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Often in reform efforts focused on teacher effectiveness, principals are overlooked. Two new studies examining the National Institute for School Leadership, a for-profit company that works in 19 states, point to the importance of school leaders. Researchers found statistically significant gains on test scores at hundreds of schools  in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts with principals trained by the institute.

These are not the first studies to reach the conclusion that leadership matters. A 2009 study done by New Leaders for New Schools found that principal effectiveness accounted for 25 percent of student gains. Teacher effectiveness, by comparison, accounted for 33 percent. And school reformers – both in public schools and charters – have been clamoring for better leadership development for years.

These new studies, conducted by Old Dominion and Johns Hopkins Universities, provide a new argument for the training programs: They can be cost effective.

The National Institute for School Leadership (NISL) charges districts or states $15,750 to prepare in-district trainers, who then train aspiring principals and veteran school leaders, with the institute’s support. Fees for a principal to undergo the training range from $2,500 to $5,250, depending on the number of participants in the 12- to 15-month program.

In Pennsylvania–where schools with NISL-trained principals  beat their peers by almost 10 percentage points on state tests–the average cost per principal was $4,000, or $117 per student.

The company is buying new advertisements  “to bring home that point,” said President and CEO Bob Hughes. “You can get … effects for very little money by concentrating on the leadership.”

In the Massachusetts study, students in 38 schools that had a principal who went through the leadership training program in 2007 and remained at the school through 2010 saw gains that were “quite large” compared to other school reform efforts. On average, students gained the equivalent of an extra month of learning.

“Out of all the professional development funding that is spent, only about 1 percent relates to the principal or the leadership of the school,” Hughes said. “Almost all of it is focused on the teaching… but we need to widen that.”

The researchers concluded in the Massachusetts study that it may be more practical to train principals at struggling schools instead of removing them, a main strategy under Obama administration-led reforms.

The federal government’s School Improvement Grants, aimed at  the bottom 5 percent of schools nationwide, come with four possible plans a failing school can adopt, but all require that the principal be fired if they’ve been in the position for more than two years. The requirement has lead some schools across the country to turn the money down.

But even for those schools that took the money and fired their principal, Hughes sees his group as having an important role in working with their replacements. “We believe that just the sheer numbers mean that most of the [hires] will be coming from the” same district, he said. “And those are the ones we really want to focus on.”

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