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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response


April 2020


What research is available on the relationship between effective school leadership practices and student outcomes, both academic and nonacademic?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies, and policy overviews on the relationship between effective school leadership practices and student outcomes, both academic and nonacademic. In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to student achievement, student engagement, student attendance, peer relationships, and student social and emotional well-being. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Austin, W., Chen, B., Goldhaber, D., Hanushek, E., Holden, K., Koedel, C., et al. (2019). Path to the principalship and value added: A cross-state comparison of elementary and middle school principals (Working Paper No. 213-0119-1). Washington, DC: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER). Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “An increasing emphasis on principals as key to school improvement has contributed to efforts to elevate principal effectiveness that have taken various forms across the US. The primacy of the state as the focal point of educational reform elevates the value of understanding commonalities and differences among states in characteristics of principals, the distribution of principals among schools and ultimately the policies associated with more effective school leadership, particularly for disadvantaged children. This paper describes major state policies, the distribution of elementary school principals among schools along a several dimensions, and pathways to the principalship to illustrate similarities and differences among six states in the tenure and experience distributions and how these vary by student demographic characteristics and district size. Measurement of principal effectiveness and its relationship with principal characteristics and state policies would be ideal, but complications introduced by the dynamics of principal influences and confounding effects of other factors inhibit this effort. Nonetheless, school value added to achievement provides information on differences in principal effectiveness, and we report within-school variation value added across principal regimes and the associations between value added and principal characteristics. The analysis reveals many similarities and some differences among the states, some of which are related to differences in governance structures. Perhaps the most striking differences relate to the pathways to the principalship including the fraction of principals with experiences as assistant principals and teachers.”

Branch, G. F., Hanushek, E. A., & Rivkin, S. G. (2013). School leaders matter. Education Next, 13(1), 62–69. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “It is widely believed that a good principal is the key to a successful school. No Child Left Behind encouraged the replacement of the principal in persistently low-performing schools, and the Obama administration has made this a requirement for schools undergoing federally funded turnarounds. This study provides new evidence on the importance of school leadership by estimating individual principals’ contributions to growth in student achievement. The authors’ approach is quite similar to studies that measure teachers’ ‘value added’ to student achievement, except that the calculation is applied to the entire school. Specifically, they measure how average gains in achievement, adjusted for individual student and school characteristics, differ across principals—both in different schools and in the same school at different points in time. From this, they are able to determine how much effectiveness varies from one principal to the next.”

Clifford, M. (2015). Building leadership talent through performance evaluation. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Most states and districts scramble to provide professional development to support principals, but ‘principal evaluation’ is often lost amid competing priorities. Evaluation is an important method for supporting principal growth, communicating performance expectations to principals, and improving leadership practice. It provides leaders with evidence for reflection—a critical first step for professional learning and development. To help school leaders achieve their goals, American Institutes for Research (AIR) has engaged with educators at the state level to design the ‘Five Essential Practices of School Leadership’ framework. Frameworks are the backbone of any performance evaluation system, identifying levels of performance and the professional practices that matter most. Unlike state or national standards (e.g., the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium standards) that broadly describe what principals should do, frameworks describe levels of performance in observable and measurable terms. AIR and its clients are using this framework for principal coaching, self-reflection, and performance evaluation to facilitate principal growth with accountability. With input from more than 200 educators and more than 100 research studies on principals’ approaches to school improvement, AIR designed the Five Essential Practices of School Leadership framework. These practices are as follows: (1) Build shared purpose. The leader develops a compelling, shared organizational vision and assures that the vision is ‘lived’ in the daily work of educators. (2) Focus on learning. The leader engages in instructional leadership to develop and maintain student access to appropriate, ambitious, and strong instructional programs focused on academic excellence and social-emotional development. (3) Manage organizational resources. The leader acts strategically and systematically to create safe and supportive conditions for better teaching and learning by aligning financial assets, human resources, data, and other resources. (4) Collaborate with community. The leader assures that parents and community organizations are engaged with the school. (5) Lead with integrity. The leader models professionalism by acting with integrity and making his or her learning visible. The framework is designed to support principals in developing their own professional goals and to provide them with an approach for reflection on their practices, but other stakeholders and professionals in the field can take full advantage of this tool.”

