How principals affect teacher and student outcomes
Principals have complex, demanding jobs that are vital to schools, but to what extent do their actions affect school outcomes? Dr. Brendan Bartanen, K-12 education policy researcher, explores how principals and principal turnover indirectly affect outcomes like student attendance rates.
“My work shows that principals can play a big role in reducing chronic absenteeism and that districts should consider them as important actors as they work to increase attendance rates,” Bartanen said.
Bartanen is an assistant professor of K-12 education in the Department of Educational Administration and Human Resource Development. He set out to study school leadership because, despite increasing opportunities to leverage large-scale education datasets from districts and states, there remains a lack of evidence-based research on the topic.
“This is troubling from a policy perspective because we cannot provide many good recommendations about how to recruit, develop and retain high-quality leaders in schools,” Bartanen said.
Principals’ indirect influence
Teachers are the primary pathway through which principals can affect student learning. Bartanen’s prior research shows that ineffective leadership or lack of administrative support is one of the top reasons teachers decide to leave.
“The principal’s effect on student achievement is indirect — they influence the composition of the teaching staff through hiring and retention, and they create conditions in the school that allow teachers to be successful,” Bartanen said.
Another way principals influence student outcomes is by the school vision they create. They are responsible for promoting a climate where students feel safe and valued and establishing high expectations for learning.
Bartanen’s recent research identified student attendance as another outcome that principals can affect. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a majority of states are using chronic absenteeism, defined as missing more than 10% of school days, as a metric for school accountability.
“Beyond accountability, attendance is an important student outcome on its own,” Bartanen said. “Absences reduce the amount of instruction that students receive and there is a clear causal link between absenteeism and lower student learning.”
Bartanen described principals as “middle managers” in the school district bureaucracy that leave their positions quite frequently, resulting in high turnover. They can move laterally to a new principal position, move up for a promotion or down for a demotion.
“Given all of the ways principals matter for students, teachers and schools, the high rate of turnover should be worrisome,” Bartanen said. “Turnover rates also tend to be substantially higher in schools that serve large numbers of disadvantaged students.”
Turnover is not always bad though. Bartanen compared schools in two states for more than a decade to understand the impact of principal turnover. He compared schools that experienced principal turnover to similar schools where the same principal remained.
He found, on average, principal turnover has a short-term negative effect on student outcomes and teacher turnover. Negative effects were largest when principals were promoted to the central office or transferred to a different school. However, no negative effects were found when a principal was demoted.
“This suggests that while districts should generally try to increase the stability of leadership in schools, they should not shy away from replacing principals who are not doing a good job,” Bartanen said.
Most of Bartanen’s previous research was conducted in Tennessee, but he hopes it continues to inform school policy in more states. He said his ultimate goal is to provide high-quality, actionable evidence to policymakers and practitioners who are in a position to effect change.
“Work on school leadership has helped to drive state attention to policies that attract and retain high-quality principals, and it has also provided confirmatory evidence that the state’s early commitment to educator accountability has helped to spur continued improvement in student performance,” Bartanen said.
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