dynamics by asking the following questions:

  1. Who are public school principals, and how have their characteristics changed over the past two decades?
  2. How much do principals contribute to student achievement and other school outcomes?
  3. What drives principals’ contributions? That is, what are effective principals’ characteristics, skills, and behaviors?

Shifts in the Principalship Since 2000

In their analysis of literature that addresses the face of the principalship over the last 20 years, the authors find an increase in the proportion of women in the field and a decrease in average experience. They also find that while there has been an increase in people of color in the principalship, that increase has been outpaced by the increase in the proportion of students of color in schools. 

Impacts on Student Learning

Additionally, the authors find important evidence of the major impact of high-quality principals. Their analysis shows that high-quality principals can boost student learning by nearly 3 months in math and 3 months in reading, annually. Given that principals can influence the learning of hundreds of children in their school buildings, this evidence makes a compelling case for recruiting, developing, retaining, and supporting skilled educational leaders. 

Attributes of Effective Principals

Importantly, the authors were able to isolate the most impactful skills and behaviors of high-quality principals. To be sure, excellent instructional leadership is at the core of these practices. At the same time, the principalship demands a plethora of skills and behaviors. These include approaches like adept management of personnel and resources; building a productive, supportive, and inclusive school climate; and facilitating broad-based collaboration and professional learning communities. 

Focus on Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion

Grissom, Egalite, and Lindsay also provide important evidence for the need for a diverse principal workforce that centers equity and inclusion in their work. Equity-minded principals use their positions to advance the wellbeing and success of all students, faculty, and staff, particularly those from marginalized groups. 

Supporting a Thriving Principal Community

It’s clear that a highly-qualified, experienced, and equity-minded principal workforce is essential to our students’ success. It’s also clear that success will require a multi-pronged approach with a wide range of stakeholders working together toward these common goals. 

So how do we build on the strengths of our current system and tackle the challenges ahead of us?

Implications for Pre-service Principals & Leadership Prep Programs

This study builds on existing research and current practice in many programs to offer a clear framework for the development of relevant, high-leverage assets in emerging leaders. This report also highlights the need to diversify the principal pipeline, both in terms of who enters the pipeline and the paths to entering the principalship. Postsecondary and higher education have vital roles to play in expanding access to the field and developing the assets of future educational leaders. Some programs are using innovative approaches like substantive curriculum reforms, reducing or eliminating standardized testing requirements, and expanded experiential learning. 

Implications for Partnerships and In-Service Learning for Principals

This report points to major opportunities for investment in our current principal workforce. Improvements in instructional leadership, along with high-leverage principal skills and behaviors, can yield substantial learning gains for students. We need to support local district partners in providing meaningful professional development and continuing education opportunities that center equity and collaboration while being grounded in the real-world contexts that principals work in every day. This study provides a research-based framework for structuring a targeted, data-driven, outcomes-focused approach. These efforts could go far in supporting and retaining active principals as well.

Implications for Policymakers

Not surprisingly, a major contribution that policymakers can offer is the allocation of financial resources for principal preparation programs and high-quality professional development. That includes reducing the financial burden of postsecondary and continuing education. Additionally, these resources will be even more vital in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, with many community colleges and other under-resourced institutions experiencing deep financial impacts.  However, these key stakeholders can do much more. Policy initiatives that promote a diverse workforce and equity-minded certification standards often hinge on the decisions of government officials. Further, we need policy decisions that support the expansion of principal pipeline opportunities. 

UCEA’s Ongoing Contributions to Quality Leadership

In so many ways, UCEA plays a vital role as a bridge among these many stakeholder groups. Our organization is at the forefront of the latest and most important issues in policy, practice, and research. In a highly specialized–and often siloed–world, UCEA serves to bring people together around a common cause: promoting high-quality educational leadership. 

UCEA’s daily work directly focuses on strengthening programs and the preparation of educational leaders, while promoting the critical research of and in the educational leadership field. Through our partnership with the Wallace Foundation, we guide leadership prep programs in their efforts to improve through the University Principal Preparation Initiative (UPPI). UCEA is also a major contributor to national initiatives like the development of the NELP standards and the NPBEA. And just as importantly, we support the development of diverse, emerging educational leadership scholars through our Graduate Student Council, the Jackson Scholars Network, the Boyd National Politics Seminar, and the Clark Research Seminar. UCEA also maintains mutually supportive, strategic partnerships with professional organizations of practitioners, member institutions, educational agencies, research centers, and policymakers. UCEA’s annual convention is the highlight of our calendar, a culmination of the year’s best educational leadership research and collaboration initiatives. 

These are just a few of the dynamic approaches that we use to foster and engage with a thriving educational leadership community. Exciting new research in this report provides us with even more information to advance quality leadership and bring people together to support the vital work of school principals. 

Note: This Wallace Report is the first installment of a 3-part research series investigating the state of the principalship. Stayed tuned for a report about assistant principals and another about leadership preparation and professional development, due out in April and May 2021, respectively.

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