What Principals Do That Works

What do principals exactly do? Well, as a student, I remember that being called to the principal's office is often not a good thing. I have this image that principals deal with trouble makers. Principals also spend time talking with parents. When I spent weeks over the summer inside elementary schools in Paete, Laguna, I saw that a large fraction of a principal's time is really spent on administrative and management tasks. Principals sit on the local school board and are right out there in front tackling infrastructure projects, literally begging politicians to build a classroom or two.

This photo was taken with school administrators in Paete, Laguna in 2005. In Paete, principals are affectionately called "apples".
Principals do impact learning inside the classroom beyond their administrative tasks. Principals are, of course, the leaders of the teachers, the teacher of the teachers. Instructional leadership is obviously part of the job description of a principal. Republic Act 9155 enumerates the responsibilities of a principal:

Consistent with the national educational policies, plans and standards, the school heads shall have authority, accountability and responsibility for the following: 
(1) Setting the mission, vision, goals and objectives of the school;
(2) Creating an environment within the school that is conducive to teaching and learning;
(3) Implementing the school curriculum and being accountable for higher learning outcomes;
(4) Developing the school education program and school improvement plan;
(5) Offering educational programs, projects and services which provide equitable opportunities for all learners in the community;
(6) Introducing new and innovative modes of instruction to achieve higher learning outcomes;
(7) Administering and managing all personnel, physical and fiscal resources of the school;
(8) Recommending the staffing complement of the school based on its needs;
(9) Encouraging staff development;
(10) Establishing school and community networks and encouraging the active participation of teachers organizations, nonacademic personnel of public schools, and parents-teachers-community associations;
(11) Accepting donations, gifts, bequests and grants for the purpose of upgrading teachers' learning facilitators' competencies, improving ad expanding school facilities and providing instructional materials and equipment. Such donations or grants must be reported to the appropriate district supervisors and division superintendents; and
(12) Performing such other functions as may be assigned by proper authorities.

It is obvious that a significant amount of the above duties pertain directly to the principal acting as an instructional leader. While the responsibilities placed on the shoulder of a principal are quite broad and general, the important question to ask is what actions or tasks that a principal does as an instructional leader actually contribute positively to student learning. To answer this question, one must select only those activities that clearly belong to the realm of instructional leadership. Fund raising and establishing networks can take a substantial amount of a principal's time. In the United States, only about 10 percent of a principal's time goes to instructional leadership. Based on the limited time I spent in the schools of Paete, I would say that the situation in the Philippines is similar. Specific actions taken by a principal that can be regarded as instructional leadership include curriculum development, teachers' evaluation, classroom observations, professional development of teachers and staff, and teachers' coaching. These are activities that are clearly related to what happens inside the classroom. Seeing that only a small fraction of a principal's time goes to these activities makes it even more important to know which ones actually work. Fortunately, there is one scientific study recently published that answers this question. The results are significant since the findings also reveal practices that can actually harm learning inside the classroom. The study is published in the journal Educational Researcher:

Grissom, J. A., Loeb, S., & Master, B. (2013). Effective Instructional Time Use for School Leaders: Longitudinal Evidence from Observations of Principals. Educational Researcher, 42(8), 433-444.

This study is unique because the data come from first-hand observations. These are not from surveys or questionnaires filled by the principals. These are data obtained by persons who have been trained to observe what a principal does during the day. Relationships between what a principal does and learning outcomes can therefore be elucidated without bias or false reporting. And the findings are significant:

Like time on the school’s educational program and teacher evaluation, time spent directly coaching teachers is positively associated with achievement gains and school improvement, especially in math. Yet coaching appears to be a rare practice among observed principals, which may reflect principals discounting the effectiveness of coaching or their own capacity to coach effectively. In contrast, informal classroom observations or “walkthroughs” are more common but negatively associated with achievement gains and school improvement, at least in high schools. For a subset of schools we also had survey data indicating whether the walkthroughs were viewed by teachers as professional development. In schools where walkthroughs are not viewed as professional development, walkthroughs are particularly negative; while in schools where they are viewed as professional development, coaching is particularly positive. In other words, different use of walkthroughs seems to be associated with different results. In short, our results suggest that time spent engaging in instruction is not itself sufficient but rather that the effects of instructional leadership activities are conditional on the type and quality of those time investments.


  1. Most principals also are responsible for evaluating their teachers’ performance following district and state guidelines.
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