Not long ago, we at Fordham collaborated with Public Impact to call attention to school districts’ uneven practices when recruiting and selecting principals. Among other things, our study found that districts often overlooked applicants’ track records in boosting student achievement while serving as teachers. A recent study confirms that districts shouldn’t disregard these data, and should instead aim to hire those with the strongest record of performance.

A team of researchers led by Dan Goldhaber of the University of Washington examines the link between principal effectiveness and their teaching histories. The analysis uses data spanning from 2006–07 to 2016–17 on 3,102 principals, all former teachers, in the state of Washington. About half of the principals taught in the same district, and roughly 20 percent in the same school building. They were more likely to be male and hold a master’s degree than their peers who stayed in the classroom; however, their teacher licensing scores were not significantly different.

For the 355 principals with data gauging their impacts on state math or reading exams while teaching, the analysts use those teacher value-added scores to determine whether they predict greater effectiveness as principals, as measured by value-added models that aim to separate principal contributions to pupil achievement from other school and classroom factors. For principals who formerly taught in grades or subjects that don’t yield value-added data, the study examines whether the absence of such data predicts principal effectiveness.

The main takeaway is that more effective teachers become more effective principals. In reading, those who had higher teacher value-added scores led schools that produced stronger learning gains in that subject than those with lower scores. Similar results emerge in math. Principals lacking value-added data from their teaching days are less effective in raising math achievement than those with who did have such data—perhaps because they never taught math. But the results are largely insignificant in reading.

Lastly, the analysts uncover an intriguing result when it comes to external versus internal hiring: Principals who previously taught in the same school are less effective than those hired outside of the district or from another school within the district. There is logic to hiring internal candidates—they know the culture of the school—but the evidence here suggests that a fresh face might be a stronger option.   

The authors conclude “that policymakers have considerable opportunities to improve the effectiveness of the principal workforce through more purposeful selection of teachers according to their value added.” Fortunately, as a recent RAND Corporation report highlights, a few large districts have moved to more strategic principal selection practices, including data-driven hiring, and seen higher student achievement as a result. This study suggests that more districts would be wise to follow their lead when filling principal vacancies.

Source: Dan Goldhaber, Kristian Holden, and Bingjie Chen, Do More Effective Teachers Become More Effective Principals?CALDER Working Paper (2019).

Policy Priority:

Aaron Churchill is the Ohio research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he has worked since 2012. In this role, Aaron oversees a portfolio of research projects aimed at strengthening education policy in Ohio. He also writes regularly on Fordham’s blog, the Ohio Gadfly Daily, and contributes analytic support for…

View Full Bio