The education field has long understood that improving class instruction was the key to improving student learning.

But for the past two decades, the focus of national and state policy, as well as the efforts of education practitioners, has been almost exclusively on teachers and their practices.

In 2004, however, an important study established that principals were important to student learning, and since then there has been a growing interest in how principals are hired, trained, and supported. Now, a new synthesis of research, published in February, indicates that principals—who they are, how they organize schools, and the ways they establish schoolwide cultures—are even more important than previously thought.

The new report, “How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research,” by Jason Grissom, Anna Egalite, and Constance Lindsay, reviews decades of research and recalibrates what we know about the influence of principals. “It is difficult to envision an investment in K-12 education with a higher ceiling on its potential return than improving school leadership,” the report’s authors say.

This week’s episode of ExtraOrdinary Districts in Extraordinary Times features a wide-ranging discussion of this new report, its implications, and its possibility for affecting state and national policy in the future. Joining Tanji Reed Marshall and Karin Chenoweth are

  • Annette Anderson, professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Education;
  • Richard Gonzales, associate professor at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education; and
  • Steven Tozer, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

One of the challenges to acting on the implications of the report, Anderson said, is that in all the efforts to re-open school buildings during the pandemic, principals have added even more items to their to-do lists in terms of simply managing the physical plant. “We need to get the role of principals solidified as principal teacher,” she said.

This is especially true because the prevailing culture of school districts means that often the only way to be recognized for doing a good job is to take a job in the central office or in another school in a different district, she said. “We’ve got a challenge because we have not made the principalship important enough to stay.”

Part of the challenge, the panelists agreed, is that state and national policies have not focused on the question of principal recruitment and retention but rather almost exclusively on teacher recruitment and accountability. This has resulted in a culture of sorting teachers—and principals—into the category of “effective” or “ineffective,” rather than focusing on ensuring that all educators have the kind of support, training, and supervision to help them be highly effective.

“Good teachers aren’t teachers who simply sort their students into high-performing and low-performing,” said Tozer. “They’re teachers who develop the capacity of every kid in their classroom. Similarly, our message to our new principals is that adult learning in your school is job one. They’re not there just to sort the good teachers out from the bad teachers. They’re there to help every single teacher become a really good teacher.”

The panelists pointed to the need for more research to understand what it is that highly effective principals do and to make sure that school districts value the right things.

“If we prioritize things like teacher retention; if we prioritize things like school culture and climate as much as student achievement,” said Gonzales, “everyone focuses their time, money, effort, energy toward those things.”

Note: The Wallace Foundation commissioned both the new report and the 2004 report. Both can be found on its website, along with a great deal of other information about efforts to improve the principalship. The Wallace Foundation also provides financial support to Ed Trust to produce the ExtraOrdinary Districts podcast.