Should principals stop visiting classrooms?

January 08, 2014

By Daniel Willingham

What does it mean for an administrator to be an instructional leader? As often as this phrase is repeated, you’d think there would be well-researched techniques with proven effectiveness. There is no shortage of authors offering protips: Amazon has over a thousand titles that include the phrase.

But there is less research on the topic than you’d think, and much of it (e.g., May, Huff, & Goldring, 2012) actually shows a weak or non-existent relationship between student achievement and the priority administrators place on instructional leadership (as opposed to other aspects of a principal’s job, e.g., close attention to administrative matters, inspirational leadership, focus on school culture, etc.).

A terrific new study by Jason Grissom, Susanna Loeb, and Ben Master shed light on the role of instructional leadership. It’s the method that sets this study apart. Instead of simply asking principals “how important is instructional leadership to you?” or having them complete time diaries, researchers actually followed 100 principals around for a full school day, recording what they did.

The researchers also had access to administrative data from the district (Miami-Dade County in Florida) about principals, teachers, and students that could be linked to the observational data. The outcome measure of interest was student learning gains, as measured by standardized tests.

The results showed that principals spent, on average, 12.6 percent of their time on activities related to instruction. The most common was classroom walkthroughs (5.4%) and the second was formal teacher evaluation (2.4%).