A new synthesis of two decades of research has found that equity-focused leadership promotes more equitable school outcomes. These findings point to what The Leadership Academy has seen in its own research and practice: Culturally responsive leadership matters.

Conducted by Vanderbilt University researcher Jason A. Grissom, Anna J. Egalite of North Carolina State University, and Constance A. Lindsay of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and commissioned by The Wallace Foundation, the study, How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systemic Synthesis of Two Decades of Researchfound for the first time that school leaders have as great an impact on student learning as teachers do. The analysis of data of more than 22,000 principals showed that replacing a below average principal with an above average principal leads to, on average, three months of additional learning in reading and math for a student in that school over the year, an impact almost as great as that of an above average teacherSchools with more effective principals have lower absentee rates, high teacher job satisfaction, and reduced teacher turnover, particularly of effective teachers.  

An effective principal, the study finds, not only orients their practice toward instructionally focused interactions with teachers. They prioritize creating a productive school climate; facilitating collaboration and professional learning communities; and strategic personnel and resource management processes.  

Across these practices, the research highlights the importance of centering equity in school leadership in ways similar to the actions detailed in The Leadership Academy’s Culturally Responsive Leadership Framework, a guide for leaders at every level of a school system, from aspiring principal to superintendent.  

The adoption of an equity lens inspires school leaders to reconsider their leadership behaviors  asking questions such as how their actions will remove barriers and create opportunities for historically underserved groups, how their behaviors will promote access to critical resources and supports for the success of all students, and how their practices will confront institutional factors that may be currently inhibiting certain members of the school community from achieving their full potential,” the study readsRegular, authentic examination of these refracted leadership behaviors presents an opportunity for school leaders to advance equity and promote an antiracist school community.” 

Said The Leadership Academy President & CEO Dr. Nancy Gutierrez, This research offers critical evidence not only that effective leadership is essential for improving student learning, but that effective leadership means intentionally building learning environments and experiences for the students in the building. Some of the research findings are troubling  over 20 years, principals’ average experience level has fallen particularly in schools serving low-income students of color, and the racial and ethnic diversity of school leaders has barely changed while the public school student body has become dramatically more diverse. But we see a clear path forward.  

As detailed in this new research and The Leadership Academy’s Culturally Responsive Leadership Frameworkeffective equity-focused leaders 

  • Directly address the mismatch between students of color and the adults who teach and lead them.
  • Continuously reorient themselves toward educational equity, particularly as contexts and communities change. 
  • Build the capacity of teachers to implement culturally responsive teaching practices.  
  • Approach school discipline with equity in mind. 
  • Purposefully engage a diverse range of families in the school’s work. 
  • Celebrate diversity. 
  • Consistently communicate high expectations for all students. 

A critical path forward, as noted in the research, includes 

  • Investing in improved principal preparation, pipeline initiatives and in-service learning with a focus on high-leverage leadership skills and behaviors. 
  • Prioritizing the needs of historically minoritized students by increasing their access to effective school leaders of color — principals of color have been found to have a positive effect on student achievement and teacher retention. 
  • Implementing policies that support a high-quality principal workforce. 
  • Supporting further research to explore the impact of principal practice on student learning experiences.   

It is difficult to envision an investment with a higher ceiling on its potential return than a successful effort to improve principal leadership,” concludes the report.