What does a principal do?

Even though principals do not directly educate students, their activities and decisions shape the teaching and learning that takes place in their schools. Understanding the relationships between how principals allot their time and educational outcomes could improve their training, selection, development, and evaluation.  The main goals of our Faculty Innovation Grant are to 1) document how principals use their time, 2) examine differences in principal time use across various school settings, and 3) link principal time use to behavioral, emotional, and academic outcomes.

Unfortunately, the work of principals makes the measurement of their time use, as well as the effectiveness of that usage, a difficult task.  Principal activity occurs across numerous settings, such as offices, classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, auditoriums and athletic fields. Moreover, the expectations and responsibilities of principals compel their activity beyond the traditional school day, week, and year.

To chronicle principal activity as they move through these times and spaces, researchers have typically collected data through observations and surveys.  Directly watching how principals spend their time is an expensive way to collect rich data on a limited number of subjects, but suffers from observer bias and influence, making those data difficult to generalize to a “normal day” for a principal.  Asking principals to retrospectively report on how they spent their time is inexpensive way to collect descriptive data on a large number of subjects, but suffers from recall and estimations errors.  In other words, researchers must find a way to collect accurate data from principals regarding their time use while carrying on with their days as if no one is watching them.

Technological advancements have enabled us to inexpensively collect rich data using event sampling methodology, while reducing bias in recall, estimation, and observation.  Using Pebble Smartwatches, we randomly notified school leaders three times per day between the hours of 8AM and 8PM for 28 days. Worn by the participants, the Pebble would silently vibrate for each of our notifications, which reliably prompted them to respond electronically to three questions:

  1. How would you categorize your current activity?
  2. With what type of educational stakeholder are you currently interacting?
  3. Provide a brief description of your current activity.

Among the 11 participants, this mobile, discrete, and prioritized system of notification achieved a response rate of 85%, with a median response time of 70 seconds.  Although some variation existed among type of school, school level, and type of leader, all response rates exceeded 75%. Moreover, results indicated similar response rates regardless of week of the study, day of the week, or time of the day.

Content of the responses revealed that during the school week, participants identified their activity as school-related approximately 90% of the time.  Of potential concern is that participants identified using their time for instructionally-related activity in less than 20% of the weekday responses.  Participants responded engaging in managerial activity most frequently, accounting for approximately 40% of the weekday responses.

In addition to describing how principals spend their time, we attempted to assess if their time use was associated with student outcomes.  Of the activity classifications reported, when principals spent more time on administrative activities, their students reported lower levels of behavioral/emotional difficulties.  In addition, when principals spent more time on non-school related activities during the traditional school week, their students reported higher levels of behavioral/emotional difficulties.  Collectively, these findings lend support to the notion that the day-to-day activities of principals can and do have a meaningful impact on the behavioral and emotional health of their students.

As the academic year comes to a close, we are continuing to gather student outcome data from the schools, including achievement test data and school-reported behavioral outcome data.  Our next steps include analyses to examine how principal time use may be related to achievement outcomes for students.

The preliminary results of this project are promising in several ways.  First, we have provided data to support the use of smart watch technology to assist with the recording of principal time use.  Second, we have collected data outside the confines of the traditional school day and week, which allow us to provide a more accurate picture of what it is that principals “do” on a continual basis.  Finally, our preliminary analyses lend evidence to suggest that principals’ daily activities do have an impact on important student outcomes, including behavioral and emotional health.

This research was made possible by a Faculty Innovation Grant, whose Principal Investigators (on Principals!) are Bridget Dever, Assistant Professor, School Psychology, Craig Hochbein, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership, and George White, Professor, Educational Leadership and the Director of the Center for Developing Urban Educational Leaders (CDUEL) at Lehigh.

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