How Principals Can Help

Since the emergence of the school effectiveness movement in the 1970s, it has been nearly axiomatic among education researchers that the school principal plays a vital role in school improvement. Strong leadership makes strong schools. 

But what, exactly, makes strong leadership? In answer to that question, most researchers have focused on leadership practices and, to a lesser extent, styles and processes — what principles do and how they do it – but paid scant attention to the scope of principals’ efforts in improve instruction. 

To what extent do principals distribute, or target, their instructionally oriented work with teachers? And, if they do, what is the impact? 

Researchers at Penn GSE have looked at this under-examined aspect of school leadership. Henry May and Jonathan Supovitz, both on the faculty at Penn GSE, hypothesized that broad-based campaigns designed to produce school-wide change would be less likely to produce significant improvements than would highly targeted efforts.  

Using data from principal logs and teacher surveys conducted in 51 schools in an urban district in the Southeast, they examined the frequency and scope of principal contact with teachers from both the principal and teacher perspective.  

Principals’ approaches varied from school to school, with some targeting the entire faculty and others homing in on only a few teachers. But the choices principals made about how to allocate their time and energy to improving instructional practices proved to be critical.  

May and Supovitz found that the frequency of a principal’s work with an individual teacher related directly to the magnitude of the instructional changes reported by that teacher. The more face-time a given teacher got from the principal, the more he or she reported changing instructional practice.  

Even so, the researchers’ counsel to practitioners is measured. While their findings clearly demonstrate the very real value of targeted interactions, May and Supovitz don’t frame this strategy as a silver-bullet solution to the challenge of improving instructional practice.  

“One might be tempted to conclude that targeted interactions are more fruitful than broad activities,” they observe, “but that is unlikely to be the case in every situation.” Rather, crediting principals with an understanding of their staff and school context, May and Supovitz urge them to distribute their efforts based on that knowledge – to continue to engage in broad-based activities but also to provide targeted assistance to those teachers most likely to benefit.  

“The Scope of Principal Efforts to Improve Instruction” appears in Educational Administration Quarterly. For the abstract, click here.

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