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Skilled Leadership the Key to Improving Test Scores, Study Says

Researchers at Seattle Pacific University recently surveyed 40 successful principals to learn why some schools succeed while others struggle to achieve. Researchers also learned what it would take for those principals to agree to take over the reigns of a struggling school. Included: Comments from researchers and principals -- and a bold idea for restructuring the principal's job!

In Washington, scores on the state's student performance tests are on the way up. Though some elementary and middle schools are showing marked improvement, other schools are struggling to adapt to new, higher expectations.

At a Glance: Factors That Prevent Reform Implementation

Lack of leadership/vision 93%
Planning time and/or funding of the reform efforts 88%
Collective bargaining agreement, including seniority, transfer, and accountability policies 58%
Class size 58%
District centralization of decision-making process 23%
State and/or federal regulations regarding education 40%
District budgeting process 35%
School size 40%
Parental resistance to reform efforts 18%

Today's article highlights the results of research done at Seattle Pacific University in which successful school leaders were asked to rank nine factors that might prevent reform measures from being implemented. Following is how the 40 principals ranked the factors. The percentage next to each represents the percentage of principals who identified that factor as "very important in preventing reform."

Note: Ranking of responses was from 1 to 4, with 1 meaning very important in preventing reforms and 4 meaning not important in preventing reforms.

Why are some schools changing to meet new standards while others are falling short? What is preventing struggling schools from meeting new goals? Those are the questions researchers at Seattle Pacific University (SPU) set out to answer.

Researchers surveyed principals from highly successful schools. Nearly all -- 93 percent -- of the principals agreed that "lack of leadership/vision" was the biggest impediment to implementing higher standards. Those results and others are offered in the researchers' report, The Reality of Reform: Factors Limiting the Reform of Washington's Elementary Schools. (You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to read or download the PDF file.)

"I was very surprised by the findings," Jeffrey Fouts, executive director of the Washington School Research Center and the designer of the study, told Education World. "The way the study was conducted gave principals every opportunity to point the finger at school budgets, reluctant teachers, or lack of parental support, but they didn't do that. They accepted their share of the responsibility. 'We can do a better job at what we're doing,' they said.

"I think that's admirable," Fouts added.

Brian Barker was less surprised by the findings. "They correspond to the survey work that we have done with our practicing principals statewide," said Barker, executive director of the Association of Washington School Principals.

The job of the principal is a very demanding one, Barker said. Because of that, it's getting more difficult to find people to do the job. School systems might need to look at the possibility of restructuring the job to make it more manageable and to attract qualified people to the principalship, he told Education World.


This year, Fouts and a team of three researchers set out to follow up on a study they conducted at SPU in 1999. That study established that "achievement gains have been greater in elementary and middle/junior high schools where restructuring has taken place than in those schools where it has not."

According to that study, "restructuring" a school goes beyond simply changing curriculum or classroom practices (for example, increasing the use of technology or cooperative instruction); changing curriculum or classroom practices can be done without restructuring -- and, in fact, it has been done repeatedly throughout history. Rather, restructuring "implies a new vision, a rethinking and changing of the very philosophy about education, student learning, and how schools should operate on a day-to-day basis."

In this year's study, researchers sought to interview 40 highly successful elementary school principals. Those principals, representing a cross section of schools from around the state, were recommended by their local superintendents. They had met six criteria, including being strong leaders in their schools for several years, making necessary changes or reforms in their buildings, and increasing student achievement during the previous three years. In addition, the superintendents had to be able to say, "If there was a struggling school in our district, this is the type of person I would want to take over and lead the school."

Researchers hoped the interviews with those principals might reveal

  • what is preventing some Washington schools from making the changes necessary to raise achievement;
  • the factors essential to restructuring for achievement;
  • what changes in policy, law, or conditions would be required before a successful principal might agree to assume leadership of a struggling school.


Principals interviewed in the recent study identified five factors that serve as barriers to reform:

  • lack of skilled leaders,
  • lack of support,
  • reluctance on the part of teachers,
  • school climate/environment issue, and
  • the pace and nature of the reform effort.

The results were clear. Fully 70 percent of the principals suggested that the lack of skilled leaders was a "major" problem.

"I think it's critical," one principal told researchers. "Somebody's got to be the keeper of the dream. Somebody, first of all, has to help people figure out what the dream is, and then keep that dream in front of [the staff] all the time and ask the hard questions and be the critical one, the collegial coach."

"The skills that are needed now by principals [set ELLIPSES] weren't needed ten years ago, or even five years ago," another principal told researchers. "It used to be that if you could keep a balanced budget, had fairly good discipline ... things could go OK. But now, you've got not just to keep a budget; you've got to find more money and you've got to find better ways to spend it. You've got to be fairly skilled at group process too. You can no longer say, 'This is what we're going to do, and I've decided where to go.'"


As part of the study, principals were asked to consider nine potential barriers to successful school reform. Participants ranked each barrier on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 meaning very important in preventing reforms and 4 meaning not important in blocking reforms.) Of the nine factors, "lack of leadership and vision" came out on top as the most essential element for successful restructuring. It was viewed as "very important" by 93 percent of respondents.

See the story sidebar, [set LINK to sidebar] At a Glance: Factors That Prevent Reform Implementation, for the results of this part of the study.


Researchers concluded by posing one final, open-ended question to the study's 40 principals:

"Consider for a moment that you have been asked to take over a school with low achievement and that has not been successful in implementing the necessary reforms associated with the new school expectations. Before you would agree to assume the leadership of such a school, what changes, powers, or personal authority would you require, expect, or want?"

Researchers were able to group the principals' responses to that question under two headings:

  • Flexibility in policies and regulations, specifically those related to time and administrative support, and
  • Control of staffing decisions, including hiring, transfer, and dismissal authority.

"Before you can go in and institute change, you have to find out what's going on at that building ... ," said one principal, who pleaded for time flexibility in meeting goals. "What needs to be changed? What should be added and what should be deleted? It takes time to evaluate what programs are currently in place."

"The first year, I would ask to please just give us an opportunity to address the major issues that would make our school a learning environment ... ," another principal told researchers. "You're not going to get the academic achievement you want unless you're able to create a safe and secure environment, and to do that, you have to have administrative support from your supervisors and from the superintendent. ..."

As for the control over staffing decisions, one school leader requested "three voluntary transfer 'chips' in my pocket." A principal could transfer a teacher or another staff person who was standing in the way of change by cashing in one of those "chips" at any time.

"The chips aren't meant to be vindictive," the principal explained. "We may never use them ... [but] you're not going to get reform unless everybody's there with you."


In addition to its findings, the published study included a handful of recommendations, including the suggestion that school systems consider a new "principal" model.

Today's principal usually carries full responsibility for school management -- including budgets, staffing, and discipline -- and instructional leadership. "While both these roles are important for well-run schools," the study suggests, it might be time to reconceptualize the role of the principal. Those two disparate roles "do not require the same skills, abilities, or interests, and they many not often exist in one individual"; perhaps it's time to have two principals -- one responsible for management and the other for instructional leadership.

Fouts recognizes that this might be too "radical" an idea. "It isn't getting a lot of serious discussion," he admitted to Education World.

"We have had some experiences with what you might call two-headed schools, and we're not sure a committee runs a school very well," added Barker, of the state's principals association.

"With our people in the field, time is a fundamental issue," Barker told Education World. "We're asking principals to do too much, and some restructuring of that position is terribly important, or we might need to provide daily operations or administrative assistant support so principals can focus on the primary job of leading instruction."

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