The principal perspective: at a glance

Lean on Me. Principal Skinner from The Simpsons. Blackboard Jungle. Articles and books have been written and movies have been made about principals, with the image of a principal as everything from an ineffective, out-of-touch authoritarian to a hard-charging leader capable of single-handedly turning around a low-performing school. What impact do principals actually have on a school? Can they turn schools around? If so, what do they do to achieve such success?

The research has been growing. First, principals have an effect estimated to be second only to teachers (Seashore-Louis, et al. 2010), with their biggest impact found in elementary schools and in high-poverty, high-minority schools. In general, schools that have highly effective principals:


  • Perform 5 to 10 percentage points higher than if they were led by an average principal (Branch, Hanushek and Rivkin 2012, Waters, Marzano and McNulty 2003)
  • Have fewer student and teacher absences (Waters, Marzano and McNulty 2003)
  • Have effective teachers stay longer (Beteille, Kalogrides and Loeb 2011, Branch, Hanushek and Rivkin 2012, Portin, et al. 2003)
  • Typically replace ineffective teachers with more effective teachers (Beteille, Kalogrides and Loeb 2011, Branch, Hanushek and Rivkin 2012, Portin, et al. 2003)
  • Have principals who are more likely to stay for at least three years (Branch, Hanushek and Rivkin 2012)
  • Have principals who have at least three years of experience at that school (Branch, Hanushek and Rivkin 2012)


Some other highlights from research:

The job of principal has changed dramatically. Principals are now more than ever focused on student achievement while still retaining their traditional administrative and building manager duties. Because of this, principals typically work 10 hour days and many believe the job is just not “doable” (Usdan, McCloud and Podmostko 2000) as it is currently configured.  

Principal turnover adversely impacts schools. Although gains in student achievement temporarily slow whenever there is a new principal, the impact is felt more at the most challenging schools. In these schools, the new principal is more likely to have less experience and be less effective than a new principal at a less challenging school, often resulting in a longer, more pronounced slowdown of achievement gains. 

The reason for the staffing difference is that many principals gain their initial experience at challenging schools, then transfer to easier-to-manage schools as those positions open up. A study of one large urban district found that principals’ second or third schools typically enrolled 89 percent fewer poor and minority students than their first position (Beteille, Kalogrides and Loeb 2011, Miller 2009). Unfortunately, since most principals transfer instead of leave the profession, higher-achieving, easier-to-manage schools could inadvertently act as safe havens for ineffective principals.

So what makes an effective principal? The research has shown that principals who are highly effective are more likely to:

  • Have at least more than three years of experience overall
  • Have at least three of experience at that school
  • Have shared leadership responsibilities, rather than just delegated paperwork
  • Have a clear sense of instructional goals 
  • Give ongoing, informal feedback and support toward those goals
  • Conduct unannounced, informal teacher evaluations or classroom visits and give feedback afterward
  • Have school board leaders who exhibit a clear vision of what constitutes a good school and create a framework that gives principals both autonomy and support to reach those goals

Turnaround strategies and principals. If a principal truly is one of the key ingredients to turning around a school, how do we evaluate federal and state turnaround strategies that involve removing or replacing the school’s principal? While there is no specific research on this topic, the research on principal effectiveness seems to suggest that we evaluate strategies based on two factors: the effectiveness of the principal and the time allowed for a turnaround to occur. 

First, a principal has enough of an impact on a school that replacing an ineffective principal with an effective one could have a significant impact. The key would be hiring a principal with enough experience and a proven record of effectiveness.

Second, the time given for a turnaround to take place would also be key. Research shows that even a highly effective principal needs at least one to two years to become as effective in a new school, and that it takesabout 5 years to fully impact a school’s performance, particularly in terms of putting in place a staff whose vision is aligned with the principal’s and to have fully implemented policies and practices to improve student achievement. 

What school boards can do

The growing evidence of principals’ impact means that school boards have another tool to use when working to improve student achievement. Here are some questions school boards can ask:

  • How are principals evaluated for effectiveness?
  • Are evaluations linked to student achievement?
  • Are evaluations linked to the district’s goals and strategic plan?
  • What is the turnover rate for principals?
  • Is the rate higher for schools serving more disadvantaged students?
  • Do all students have equal access to effective or experienced principals?
  • What incentives does your district give principals to lead challenging schools?
  • What kind of professional development does your district provide principals?
  • Has the school board read and discussed the ISLLC standards?
  • How does the district handle ineffective principals?
  • What is the principal turnover rate in your district? How does it vary by school? What could your district do to decrease the turnover rate to the key period of 3-5 years?
  • How does your district identify potential future principals?
  • How effective are principal preparation programs?
  • Are these preparation programs aligned to the needs of the district?


Published April 2012. Copyright Center for Public Education.
This summary is of a study written and researched by Jim Hull, Center for Public Education's Senior Policy Analyst.