School Principals and School Performance

Tim Hoffine

CALDER at the Urban Institute
Damon Clark, Paco Martorell, & Jonah Rockoff
December 2009 

This working paper from CALDER (Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research) uses data from New York City to examine the relationship between principal characteristics and school performance, particularly whether past principal experience has an impact on the performance of the schools in which they are placed.

The authors find that schools with experienced principals have stronger school-wide performance than those without such experience, especially related to math outcomes and student absences. For schools with inexperienced principals, the only ones whose schools improved performance were those who had previously served as assistant principal in that same school. It seems intuitive that previous experience as a principal or assistant principal would contribute to better school performance, but less obvious is the finding that principals’ graduation from highly selective universities and prior (pre-principal) work experience have little correlation with student outcomes.

The paper also makes a credible case that retaining principals over a longer period of time will aid school performance. By reducing the number of times a school switches principals, the less time (and money) a school will spend getting new principals adjusted to their new careers.

More generally, the paper suggests that “characteristics that can be directly observed on a resume … are probably less important than characteristics that cannot, such as leadership skills and determination.” This finding is all the more interesting in light of a recent article in The Atlantic that described Teach for America’s efforts to pin down “squishier” concepts of teacher quality, such as “grit” and “perseverance.”

Because the findings are based on data from NYC schools and principals, the results cannot be immediately generalized to Ohio. But the report’s findings on principal quality parallel much of what we know about teacher quality – academic or formal training may not matter as much as immediate experience in schools, and characteristics such as “leadership” that are traditionally harder to measure. Ohio leaders would do well to read this paper (and others from CALDER measuring principal quality), especially in light of the fact that a large number of principals in the Buckeye State are nearing retirement and the state must think strategically on how to recruit new talent into the profession. Read the full report online here.

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