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Principal Learning Opportunities and School Outcomes: Evidence from California

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A growing body of research points to the substantial influence of principals on school conditions and students’ learning. But how can principals learn to be good leaders? And are there professional learning strategies that make a difference in principal effectiveness? This study, which is part of a larger project synthesizing the research on principal learning, provides some new insight into these questions.

Relatively few studies have successfully linked specific features of principal learning—in either preservice preparation or in-service professional development—to teacher and student outcomes. Further, most studies of principal professional learning have examined the efficacy of particular programs rather than the mix of program features and experiences to which principals have had access. To begin to address this gap in the literature, we conducted a study of the relationship between principal learning opportunities (both preservice preparation and in-service professional development) and key outcomes for the teachers and students in their schools. We examined both teacher retention and student achievement gains in English language arts and mathematics. This study offers a new perspective on the efficacy of professional learning by using detailed data from a large, representative sample of principals directly linked to individual-level information from the teachers and students in their schools.

Data and Methods

To investigate the relationship between the quality of principals’ preparation and professional development and teacher and student outcomes, we used regression analyses that account for principal, school, and district characteristics, as well as student and teacher characteristics.

We gleaned principals’ professional learning experiences from a representative survey of California elementary and middle school principals designed by the Learning Policy Institute and administered by the American Institutes of Research in 2017. We linked principals’ surveys to state administrative data files containing data on teacher, student, and school characteristics and outcome data from the California Department of Education. Our full samples included approximately 462 schools and principals, 14,000 teachers, and 314,000 students.

For the preparation analysis, we limited the sample to principals who were early in their career (5 years of experience or less) because principals would be expected to rely on their preparation in their first years on the job, after which their own experience likely plays a greater role. The professional development sample included all principals who reported participating in professional development within the prior 2 years.

To create measures of professional learning for use in our analyses, we conducted factor analyses and created an index of quality preparation and an index of access to professional development.

The index of quality principal preparation includes measures of the extent to which the preparation experience offered:

  • a quality internship;
  • opportunities for applied learning;
  • learning about leading instruction;
  • learning about shaping a positive school climate;
  • learning about developing people; and
  • learning about meeting the needs of diverse learners.

The index of access to principal professional development includes measures of the extent to which principals have experienced:

  • professional development frequency;
  • learning about managing change;
  • learning about leading instruction;
  • learning about shaping a positive school climate;
  • learning about developing people; and
  • learning about meeting the needs of diverse learners.

Results of Principal Preparation and Professional Development

Both preservice preparation and in-service professional development appear to enhance principals’ abilities to effect positive changes in schools that are associated with stronger teacher retention and student academic outcomes.

Principals’ overall preservice preparation quality and all the components of preparation considered in the analysis are positively related to teacher retention. These relationships are statistically significant for overall preparation quality as well as for learning about developing people and meeting the needs of diverse learners.

In addition, principals’ participation in higher-quality internships during their preparation is associated with significantly greater student learning gains in English language arts. Higher-quality internships align field experience with theory or coursework and offer candidates the opportunity to lead, facilitate, and make decisions typical of an educational leader, developing their perspective on school improvement with the support of a mentor.

 
Principals’ participation in higher-quality internships during their preparation is associated with significantly greater student learning gains in English language arts.
 

In terms of principals’ professional development, the overall index of access as well as each of the components of professional development is positively related to teacher retention, though none of the relationships reach a level of statistical significance. The associations between principal professional development access and student achievement are quite strong and consistent. The overall professional development access index and each component of professional development are positively related to student gains in both English language arts and mathematics. The strength of the associations is strongest in mathematics, for which every area of professional development shows a significant relationship. Not surprisingly, principals’ professional development experiences associated with learning about leading instruction show a strong relationship to student gains in both English language arts and math, and the relationship is at least marginally significant in both subjects for learning about shaping a positive school climate and meeting the needs of diverse learners. These relationships are strongest for historically underserved students of color, suggesting that in-service professional development programs, especially those focused on learning about leading instruction, may help principals develop specific means to support teaching and learning for those furthest from opportunity.

Finally, the student gains in English language arts and mathematics that are associated with greater access to professional development are particularly large for students in the schools of novice principals, suggesting that principal professional development can help early-career principals more quickly reach the effectiveness levels of their more experienced peers.

While the relationships observed in the study do not prove a causal relationship, they offer promising evidence that principals’ engagement in high-quality preservice and in-service learning opportunities is positively related to the stability of the teaching force and the academic achievement of students.


Principal Learning Opportunities and School Outcomes: Evidence from California by Ayana K. Campoli and Linda Darling-Hammond with Anne Podolsky and Stephanie Levin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was supported by The Wallace Foundation. Core operating support for LPI is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.