Connecting a Principal’s Background to Student Success


April 14, 2015


Recognition is growing that school factors play a role in student success. One of the key school factors is the principal, and many believe that the success of principals is related, in part, to their educational background and professional experience. However, district leaders don’t have all the information they need when it comes to understanding which elements of a principals’ background connect most to student success, as well as the elements that lead some principals to stay in their jobs longer than others.

What education and experiences can states and districts look for and cultivate in candidates for the position of school principal? I wrote my dissertation around this guiding policy question and will share some of my findings in this blog post. Answering this question could have broad implications for school districts, as it can inform hiring practices and reduce principal turnover while improving student outcomes. It could also draw interest from states, as they set the minimum qualifications for principal certification and approve principal training programs.

My process included analyzing district data and principal resumes from four large urban school districts in addition to a literature review. I also examined state certification policies and school hiring practices in the four districts, surveyed a number of districts regarding hiring policies, and then combined the information I gathered into a set of policy considerations.

I found that few variables from a principal’s background had a statistically significant relationship with outcomes such as student math and reading scores, attendance, and principal retention at the school or district level. This indicates there may be other principal factors that are more strongly related to those outcomes (for example, the amount of time principals spend on different activities).

However, the areas that do have statistically significant relationships provide compelling and useful information. For example:

  • While past experience teaching reading and/or in a supervisory capacity had a positive relationship with reading scores, the more overall years of experience principals had as a classroom teacher had a negative relationship with math scores
  • A master’s degree in education related positively to attendance, while elementary school experience had a negative relationship
  • Principals who attended more selective undergraduate institutions were less likely to work in high-poverty schools and were less likely to stay in their schools and districts, while those with parent and community outreach experience were more likely to remain in their schools

In addition, the survey of 33 districts revealed that many districts do not have detailed resume-screening guidelines and that the guidelines being used are typically not aligned with principal roles and responsibilities.

What does this mean for districts? Based on my research, I suggest that districts consider more systematically tracking information regarding principals and linking this principal data to student information systems so that district or external researchers can examine how principal education and professional experience seem to influence student outcomes and principal retention in their districts. This can include using a database to record attributes from a principal’s resume and then linking it to the main student data system. I also suggest that districts consider tracking data on principal retention, including reasons for departures, and use this information to identify school conditions that seem related to principals choosing to leave a school or a district. The information that is gathered could be shared with human resources personnel so that the attributes of principals that relate directly to retention and student success can be applied when designing the principal hiring process and matching principals with schools. Districts could examine their screening and hiring processes to ensure that screening criteria are aligned with principal roles.

Where does the research need to go next? While my dissertation highlights certain education and professional experiences that were statistically related to student outcomes and principal retention, we do not have a full understanding of why these experiences might be related. Further research into the mechanisms behind these experiences would provide the education community with better information as to how to incorporate these experiences into policy and practice and improve schools through principal leadership.

You can read Ashley Pierson's dissertation, What Makes a Successful Principal? Incorporating School Principal Background in State and District Policy, on the Rand Corporation website.