Grissom, J. A., Kalogrides, D., & Loeb, S. (2015). Using student test scores to measure principal performance. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 37(1), 3–28. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Expansion of the use of student test score data to measure teacher performance has fueled recent policy interest in using those data to measure the effects of school administrators as well. However, little research has considered the capacity of student performance data to uncover principal effects. Filling this gap, this article identifies multiple conceptual approaches for capturing the contributions of principals to student test score growth, develops empirical models to reflect these approaches, examines the properties of these models, and compares the results of the models empirically using data from a large urban school district. The article then assesses the degree to which the estimates from each model are consistent with measures of principal performance that come from sources other than student test scores, such as school district evaluations. The results show that choice of model is substantively important for assessment. While some models identify principal effects as large as 0.18 standard deviations in math and 0.12 in reading, others find effects as low as 0.0.05 (math) or 0.03 (reading) for the same principals. We also find that the most conceptually unappealing models, which over-attribute school effects to principals, align more closely with nontest measures than do approaches that more convincingly separate the effect of the principal from the effects of other school inputs.”

Hitt, D. H., & Tucker, P. D. (2016). Systematic review of key leader practices found to influence student achievement: A unified framework. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 531–569. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The field of educational leadership has accrued a body of research that explains how leaders influence student achievement through the enactment of various practices. Yet, differences exist in the substance of the frameworks that assert the areas to which leaders should attend. The specific purposes of this article are to identify and synthesize the empirical research on how leadership influences student achievement and to provide evidence on how school leaders should direct their efforts. During the literature review, we consulted experts for recommendations and searched peer-reviewed journals from 2000 to 2014. The literature review yielded 56 empirical research studies of relevance to the topic and 3 frameworks consisting of clustered practices. We then grouped the 28 practices according to systematic criteria and found 5 overarching domains. In doing so, this study unifies existing frameworks through developing a cohesive set of practices to inform the work of researchers and practitioners.”

Kelley, R. C., Thornton, B., & Daugherty, R. (2005). Relationships between measures of leadership and school climate. Education, 126(1), 17–25. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Education leadership is possibly the most important single determinant of an effective learning environment. Change leaders must understand procedures and processes that create the conditions necessary for organizational improvement. Building principals must be able to assess and evaluate the impact and perceptions of their leadership styles. Effective school leadership substantially boosts student achievement. School climate, leadership, and quality instruction are frequently associated with effective schools. In this study, the authors investigated the relationships between selected dimensions of leadership and measures of school climate. In addition, principals’ perceptions of their own leadership styles were compared with teachers’ perceptions of their principals’ leadership styles.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Marzano, R. J., Waters, T., & McNulty, B. A. (2005). School leadership that works: From research to results. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “What can school leaders really do to increase student achievement, and which leadership practices have the biggest impact on school effectiveness? For the first time in the history of leadership research in the United States, here’s a book that answers these questions definitively and gives you a list of leadership competencies that are research-based. Drawing from 35 years of studies, the authors explain critical leadership principles that every administrator needs to know: (1) 21 leadership responsibilities that have a significant effect on student learning and the correlation of each responsibility to academic achievement gains; (2) The difference between first-order and second-order change and the leadership responsibilities—in rank order—that are most important for each; (3) How to choose the right work to focus on to improve student achievement; (4) The advantages and disadvantages of comprehensive school reform models for improving student achievement; (5) 11 factors and 39 actions that help you take a site-specific approach to improving student achievement; and (6) A five-step plan for effective school leadership that includes a strong team, distributed responsibilities, and 31 team action steps.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

National Association of Elementary School Principals. (2014). Leading Pre-K-3 learning communities: Competencies for effective principal practice. A guide to support the essential role of principals in creating quality learning systems. Alexandria, VA: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “As the federal role expands to support increased state investments in school-based prekindergarten programs, National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) has released an updated, principal competency guide: ‘Leading Pre-K-3 Learning Communities: Competencies for Effective Principal Practice.’ Developed by a panel of leading practitioners, this standards document defines new competencies, and outlines a practical approach to high-quality early childhood education that is critical to laying a strong foundation for learning for young children from age three to grade three, or Pre-K-3. ‘Leading Pre-K-3 Learning Communities encompasses’ what principals believe: (1) Learning starts early; (2) Supporting children to be prepared when they start school is essential to helping them get on the right track; (3) Developing appropriate skills, knowledge and dispositions is fundamental to children’s future success; and (4) Getting children on grade level by the time they leave third grade, particularly in reading and math, is essential to ensuring they graduate from high school ready for college, careers and life. This groundbreaking work sets forth a strategy to help principals develop and expand their instructional leadership with a child-centered focus and acquire the practical skills necessary to address the academic, social, emotional and physical development needs of all young children.”

