I’ve written about this topic before, and indeed the Utah legislature has directed the state’s education evaluation laws toward administrators rather than on teachers. So I thought readers would be interested in some recent research that validates a heavier focus on principals.
From Stanford economist Rick Hanushek (one of the researchers and a leading education policy expert):
While there is considerable anecdotal evidence that principals are important – including various movies about the charismatic principal or the bumbling bureaucrat, there has been very little systematic evidence about the magnitude of differences among principals or about their impact on student learning. Separating the influence of the principal from other factors including the choices of parents and teachers proves to be a very difficult task.
In a recent article, Greg Branch, Steve Rivkin, and I use a variety of statistical approaches to isolate the impacts of a principal on student learning. The primary approach is to observe how student achievement in a school changes when the principal changes. In the most conservative estimation approach, a good principal (one in the top 16 percent of principal effectiveness) compared to an average principal annually gets the equivalent to an extra two months of learning out of students.
Importantly, these gains hold for all of the students in school. While good teachers get similar gains compared to average teachers, those gains accrue just to the students in a single classroom.
The other side also holds. An ineffective principal slows learning of students at the same rate. Thus, it is important to select and retain effective principals.
Hanushek makes another good point:
something left out of many policy discussions is the necessity of aligning the evaluation of principals with that of teachers. It would set up bad incentives to have the principal evaluating teachers without themselves being evaluated on student performance. If principals are evaluated primarily on other grounds than student achievement, they will not necessarily make decisions that are consistent with improving student performance. In this case, the common concern of teacher unions that decisions by principals can be arbitrary or can show favoritism in various ways may be justified.
For those of you would like to delve more deeply into the research methodology, here’s a link to the article itself.
The longer includes this interesting comment on a missing link in the research (due to inadequate data):
Unfortunately, our data do not contain direct information on personnel decisions that would enable us to separate voluntary and involuntary transitions, and existing evidence suggests that teachers rather than principals initiate the majority of transitions. In addition, the Texas data do not match students to individual teachers, meaning that we must draw inferences about teacher effectiveness from average information across an entire grade.
With detailed information on teacher effectiveness and transitions, we could investigate whether better principals are more likely to dismiss the least-effective teachers and reduce the likelihood that the more-effective teachers depart voluntarily. In the absence of such information, however, we focus on the relationship within schools between the share of teachers that exits each grade and the average value-added to student achievement in the grade. We examine how this varies with our measures of principal quality based on student achievement gains. For example, in a school where 5th-grade students learn more than 4th-grade students, we would expect a good principal to make more changes to the 4th-grade teaching staff.
Somehow we need to figure out a way to put the teacher and principal evaluation pieces together.