Principal study triggered by assistant professor Jason Grissom's youth experiences

Thursday, September 2, 2010 | 10:06 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Growing up, Jason Grissom’s principals were never his pals, let alone trusted authority figures.

“One principal made a rule that wouldn’t allow students to carry backpacks,” Grissom said.

The rule was an effort to restrict weapons but was not well received by students.

“We had to carry all of our textbooks to every class in our arms,” Grissom said.

When the next principal came through, the rule was changed. But, as Grissom explained, the changing of the guard as well as the rules only made each principal’s decisions seem arbitrary.

“It was like, if you felt that way about backpacks, it was hard not to feel that way about important things, like curriculum,” he said.

Grissom experienced what many students in urban, high-minority, low-income schools experience every year.

“Coming through your classic failing school district, the system turned over principals so quickly,” he said. “People never stuck around long enough to make a difference.”

Grissom, an assistant professor in the Truman School of Public Affairs since 2007, is making headway in the rather uncharted waters of defining a good principal. He said personal experience inspired his studies. 

He is now working on a $1 million government-funded study to observe principals over three years.

Through his earlier research, Grissom has already uncovered qualities that make principals more effective.

In the area of professional development, he discovered that administrators who chose formal mentoring, coaching and networking received better teacher ratings. Further research also suggested higher teacher ratings tend to increase teacher retention.

Grissom said he was surprised to find that principals who used university coursework for their development showed poor performance, poor teacher ratings, and poor school performance. This, in turn, resulted in teacher dissatisfaction and poor retention.

Mentoring and coaching are thought to be more effective because of their hands-on approach, he said. They allow principals to work and learn while under the guidance of more experienced administrators. 

“It may be that universities are a perfectly good venue (for further principal education),” he said. “But it suggests that what we are currently teaching isn’t the correct skill.”

The early stages of his study seem to suggest that better management skills affect teacher retention and school improvement. In a pilot program he monitored in Miami, Fla., Grissom said principals with better organizational skills had consistently higher test scores, parent approval and teacher satisfaction.

It would be ambitious to assume that after three years he will be able to pinpoint the things that make a good principal, but he hopes to identify a set of teachable skills that help principals administrate more effectively. 

“Our study is exploratory,” Grissom said. “Our goal is to figure out what factors separate the most effective principals from less effective ones so that we can go in and dig into those factors a lot deeper.”

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