Osborne-Lampkin, L., Folsom, J. S., & Herrington, C. D. (2016). A systematic review of the relationships between principal characteristics and student achievement (REL 2016-091). Washington, DC: Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This systematic review of the relationships between principal characteristics and student achievement was created for educators, administrators, policy-makers, and other individuals interested in a comprehensive catalogue of research on relations between principal characteristics and student achievement. It synthesizes what is known about associations between principal characteristics and student achievement; specifically it summarizes the studies, highlights the effects found by the studies, and describes the steps of the systematic review process used. Of the 52 studies included in the comprehensive review, only one used an experimental design, and a positive effect was found. An additional 38 quantitative and two mixed method studies provided evidence that some principal characteristics are positively correlated with student achievement. However, casual relationships could not be established. The remaining eleven qualitative studies mirrored the quantitative findings.”

Price, H. (2015). Principals’ social interactions with teachers: How principal-teacher social relations correlate with teachers’ perceptions of student engagement. Journal of Educational Administration, 53(1), 116–139. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to link the social interactions between principals and their teachers to teachers’ perceptions of their students’ engagement with school, empirically testing the theoretical proposition that principals influence students through their teachers in the US charter school environment. The mediating influence of latent beliefs of trust and support are tested in this process. Design/methodology/approach: By analyzing pooled network and survey data collected in 15 Indianapolis charter schools using stepwise, fixed-effects regression techniques, this study tests the association between interactions of principals and teachers, on the one hand, and teachers’ perceptions of student engagement, on the other. The extent to which latent beliefs about teachers—in particular, trust in teachers and support of teachers by the administrators—mediate this relationship is also tested. Findings: Direct relationships between principal-teacher interactions and latent beliefs of trust and support are confirmed. Direct relationships between latent beliefs and perceptions of academic and school engagement are also confirmed. There is a relationship between principal-teacher interactions and teacher perceptions of student engagement, but the mediating effect of latent beliefs of trust and support accounts for much of the direct association. The reachability of the principal remains a significant and direct influence on teachers’ perceptions of academic engagement after accounting for trust and support. Research limitations/implications: Moving beyond principals’ personality dispositions in management and turning to the social relationships that they form with teachers adds to the understanding of how principal leadership affects student learning. Empirically distinguishing between the actual interactions and social dispositions of principals helps inform practical implications. Focusing on how principals’ social interactions with teachers influence teachers’ perceptions of students’ engagement provides a theoretical link as to how principals indirectly influence student achievement. Practical implications: The relationships that principals build with teachers have real implications on the beliefs of trust and support among teachers in a school and have a ripple effect on teachers’ perceptions of student engagement. These findings therefore suggest that frequently moving principals among schools is not an ideal policy. Originality/value: This study tests the theoretical boundaries of school organization research by using a within-schools design with charter schools. It also links leadership research to outcomes typically restricted to research on school culture and climate.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Robinson, V. M. J., Lloyd, C. A., & Rowe, K. J. (2008). The impact of leadership on student outcomes: An analysis of the differential effects of leadership types. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44(5), 635–674. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Purpose: The purpose of this study was to examine the relative impact of different types of leadership on students’ academic and nonacademic outcomes. Research Design: The methodology involved an analysis of findings from 27 published studies of the relationship between leadership and student outcomes. The first meta-analysis, including 22 of the 27 studies, involved a comparison of the effects of transformational and instructional leadership on student outcomes. The second meta-analysis involved a comparison of the effects of five inductively derived sets of leadership practices on student outcomes. Twelve of the studies contributed to this second analysis. Findings: The first meta-analysis indicated that the average effect of instructional leadership on student outcomes was three to four times that of transformational leadership. Inspection of the survey items used to measure school leadership revealed five sets of leadership practices or dimensions: establishing goals and expectations; resourcing strategically; planning, coordinating, and evaluating teaching and the curriculum; promoting and participating in teacher learning and development, and ensuring an orderly and supportive environment. The second meta-analysis revealed strong average effects for the leadership dimension involving promoting and participating in teacher learning and development and moderate effects for the dimensions concerned with goal setting and planning, coordinating, and evaluating teaching and the curriculum. Conclusions and Implications for Research and Practice: The comparisons between transformational and instructional leadership and between the five leadership dimensions suggested that the more leaders focus their relationships, their work, and their learning on the core business of teaching and learning, the greater their influence on student outcomes. The article concludes with a discussion of the need for leadership research and practice to be more closely linked to the evidence on effective teaching and effective teacher learning. Such alignment could increase the impact of school leadership on student outcomes even further.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Sebastian, J., & Allensworth, E. (2019). Linking principal leadership to organizational growth and student achievement: A moderation mediation analysis. Teachers College Record, 121(9), n9. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Background: Although there is a substantial body of literature on school leadership and its relationship with student achievement, few studies have examined how change in leadership is related to organizational growth and school improvement. Also less well studied is the influence of contextual conditions on how leadership and organizational processes evolve to constrain/augment school outcomes. Focus of Study: In this study, we use moderation mediation analysis to examine how change in principal leadership relates to achievement growth, mediated via change in multiple organizational processes—parent-teacher trust, school climate (measured by school safety), and professional capacity. We further examine how these mediational relationships are moderated by initial school conditions. Research Design: We apply moderation mediation analysis to administrative and survey data of elementary schools from a large urban school district to examine if initial school conditions moderate mediational relationships between school leadership and student outcomes. Conclusions: Our results show that improvements in school leadership are related to student learning gains only through improvements in school climate; this relationship is consistent regardless of whether schools initially had strong or weak leadership and regardless of whether schools initially had safe or unsafe school climates.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Sebastian, J., Allensworth, E., & Stevens, D. (2014). The influence of school leadership on classroom participation: Examining configurations of organizational supports. Teachers College Record, 116. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Background: In this paper we call for studying school leadership and its relationship to instruction and learning through approaches that highlight the role of configurations of multiple organizational supports. A configuration-focused approach to studying leadership and other essential supports provides a valuable addition to existing tools in school organizational analysis and is particularly useful in examining equifinality and causal asymmetry. Equifinality is the idea that more than one pathway can result in a desired outcome whereas causal asymmetry suggests that the set of conditions that lead to the presence of an outcome need not be the same as the conditions that lead to its absence. Focus of Study: This study uses a configurational approach to examine how school leadership and other organizational supports are related to an important aspect of instruction—students’ classroom participation. Research Design: We apply fuzzy set qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) to administrative and survey data of high schools from a large urban school district to examine combinations of organizational supports that are associated with classroom participation. Conclusions: The study draws attention to the utility of applying configurational approaches to investigate the influence of complex combinations of organizational supports on school outcomes. We compare this approach to more traditional methods that focus on the effects of isolated factors, controlling for each other. Our results show that leadership is associated with students’ classroom participation via multiple configurations of organizational supports. These configurations are different from the set of organizational supports that are related to an absence of classroom participation.”

