By Linda Diamond, founder and former president of Consortium on Reaching Excellence in Education

Published by Learning Ally

While much attention has been focused on preparing teachers to implement effective reading instruction grounded in the science of reading, school administrators have too often been neglected, despite research that shows principals play a crucial role in improving outcomes.

In 2004, the Wallace Foundation published its report, How Leadership Influences Student Learning, which identified principals as second only to teachers in the impact on student learning.  Then in 2019, the Wallace Foundation commissioned a new review, How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research (2021).  This newer report, using data from six longitudinal studies, found that the impact of principals was even greater than first reported and equal to that of teachers. Astonishingly, the newer study, collecting data from more than 22,000 principals in four states and two urban districts, found significant effects based on increases in principal effectiveness.  Specifically, the study found “a 1 standard deviation increase in principal effectiveness increases the typical student’s achievement by 0.13 standard deviations in math and 0.09 standard deviations in reading.”

The Wallace report identified several skills and processes effective principals have. Key to leveraging school improvement are three sets of foundational skills: skills to support instruction; expertise to manage and develop people, and skills in organizational management. The study findings that focused on principals’ instructional skills identified these areas of needed expertise:

  1. Knowledge of high-quality instruction and materials to effectively observe and evaluate teachers, including distinguishing high from low-quality pedagogical practices
  2. Ability to provide constructive, timely, and actionable feedback in a motivational and supportive way
  3. Recognition of and selection of high-impact professional development opportunities that align with school goals
  4. Understanding of how to effectively use data to monitor and improve instruction by making good decisions and then taking action (Hitt et al. 2018, Elfers and Stritikus 2014; Shin, Slater, and Backhoff 2013).

Clear Implications in Principals’ Role 

Given the report commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, we have clear implications for the principal’s role in implementing reading instruction aligned to the science of reading.

First, a principal who is knowledgeable about what constitutes the science of reading and what instructional practices are aligned to the science will have greater impact in observing, evaluating, providing feedback, and motivating teachers to move from ineffective and unproven practices to those that are supported by research.

To remain knowledgeable, effective principals must themselves be constantly learning by reading and studying reliable and valid research. These principals will also develop a coaching system to support teachers as they refine their reading and literacy practices and use new materials. They will establish and participate with their teachers in PLCs to discuss instruction, student learning, and important research articles.

Second, a principal who is knowledgeable about the research will be better able to guide the selection of curriculum materials that also align to the scientific evidence. These knowledgeable principals will understand what professional development opportunities to organize for their teachers and how to recognize professional development that is contrary to the research and the school’s goals.

Finally, effective and knowledgeable principals will know what assessments are valid and reliable for monitoring student progress in reading, and will know how to make use of data during PLCs and grade level meetings to identify students needing targeted and intensified instruction and teachers benefiting from more individualized coaching.

Summary — Principals Lead the Way

Principals must lead the way to ensure all children become readers and writers if our nation is to achieve equitable outcomes once and for all. As principals move teachers to implement instruction and materials that align to the science of reading, they will also need excellent interpersonal skills to assist teachers who are asked to let go of practices they believed in but were not necessarily resulting in positive student outcomes.  This means the principal needs to be mindful of the psychological and emotional impact of change on already overburdened teachers, especially as a result of the pandemic.  Empathy must be a quality principals cultivate. As the most recent Science of Reading Defining Guide, published by the Reading League states, “Our children are worth the labor of pressing through the unknown, holding challenging conversations with high expectations, and even failing forward while building expertise (The Reading League [TRL], 2022).”

Stritikus, T. (2014). How school and district leaders support classroom teachers’ work with English language learners. Educational Administration Quarterly, 50(2), 305-344; Shin, S. H., Slater, C. L., & Backhoff, E. (2013). Principal perceptions and student achievement in reading in Korea, Mexico, and the United States: Educational leadership, school autonomy, and use of test results. Educational Administration Quarterly, 49(3), 489-527