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In Tennessee, principal quality is not distributed equally across schools

Posted by Joan Brasher on Monday, February 25, 2019 in Education Policy, Nashville and Tennessee, News, School Leadership.


TERAA new research brief from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance finds that principal quality varies greatly from school to school in Tennessee and effective principals are not distributed equally in schools across the state.

Jason A. Grissom, associate professor of public policy and education, along with Vanderbilt doctoral candidate Brendan Bartanen and Hajime Mitani of Rowan University, explored four key school factors to determine sorting patterns of Tennessee principals:

  • student poverty,
  • student achievement,
  • percentage of students of color, and
  • school location.
Associate Professor Jason Grissom (Steve Green/Vanderbilt)

They found that less effective principals are more likely to work in schools with more students in poverty and lower-achieving students, and generally are concentrated in urban and rural school districts. These patterns are driven by higher turnover in such schools and a tendency of districts to hire less effective principals into more challenging schools when vacancies arise.

“Our findings provide evidence that there are inequities in where the most effective principals are placed across the state,” said Grissom. “High-poverty, low-achieving schools are the most demanding leadership environments. Presumably, Tennessee wants to place its most effective, most experienced leaders into those schools. But what’s actually happening looks very different.”

Key findings from the study

  • Principal quality is unevenly distributed in Tennessee. More experienced and higher rated principals are concentrated in schools with fewer students in poverty, low-achieving students, and students of color.
  • Hiring and turnover drive inequities in principal quality across the state. Schools with higher proportions of students in poverty, low-achieving students, and students of color are more likely to hire inexperienced or ineffective principals and to experience greater principal turnover.
Erin O’Hara (Vanderbilt)

“Previous TERA research shows that more effective principals drive student growth, greater teacher retention, and better school climate ratings,” said Erin O’Hara, executive director of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance. “This research further underscores that to close achievement gaps, Tennessee must implement policies at the state and district levels that encourage a more equitable distribution of great principals across Tennessee schools.”

This brief is the second in a series of TERA work focused on school leadership in Tennessee.

The Tennessee Education Research Alliance is a unique research partnership between Peabody College and the Tennessee Department of Education committed to informing Tennessee’s school improvement efforts with useful, timely and high-quality studies.

Learn more

A version of this story appeared previously on Vanderbilt News.

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