Sebastian, J., Huang, H., & Allensworth, E. (2017). Examining integrated leadership systems in high schools: connecting principal and teacher leadership to organizational processes and student outcomes. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 28(3), 463–488. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Research on school leadership suggests that both principal and teacher leadership are important for school improvement. However, few studies have studied the interaction of principal and teacher leadership as separate but linked systems in how they relate to student outcomes. In this study, we examine how leadership pathways are related in the context of high schools and compare findings to research in elementary schools. Using survey and administrative data from high schools in a large urban context, the paper explores direct and indirect pathways from leadership to student achievement growth. The results indicate that there are 2 pathways through which principal leadership is related to student learning in high schools. One pathway is mediated by teacher leadership, whereas the second pathway does not include teacher leadership. We find that similar to elementary schools, the learning climate is the only organizational factor that links principal and teacher leadership with student achievement.”

Villavicencio, A., & Marinell, W. H. (2014). Inside success: Strategies of 25 effective small high schools in NYC. New York, NY: Research Alliance for New York City Schools. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “For decades, New York City’s high school graduation rates hovered at or below 50 percent. In attempt to turn around these disappointing results, the NYC Department of Education enacted a series of large-scale reforms, including opening hundreds of new ‘small schools of choice’ (SSCs). Recent research by MDRC has shown that these schools have had large and sustained positive effects on students’ graduation rates and other outcomes. How have they done it? What decisions—made by the educators who created, supported, and operated these schools—have been critical to their success? What challenges do these schools face as they try to maintain that success over time? The Research Alliance set out to answer these questions, conducting in-depth interviews with teachers and principals in 25 of the most highly effective SSCs. Educators reported three features as essential to their success: (1) Personalization, which was widely seen as the most important success factor. This includes structures that foster strong relationships with students and their families, systems for monitoring student progress—beyond just grades and test scores, and working to address students’ social and emotional needs, as well as academic ones. (2) High expectations—for students and for educators—and instructional programs that are aligned with these ambitious goals. (3) Dedicated and flexible teachers, who were willing to take on multiple roles, sometimes outside their areas of expertise. The findings, presented in this report, paint a picture of how these features were developed in practice. The report also describes challenges these schools face and outlines lessons for other schools and districts that can be drawn from the SSCs’ experience. These include the need to avoid teacher burnout, improving the fit between schools and external partners, and expanding current notions of accountability.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Effective school leadership

  • Principals “administrator effectiveness”

  • Principals attendance

  • Principals “learner engagement”

  • Principals “peer relationship”

  • Principals “social emotional”

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.