Student Success Soars with Strong School Leadership

By Monica M. Heiser

Excellent leadership is a huge contributor to school-wide student success. A good principal influences every student and teacher in his or her school rather than just a single classroom, magnifying his or her effect on student success rates. A 2013 peer-reviewed study by Branch, Hanushek, and Rivkin determined that highly-effective principals raise the achievement of a typical student in their schools by two to seven months of learning in a single school year. Inadequate principals have the opposite effect, lowering achievement at the same rate (Branch, Hanushek, & Rivkin, 2013). As such, a greater understanding of what qualities lead to quality leadership is paramount.

A principal’s job is so much bigger than sitting behind a desk, dealing exclusively with payrolls, facilities, teaching lines, and budgets. We know this to be true, yet our school leaders can get lost behind their desks. Principals must put on the hat of instructional leader, making use of the latest research, encouraging a collaborative environment, and facilitating the professional growth of their teachers. These leaders empower their teachers to have a voice and utilize their teachers as resources for professional learning and growth for the entire school. The long-term result of this collaborative environment is the creation of a “safe space” for educators’ continuous development.

This type of leadership fosters an environment of trust, safety, and respect between a school’s administration and its teachers, where principals and teachers are able to work together to identify school objectives and individual teacher growth goals. For teachers to safely innovate, try, fail, and succeed, both school leader and instructional leader must adopt a growth mindset, giving and receiving constructive criticism.

“My principal was able to see potential that I never knew I had. And with that insight he opened doors to challenge and stretch me to build my leadership skills. It is his high expectations of professionalism and his trust in me that I am able to be the positive influence with my colleagues to begin building a culture of collaboration and appreciation of our profession on campus. His continuous support in projects and ideas that I shared with him were integral for my professional growth. He once told me that he ‘…just needed to point [me] in the right direction, get out the way and let [me] shine.’”

— Lorna Baniaga-Lee, English teacher at James Campbell High School

Principals should act like their best teachers, creating a school culture that values innovation and calculated risks, that doesn’t punish practitioners when something fails. Failure and struggle lead to the best learning and growth. Good leaders cultivate a workplace where teachers feel invited to innovate, grow, reflect, and learn without fear of reprisal.

Some districts are capitalizing on successful school leadership by creating school groups in which principals share institutional knowledge, collaborate, observe each other’s work, share successes and failures, and inspire one another to continue to grow as leaders. One form of this is the creation of Instructional Leadership Teams (ILT). In this model principals are grouped with coaches, teacher leaders, and principals from nearby schools. Principals are then held accountable for the agreements made in their ILT group. Teacher leaders are an integral part of this team, giving voice to the educators at their schoolsites.

Good leaders attract great teachers. Teacher retention, a key factor in student success rates, correlates directly to school leadership. The best teachers choose to stay in schools with strong leaders, and they quickly leave schools operated by inadequate principals (Branch et al., 2013). In turn, student success is directly impacted by the quality of teachers retained by the school (Kaplan & Owens, 2001).

Teachers have a direct impact on individual student success, but achieving school-wide success involves so much more. It is time for policymakers to more closely evaluate our administrators and the role they play in our schools. Excellent administrators have a monumental effect on teacher success, retention, and school-wide student growth. It’s time for other districts to utilize the latest research and join the 21st century, for the benefit of students nationwide.


Monica Myrmo Heiser, an experienced elementary school teacher currently teaching in Hawaii, earned both a BA and a Bilingual teaching credential from SDSU. A Hope Street Group Hawaii Teacher Fellow, Monica embraces additional leadership roles including serving on her instructional leadership team, plus teaching reading and writing professional development for teachers. Follow her on Twitter via @MMyrmo.


Branch, G. F., Hanushek, E. A., & Rivkin, S.G. (2013). School Leaders Matter: Measuring the impact of effective principals. EducationNext13(01), pp. 62–69:

Kaplan, L. S., & Owings, W. A. (2001). Teacher Quality and Student Achievement: Recommendations for Principals. NASSP Bulletin, 85(628), pp. 64–73. DOI: 10.1177/019263650108562808

Lorna Baniaga-Lee, English Teacher, James Campbell High School.