Principals have more impact than they think

by Robert Ballantyne06 Jun 2016

Recent research by the University of Melbourne has shown the impact that principals can have on student outcomes is far greater than previously thought.
Despite having one of the busiest and most challenging jobs, some principals have turned struggling students into high-performers by following a formula developed by Dr Michael Coelli and Mike Helal from the university’s Faculty of Business and Economics.
The research – titled: How principals affect schools – suggested that the most effective principals establish a clear set of goals for staff, as well as promote professional interaction and professional development.
Coelli’s study was so compelling that it will now be used by the Victorian Education Department to train current and future principals in providing effective school leadership.
Dr Coelli told The Educator that the biggest motivator for conducting the research was figuring out how schools could improve declining student skill levels. 
“First and foremost, I was interested in gaining a better and more complete understanding of how schools can raise the skill levels of students. Economists such as myself have long known about the considerable effect that education and skills have on individual outcomes, such as employment and income,” he said.
“We also understand how important that skill development is to overall growth in the economy and thus material benefits more generally. “
Coelli said he and his team were also interested in the ways that leadership impact on outcomes within all types of organisations.
“The influence that leaders of all kinds can have on actual outcomes in those organisations is indirect. The workers [e.g. teachers] do the actual ‘producing’, yet the leaders are paid the most money,” he said.
“There must be a reason for this, and economists are always interested in the ‘why’. Is it via motivating workers better, implementing a better strategy, or something else?”
Rather than observing specific leadership practices, Coelli looked at school factors which principals can influence and have had influence on.
“If some principals have been able to raise these factors more than others, it may mean that they have put more time and effort into influencing those specific factors, or are more skilled in influencing those factors,” he said.
“More effort in those areas is likely at the expense of effort in others.”
The ‘perfect principal’ equation
The equation Coelli developed takes into account the quality of students, the demographics of a school and the amount of time that principals spend in their role to calculate the impact he or she has in the top job.
“It is not possible to say whether some principals are not exercising any specific leadership practices that can raise the three main school factors identified in the study as important for student achievement,” he said.
“However, what we can say is that some principals have been able to raise those school factors more than others. We can also say that higher levels of these school factors, which can be affected by principals to a considerable extent, are related to higher student achievement in literacy and numeracy.”
While the report’s findings bode well for principals who are already exercising this kind of leadership, it cautioned that more work was required “to fully understand the specific strategies that effective principals employ to improve the school factors that are most closely related to improved student achievement”.
Hopes for broader use
While Coelli’s research will serve as a guide for the Victorian Education Department’s attempts to improve school leadership, Coelli said he hoped it would motivate other education departments to consider its value.
“We do hope that Education Departments in Australia and beyond find this research of use in a practical sense, particularly with future principal training,” he said.
“It was only publicly released yesterday, and I do not know whether the Victorian Department of Education had already shared it with their inter-state and international counterparts.
“If it does have an impact, it might take a little while to occur.”