The discussion of principal selection seldom occurs in conjunction with student achievement even when the relationship between school principals and student achievement is the topic. Although research as early as the 1970s has demonstrated the effect of principals on student achievement, the improvement of procedures used to select principals has managed to largely evade the attention of educational stakeholders, policy makers, and researchers.

This assertion is best evidenced by a recent review of research examining the relationship between school principal characteristics and student achievement published by the U.S. Department of Education in November 2015 – A Systematic Review of the Relationships Between Principal Characteristics and Student Achievement. The implications for school districts within this report mention the preparation and development of school principals, however, selection of principals is not discussed. This practice must change.

The Principal and Student Achievement Much research has been conducted over the last four decades on school leadership’s effect on student achievement. The most significant research, conducted by Tim Waters, Robert J. Marzano, and Brian McNulty in 2004, led to the development of 21 leadership responsibilities that were correlated with student achievement.

While they found school leadership could have a positive effect on student achievement, they also discovered school leadership could have a negative effect if a principal lacked specific leadership responsibilities such as understanding the level of change that needed to be implemented at a given school. The selection of principal candidates that have most or all of the 21 leadership responsibilities should be targeted if student achievement is the focal point.

What Attributes Are We Looking For? Although school boards may have little to do with the major aspects of principal selection, they do have the most important role in the entire process; the final say in hiring. School boards often have to trust that their designees are faithful in their selection processes, which should be designed to bring the most-qualified candidate forward for selection. Unfortunately, many districts still use vague selection criteria (educational leadership, communication, etc.) coupled with subjective methods (interviews, résumé checks, and references) that can be unreliable when determining which candidate is the most qualified.

If there is one constant throughout principal selection research, it is a question of whether merit is the overriding factor in selection. Because school districts often use subjective selection procedures to assess vague selection attributes, it is highly questionable whether or not the most-qualified candidates are being selected.

What Should We Be Looking For? Given the research conducted by Waters, Marzano, and McNulty, school districts should seek the 21 leadership responsibilities that have the most statistical effect on student achievement. Although it may not be feasible to assess for all 21 leadership responsibilities, districts could start with the top five to 10 and begin assessing for those leadership responsibilities. Once that is determined, the selection procedures should specifically be designed to assess for those responsibilities.

Designing objective selection procedures to assess for the 21 leadership responsibilities may entail a major shift in organizational human resource policies and procedures. Fortunately, no other personnel within a school district are in a greater position to lobby for these changes than school board members.

Screening procedures are typically the first step in selection where candidates begin to be evaluated. Often this step is to determine whether or not candidates meet the minimum qualifications of the job posting. Evidence of raising or sustaining student achievement should be evaluated objectively at this stage to weed out candidates who may not possess these traits.

One method that can be installed is blind screening of candidates. Candidates’ names can be removed from all submitted materials (interviews, résumé checks, and references) and evaluated based on the 21 leadership responsibilities. For example, instead of calling references to verify abilities, candidates’ references can be sent a rating form to rank the candidate according to the 21 leadership responsibilities. District human resource personnel then would analyze those rankings against their own needs to determine which candidate may actually possess the 21 leadership responsibilities being sought. Screening in this fashion is much more objective than a verbal reference over the phone.

Other objective methods could include performance tasks aligned with the 21 leadership responsibilities. Performance tasks with rubric-based scoring have been developed by researchers within the past several years and can provide school districts with objective assessments. A performance task may include a presentation based on school data or other materials in response to a real-school scenario or critical incident.

The presentation can then be scored using a rubric to objectively determine which candidate demonstrated the attribute(s) being sought. The key to objectively assessing a performance task is highly dependent upon rigorous scoring. Scorers must be well trained to avoid bias and calibrate their scoring to ensure objectivity. These are just several examples of objective procedures which have been reported in principal selection research over the past 35 years.

What Can School Boards Do? As a school board member there are numerous ways to get the ball rolling to bring principal selection into the student achievement debate:

  • Share this article with your fellow board members, superintendent, and human resource designee to open a dialogue for improving principal selection processes.
  • Read or review School Leadership That Works by Robert Marzano to become familiar with the 21 leadership responsibilities.
  • Open up a dialogue with your staff. Ask your human resource designee to walk you through the entire principal selection process. Start with the creation of the job posting (including which attributes are desired and why) up to the candidate’s name being brought before the board for a final decision.
  • Ask questions and be persistent in your pursuit to evaluate your districts’ principal selection practices.

Student Achievement Frontier Principal selection methods have been stagnant since the mid-1950s. Changing the way your district selects principals may be equivalent to moving mountains due to long-standing personalities, policies, and procedures that most likely exist within district human resource departments.

Given the principals effect on student achievement, school districts can no longer select principals based solely on subjective attributes and procedure. School board members are in a tremendous position to create a dialogue with their designees to enact change that will bring principal selection into the student achievement frontier where it belongs.

To see more click on this link and select the article Next Frontier in Student Achievement Debate.

Brandon Palmer  is the founder of, a school administrator, education writer, and researcher conducting principal selection research in affiliation with California State University Fresno.

This article was reprinted with permission from American School Board Journal, Dec. 2016 edition. All rights reserved.