It’s commonly said that a good teacher can make a huge difference in the classroom, but what role do principals play in student learning? In a study published in the December issue of Elementary School Journal, researchers sought to answer that very question. Going beyond previous scholarship on the subject, the authors of this study look at not just whether principal leadership has an impact but how it affects student achievement over time.
For the study, the researchers collected mathematics competency data from 1,915 students in 85 primary schools in Flanders, Belgium. The study makes a valuable contribution to the literature on principal leadership and student learning by investigating the combined effect of principal leadership and teacher collaboration, as well as leadership and collective efficacy. The study is also one of the first of its kind to chart student learning growth in math as it relates to principal leadership over an extended period of time.
The researchers found that although principal leadership was not directly linked to improvement in student math scores, it does have a substantial, if indirect, impact. According to this analysis, principal leadership has a significant influence on teacher collaboration within the school, which means that when principals focus on developing the school mission and managing the instructional program, they can do a great deal to foster collaboration among teachers.
The study explores the indirect effects of principal leadership by looking at how teachers’ efficacy beliefs mediate the relationship between administrative processes and student learning. The stronger principal leadership and teacher collaboration are, the more teachers believe in their ability to have a meaningful impact on their students’ growth in math—and the more teachers believe they can make a difference, the more difference they actually make.
The authors’ results suggest that while principal leadership has a mediated influence on collective efficacy, the link between teacher collaboration and collective efficacy is in fact slightly stronger than the link with principal leadership, which suggests that their colleagues’ support and affirmation of their potential for success played a big part in the formation of collective advocacy beliefs.
A good principal can indirectly lead to better math results for the school, but it is not the only, or even the main, factor.