School principals have complex jobs. To better understand the work lives of principals, this study uses observational time use data for all high school principals in one district. This article examines the relationship between the time principals spent on different types of activities and school outcomes, including student achievement, teacher and parent assessments of the school, and teacher satisfaction. We find that time spent on organization management activities is associated with positive school outcomes, whereas day-to-day instruction activities are marginally or not at all related to improvements in student performance and often have a negative relationship with teacher and parent assessments.
Principals can play critical roles in the development of high-quality schools (see Darling-Hammond et al. 2007; EdSource 2008; Knapp et al. 2003; Wallace Foundation 2007). While only a small body of research links principals directly to student achievement (Branch et al. 2008; Hallinger and Heck 1996), a much larger research base documents principals’ effects on school operations, through motivating teachers and students, identifying and articulating vision and goals, developing high performance expectations, fostering communication, allocating resources, and developing organizational structures to support instruction and learning (Knapp et al. 2006; Lee et al. 1993; Leithwood et al. 2004). Principals also affect the instructional quality of schools through the recruitment, development, and retention of teachers (Harris et al. 2010).
While the importance of the principal for school operations is widely acknowledged, surprisingly little is known about what principals do on a day-to-day basis and how this varies across schools. Previous research on principal’s time use can be grouped into two broad categories: ethnographic studies and self-report studies—each with their own benefits and limitations. Ethnographic studies allow for depth and detail but generally include observations of only a few principals and are consequently unable to generalize to a larger population of schools or to empirically link principal’s time use to school outcomes (Martin and Willower 1981; Morris et al. 1984; Wolcott 1973). Self-report research, usually conducted with surveys, allows for large samples but often sacrifices depth and perhaps accuracy. These studies are likely to be susceptible to self-reporting and memory biases (Andrews et al. 1986; Andrews and Soder 1987; Brewer 1993; Eberts and Stone 1988; Erickson and Reller 1978; Martinko and Gardner 1990).
Recent advances in self-report data collection methods, such as end-of-the-day logs and experience sampling methods (ESM), have reduced some of these potential biases (Goldring et al. 2008; Scott et al. 1990). For example, Spillane et al. (2007) employed ESM by paging principals up to 15 times a day on portable handheld devices for six consecutive days. Each time they were paged, principals filled out a short survey asking questions about what they were doing, who they were with, and where they were. The real-time nature of this method eliminates the possibility that principals forget or misremember their daily activities. The method, however, still suffers from the potential biases inherent in self-reporting. An additional drawback to ESM is that the surveys take time to complete and are thus necessarily limited in their scope so as not to overly disrupt the principal’s work day.