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Research Questions

  1. How can state and district decisionmakers and others who manage school systems create conditions for successful school leadership?

Abstract

Principals can influence student achievement in a number of ways — monitoring instruction; evaluating teachers; hiring, developing, and retaining school staff; maintaining student discipline; managing the school budget; establishing a school culture; and engaging with the community. While principals' skills in these areas are important, skills alone are not enough to ensure that they will be effective school leaders. This is because school and district contexts — which include school and district characteristics, practices, and policies — set the stage for principals' performance and strongly influence their effectiveness. In this report, RAND researchers provide guidance to state and district decisionmakers and others who manage school systems, focusing on four areas that research has identified as particularly influential in supporting principal effectiveness: placement in the school, evaluation, autonomy, and resources. We highlight how actions in these areas can create conditions in the school and district that foster principal success.

Key Findings

School Context Matters in Selecting a Principal

  • Making the correct match between a candidate and a vacancy and supporting the new principal during the transition period can greatly affect the ability of a school to perform to its highest potential.
  • A successful match depends both on the principal's capabilities and on how he or she is able to function within the school's context.

Early Career Support Can Reduce Turnover

  • Making certain that there are resources readily available to principals when they first start out at a school may make the difference between their staying or leaving soon after being hired.
  • A high-quality evaluation system can play a key role in helping principals improve their own performance and in helping central office staff make informed decisions about principals' career paths.

Autonomy Can Provide Incentives for Principals, but Should Be Considered Carefully

  • The "right" level of autonomy will vary by district and possibly by school or principal.
  • Three key issues that districts should consider in making this decision are principal capacity, district efficiency, and principal expertise.

Recommendations

Set up new principals for success by:

  • Matching principal candidates' skills with schools' specific characteristics and needs.
  • Cultivating the candidate pool.
  • Assessing the hiring process to determine whether those responsible for hiring have the information they need.
  • Providing resources to help orient new principals quickly.

Build evaluation systems that foster strong principals by:

  • Clearly identifying the purposes of the evaluation system.
  • Selecting multiple measures of performance that are aligned with standards.
  • Providing actionable feedback and support based on evaluations.
  • Providing ongoing training to evaluators.

Give principals the autonomy to lead schools by:

  • Carefully considering principal capacity, district efficiency, and principal expertise when deciding whether to award autonomy.
  • Providing professional development and other supports in areas of enhanced autonomy.

Provide principals with the resources and supports they need by:

  • Ensuring district leadership includes a principal representative.
  • Enabling principals to share or delegate responsibilities.
  • Reducing the administrative burden on school principals when delegation is not feasible.
  • Investing in supports for data-driven decisionmaking.
  • Providing professional development tailored to the needs of the school and capabilities of the principal.

Research conducted by

This report was made possible by funding from the RAND-Sponsored Research program. The research described in this report was conducted by RAND Education, a division of the RAND Corporation.

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