Leadership Spotlight - Improving School Leadership Under ESSA: Evidence-Based Options for State and District Leaders

March 7, 2017 • Volume #1: On Leadership

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One of the most widely quoted findings from education research is the fact that teacher quality is the largest school-related factor in student achievement. Less well known, but equally robust, is the finding from a report by the Wallace Foundation that principal quality is the second-largest in-school factor in student achievement.[i] The effect is particularly strong in schools with the greatest needs.[ii]

Unlike teachers, who affect individual students and classrooms, principals have a school-wide impact. Researchers have shown that effective principals attract and retain high-quality teachers[iii] and create professional work environments that facilitate effective teaching and learning.[iv] Studies have also found that high-quality principals nurture teachers who improve faster.[v]

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides new opportunities for states and districts to support school leaders. In contrast to previous versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which gave scant mention to school leadership, ESSA includes a number of provisions that support state and district efforts to recruit, prepare, and develop highly capable school leaders.

The provisions of ESSA that support leadership development include:

  • Title I, which supports improvements in the lowest-performing schools, including improvements in school leadership;
  • Title II, Part A (Supporting Effective Instruction), which allows states to set aside 3% of funds for leadership development; and
  • Title II, Part B (National Programs), which allows states to develop human-capital management systems for educators, as well as provides competitive grants to support the development of effective educators.

While ESSA offers flexibility to states and districts to identify and implement strategies to develop and support high quality school leaders, the federal government will only support leadership development programs that have been shown to be effective, using evidence gathered through rigorous research. The law sets out four categories, or tiers, of evidence states and districts must use in selecting programs. Using Title I funds, districts and states must select programs that meet one of three rigorous categories of evidence. Title II funds can be applied to interventions that clear a lower hurdle of evidence, with programs needing to demonstrate “a rationale based on high-quality research findings.” The U.S. Department of Education has released a detailed explanation of the criteria for each tier.

Fortunately, there are school leadership programs that qualify as evidence-based under even the more rigorous tiers of evidence. The RAND Corporation and the George W. Bush Institute recently released reports identifying interventions that demonstrate effectiveness through research that meets ESSA criteria. NISL has summarized these reviews and provided additional coverage of school leadership under ESSA in our new white paper, Improving School Leadership Under ESSA.

The next step is up to states and districts. They need to review the evidence about effective interventions and come up with improvement strategies that will have the biggest impact on their students, based on their own needs and context.

The opportunities ESSA provides are substantial. By taking advantage of them and choosing evidence-based interventions, districts and states can make long strides toward improving learning for all students.


[i] Leithwood, L., K. Seashore Louis, S. Anderson, and K. Wahlstrom. How Leadership Influences Student Learning. New York: The Wallace Foundation, 2004.

[ii] Hallinger, P., and R. H. Heck, “Reassessing the Principal’s Role in School Effectiveness: A Review of Empirical Research, 1980–1995,” Educational Administration Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 1, 1996, pp. 5–44.

[iii] Boyd, D., P. Grossman, M. Ing, H. Lankford, S. Loeb, and J. Wyckoff, “The Influence of School Administrators on Teacher Retention Decisions,” American Education Research Journal, Vol. 48, No. 2, 2011, pp. 303–333.; Branch, Gregory F., Eric A. Hanushek, and Steven G. Rivkin, “School Leaders Matter,” Education Next, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2013.; Grissom, J. A., “Can Good Principals Keep Teachers in Disadvantaged Schools? Linking Principal Effectiveness to Teacher Satisfaction and Turnover in Hard-to-Staff Environments,” Teachers College Record, Vol. 113, No. 11, 2011, pp. 2552–2585; Ladd, H. F., “Teachers’ Perceptions of Their Working Conditions: How Predictive of Planned and Actual Teacher Movement?” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 33, No. 2, 2011, pp. 235–261.

[iv] Seashore Louis, K., K. Leithwood, K. L. Wahlstrom, S. E. Anderson, M. Michlin, B. Mascall, M. Gordon, T. Strauss, E. Thomas, and S. Moorek, Learning from Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning, St. Paul: Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement, University of Minnesota, 2010; Clotfelter, C., Ladd, H. F., Vigdor, J., & Wheeler, J. (2006). High-poverty schools and the distribution of teachers and principals. North Carolina Law Review, 85 (5): 1345-79.

[v] Loeb, S., D. Kalogrides, and T. Béteille, “Effective Schools: Teacher Hiring, Assignment, Development, and Retention,” Education Finance and Policy, Vol. 7, No. 3, 2012, pp. 269–304.