Elite Principals in Schools, Post

Elite Principals in Schools

In June 2016, Mike Helal and Michael Coelli published a working paper called How Principals Affect Schools. This was a result of research at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne. The paper itself is available on a few sites. This is a brief discussion of the paper at this site:  https://www.theeducatoronline.com/k12/news/principals-have-more-impact-than-they-think/217167  

Starting with the RESULTS:

1 — The positive effect of the parents’ higher socio-economic standing is less than it used to be.
2 — The negative effect of staff turnover in Primary Schools is greater than it used to be.
3 — There is also a greater positive effect the longer the principal’s tenure, to about 8 years.

Helal and Coelli’s Research

It was on the effect primary school principals have on educational results of children between Grades 3 and 5.

Most research with analyses by economists on the effects of school principals on educational results has been done in the USA.  Helal and Coelli have carried out the first important research in Australia using statistical methodologies.

Their Objectives

Using data provided by the Victorian Department of Education, Helal and Coelli used two methods in their research with no significant variation in conclusions. They had two objectives.

  • The first main objective was to identify factor/s in the actions of school principals that positively affected students’ results.
  • To do this, all other factors had to be removed from the equation. This led to the possibility of achieving the second objective. It was important for the study to remove school-based factors such as the quality of teachers, to isolate principal effects.
  • The second main objective was to attempt to identify specific “pathways by which individual school principals may affect the schools they lead and ultimately student achievement, our main measure of school outcomes (productivity).
  • The effective practices of school leaders, and leaders more generally, remains largely unknown (p 2).

Methods: By keeping all the factors steady and constant over time, that is, the principal in the school, students in the school, teachers in the school, the researchers were able to nail certain characteristics that made a principal who was having outstanding positive effect. To do this the study sample involved about 168,000 students who could be matched to give a sample with constant factors for study.


  • The positive effect of parents’ socio-economic standing (SES) is less than it used to be.
  • The negative effect of staff turnover in larger primary schools is now greater.
  • There is also a greater positive effect the longer the principal’s tenure possibly to a limit of about 8 years.

There’s a proviso: In lower socio-economic environments with higher numbers of non-European students, principals are less well-qualified and less experienced. So the positive effect of principals is lower because of these two factors.

  • Principals had greater positive effect on Maths results than on Reading results. These are the two key skill areas that the researchers focused on.

Links  What’s On This Website   ,  Early Primary School, Page   ,  Middle Primary School, Page   Upper Primary School, Page ,  Early Secondary School, Page

Lessons from the Research:

Directions for future principals:  The research results contribute greatly to our understanding of possible pathways.

  • Existing pathways that elite principals follow, perhaps unconsciously, can be identified and developed.
  • Programs for Principal Development can be put in place. The programs can be explicitly directed to educate principals in what works.
  • All principals can become elite principals and increase the positive effect of their leadership skills.

AND… by exploring and analysing changes in the school-level factors, researchers hoped to isolate school-level factors that principals could directly or indirectly influence.

The results were in line with expectations but with one or two surprises. Isolating school level factors was important because some do not affect the results for students. Some results were expected.

  • Boys result were better in Maths than girls, and girls results were better in Literacy than boys.
  • Students from non-English speaking families had lower results in both English and Maths but by Grade 5 they had higher achievements in Maths.
  • Higher socio-economic status (SES) and the proportion of non-English speaking backgrounds gave higher results when the two were together.

Surprise:   Regional and remote schools
produced better results

than metro schools in spite of the lower socio-economic status of parents which had already been factored in. Regional schools had  overall better results than metro schools with remote schools not far behind regional schools.


To examine the school factors and how principals can affect them positively, the researchers looked at the surveys of staff and parents going back some years, even though the data was incomplete.

  • Surveys of Parents reveal the perception that principals have the least effect on teaching quality.
  • There is an inconsistent correlation between the way parents perceive a principal and students’ results. So a principal more concerned about relationships with parents may not be yielding the best outcomes for students, and vice-versa.
  • Surveys of Staff  reveal: Good principals positively lifted morale of staff marginally.
  • Good principals positively affect maths results after fostering Professional Development in Maths. This is not seen in Literacy results.
  • Principals have significant effect on school performance.
  • Principals have many social and educational factors in common.

Helal and Coelli draw interesting and important conclusions from their research. They write: “Leaders who create a stimulating and collaborative professional environment, with a shared school vision and goals, are those who can best raise student achievement.”

“The more effective pathways involved principals influencing their teaching staff, rather than via influencing parental perceptions of the school.” (quote from the research)

Their results imply that the most effective principals are able “to establish a coherent set of goals for the school’s workforce, to encourage professional interaction among staff, and to promote the professional development of staff”.

Looking forward to reading further research. These findings will be transposed to the secondary school sector with greater confidence. There are already elite principals in place to turn around poorly performing schools with declining enrolments. The findings of earlier research carried out in the USA have already impacted the Department of Education in Victoria.

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