Tough questions come up every day in education: What do I need to do as a principal to compel my teachers to stick around for more than a few years? How can I navigate the multiple policies influencing my immigrant students’ lives and support those students and their families? How can training programs help aspiring principals develop the skills they need to ensure their students have the best chance at achieving their potential?

Last week, we had the privilege of spending a few days among some of the best minds in education – researchers, who convened for the 2017 American Educational Research Association convention. While their work is not often enough at the forefront of conversations about education policy and practice, it was clear how critical it is for practitioners and researchers to work together to confront education’s many challenges. Researchers produce some of the tools educational leaders need to do their best work, to be reflective and resilient, to ask good questions, and to collect and consider different pieces of evidence that can inform that reflection. We need researchers’ help understanding what we and other practitioners are doing well, and where we need to adjust our work to better reflect the best practices in the field.

At the conference, we found research along a few themes particularly useful, answering questions, raising new ones, and validating existing work at the NYC Leadership Academy:

Principal impact on teacher retention

Teacher shortages are plaguing states across the country. Officials in Colorado are calling their teaching shortage a “crisis,” with as many as 3,000 open teacher jobs; graduation from teacher preparation programs has fallen 24 percent in the last few years. Ellie Drago-Severson and other researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University have been analyzing how teachers and principals influence teacher job satisfaction by looking at survey responses of 42,000 teachers and 8,500 principals. Among other things, they found teachers tend to be more satisfied with their jobs if they perceive that their principal clearly communicates expectations and vision, discusses instructional practice with teachers, and highly values teacher input. Another study by Jihyun Kim of Michigan State University found that half of early career teachers leave their schools by their fifth year, and a quarter leave the profession altogether, in large part because their principals did not create a supportive culture. 

Leading for equity

Researchers are approaching the issue of how to lead for equity from a number of angles. Rebecca Lowenhaupt of Boston College and Reva Jaffe-Walter of Montclair State University are exploring how schools can be more responsive to the needs of immigrant students and their families and hope to develop a framework of best practices to support school leaders. Other researchers are exploring how white teachers handle the challenge of talking about race with their students. Several researchers have found the positive effect it can have on students when teachers and school leaders reflect on their own racial and cultural identity. “We cannot divorce ourselves from our racial or cultural identities, including those identities that have been projected onto us by others,” said Arronza LaBatt, executive director at Montgomery County Public Schools. Several studies also found that research on educational inequities tends to focus on individual identities rather than on the interaction of different social characterizations and how those create overlapping systems of discrimination or oppression. Finally, some fascinating research on leaders of schools for the deaf by Catherine Ann O’Brien of Gallaudet University and Kerry Kathleen Robinson of University of Tennessee Knoxville found that less than half of educational leaders for schools for the deaf are licensed, and most are hearing and do not know sign language.

Measuring the impact of school leaders and school leader training programs on student learning

Researchers continue to struggle with how best to measure the impact of principals on student learning, something we are always grappling with. In an evaluation of four principal preparation programs, Matthew Clifford of the American Institutes for Research and Eva Chiang of the George W. Bush Institute determined that using student standardized test scores alone does not give a conclusive picture of how well a principal training program prepares principals to be able to improve student learning in their schools. Using multiple measures, including school culture data, would give a better picture of how a principal affects student learning, Clifford said. When Jason Grissom of Vanderbilt University looked across a range of indicators to measure the quality of principal prep programs in Tennessee, different pieces of data gave him very different results.

So how can educators use research to reflect on and improve their practice? At the NYC Leadership Academy, we are asking lots of questions, such as:

  • What multiple pieces of evidence should we collect to determine the impact of our programs?
  • What does existing research tell us about the impact that work like ours – the ways we coach and train school and school system leaders – has on student learning, school improvement, and educational equity?
  • What strategies have other educators used to successfully dismantle educational inequities in their schools?

Like any researchers, we are embracing what we don’t know and asking questions and collecting information to help us continuously improve our work.

Jill Grossman is Senior Director of Communications and Research at NYCLA. Nikki Nagler is NYCLA’s Associate Director of Research.