Tennessee’s least effective principals are more likely to work in schools with students who are lower-achieving and live in poverty, according to new research.

And the pattern exists in both urban and rural districts.

The findings are outlined in a research brief released Thursday by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, which is looking closely at school leadership through a partnership between the state’s education department and Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.

Tennessee has paid a lot of attention to teacher quality since launching a teacher evaluation system tied to student achievement in 2011. But the state has only recently begun to focus more on principal quality by examining administrators’ years of experience and their ratings under the state’s evaluation system for school leaders.

The research is important because high-quality principals drive school success, including academic growth, retaining effective teachers, and improving school climates.

“We’d like to see the best leaders going into high-needs schools because those are the schools that would most benefit from great leadership. But that’s not what’s happening,” said Jason Grissom, associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt.

“Instead, we see that relatively advantaged schools with lower poverty and high achievement levels are getting the best and most experienced principals.”

The findings document another layer of inequity faced by students who already struggle under the weight of significant disparities.

“If you’re a student in poverty in Tennessee, you’re not only more likely to be in a high-poverty and low-achieving school but you’re also more likely to have a principal in his or her very first year in that job,” said Grissom, the study’s lead researcher.

Moreover, that new principal likely won’t stay long enough to improve leadership skills to the point of making a long-term positive impact on the school community. A typical principal in a high-poverty school leaves at the end of his or her third year.

“The time that you are least effective as a leader is your first year, and then you build effectiveness the longer you’re in the position,” Grissom said. “So with high principal turnover, a high-poverty school has to reset often.”


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State data also shows that districts tend to hire less effective administrators to fill openings at high-needs schools. Often the new leaders were assistant principals coming out of other schools where their ratings were not as high as those placed in leadership jobs at low-poverty schools.

“So we have both a principal turnover problem at our high-needs schools and a problem with our processes to fill those jobs,” Grissom said.

Jason Grissom

The patterns matter, in part, because great teachers want to work with great principals.

“The quality of the leader may be the most important factor in determining if an effective teacher stays at school,” Grissom said. “If I’m a great teacher and the principal in my building is mediocre, then I have lots of other options.”

The study’s findings could help to shape how Tennessee compensates and supports its school leaders.

“This research further underscores that to close achievement gaps, Tennessee must implement policies at the state and district levels that encourage a more equitable distribution of great principals across Tennessee schools,” said Erin O’Hara, executive director of the research alliance.

You can find the research brief here.