Literature Review        

A study of how specific principal behaviors affect teacher and student performance


Dissertation Defense
Significant Quotes
Origin of Study
Conceptual Framework
Literature Review
Research Design
Measures & Insturments
Data & Analysis
Support Documents
About Authors
Contact Information

Principals must be instructional leaders to improve teacher instructional practices and increase student performance. While principals cannot directly control every aspect of the school, they can directly affect the way they interact with teachers. This chapter provides evidentiary support of this study’s central claim; with high quality principal-teacher interactions, principals and teachers can begin to improve instructional practices. The review of literature also further supports that improving teacher instructional practices is the key to increasing student performance as well as improving the frequency and focus of teacher conversations. While measuring these constructs is a challenge, useful indicators exist to support such measurements.

The Role of Principal

Historically, the role of the principal has changed from lead teacher, to manager of the building, to the current role of instructional leader with emphasis on the principal-teacher interactions to improve instructional practices. As recently as December 2006, the National Association of State Boards of Education reported that high stakes accountability has caused the role of school principal to include involvement with teacher instructional practices. Although the expectations for principal have changed to include curriculum and instructional leadership, principals often get caught in the managerial tasks of the building which may diminish their capacity to serve as an instructional leader. Many of these managerial tasks are time sensitive and must be addressed immediately. As a result, the principal’s attention to curriculum and teaching diminishes because there is no commensurate sense of urgency surrounding curriculum (Halverson, Kelley, & Kimball, 2004).

In order for principals to meet instructional leadership expectations and continue to perform managerial tasks, a distributive leadership approach evolved in many schools between teachers and principals. Prioritizing and sharing tasks was necessary so that the number of responsibilities could be completed in a timely and efficient manner. According to a study by Glanz, Shulman, and Sullivan (2007), “Student achievement levels were higher in schools with principals with higher ratings. Research also concluded that principal quality was connected to student achievement” (p. 6), and that every principal’s goal should be increased student performance and making learning available and relevant for each and every student (Cochran-Smith, 2008).

Historical Role of Principal


The historical role of principals was formulated based on a typical business model within which the schools operated. According to Berry and Beach (2006), in the 1850s and 1860s principals made sure teachers were hired, bills were paid, books were purchased and supervision duties were performed. Principal preparation then was based on a need to manage schools and supervise teachers in their work. Principal preparation programs did not include enhancing administrators’ ability to collaborate with teachers in relation to improving instructional practices.

In the late nineteenth century education moved away from the one room school house with the lead teacher functioning as a principal. Academia began to see the need to train principals for expanded duties that included skills beyond those typically required of a lead teacher. While universities for training for teachers focused on curriculum, principal preparation focused on managerial roles. At this point, no time in the principal preparation program was spent enhancing principal’s ability to collaborate with teachers in relation to improving instructional practices (Berry and Beach, 2006).

In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, social pressures led to increased demands on public education, and student achievement emerged as a measure of school effectiveness (Hallinger & Heck, 1996). Principals were charged by their superintendents to lead initiatives aimed at improving student achievement with no reduction in their managerial duties and little training toward becoming instructional leaders. This meant that principals became responsible for both managing the school and improving instructional practices.

In response to high stakes accountability in the 1980s and 1990s, school change focused on government initiatives, district programs, and top-down practices. These efforts were based more on compliance with state educational initiatives than on solid research for strategic change (Danielson, 2007). With continuing demands from state governments and the public to increase student achievement, the focus on school improvement remained critical. Principals struggling to meet the demands of their new roles as instructional leaders continually searched for ways to improve teaching and instruction.

Current Role of Principal 

With the growing profile of high stakes state assessment and accountability, the need for principals with significant instructional leadership skills continues to grow. Achievement data and information have become a critical part of principals’ vocabulary and goal setting for the success of their school. Principals must also be aware of and involved in classroom instruction because they are ultimately responsible for improving teacher quality. According to Toch and Rothman (2008), “Public education defines teacher quality largely in terms of credentials that teachers have earned, rather than on the basis of the quality of the system required knowledge and work they do in their classrooms or the results their students achieve” (p. 2). Effective principals must move beyond the credential-based assessment of teacher quality. Currently, principals are expected to be change agents in schools for improving test scores, to take responsibility for high stakes accountability, to be the curriculum leader, and to promote success for all teachers and students. To meet these rigorous demands the principal must interact with teachers in instructionally meaningful ways and be aware of what students are learning (Hirsch, 1999; Leithwood & Mascall, 2008; Marshall, 2006b; Reeves, 2004; Wagner & Kegan, 2006; Whitaker, 2003; Zepeda, 2003).

The Role of Principal in Principal-Teacher Interactions

The instructional leadership role of principals requires high quality principal-teacher interactions to improve instructional practices. However, principals typically hire a teacher with an interview and a gut instinct that the teacher will utilize high quality instructional practices in class. Then, principal-teacher interactions often become situationally dependent and may be purely social. For principals to understand and affect quality instruction, principal-teacher interaction must become a regular, even systematic component of the school’s structure. According to Frase and Hetzel (1990), “the principal would start to understand the strengths and weaknesses of every teacher because of the frequent classroom visits and an understanding of how all the parts are interrelated” (p. 18). Regular and meaningful principal-teacher interactions are essential to empower principals and teachers to affect instruction and student learning.

 To be effective instructional leaders, principals need to be involved in instructional practices on a frequent (e.g. daily) and ongoing basis (Downey & Frase, 2001). Unfortunately, the opportunities for meaningful principal-teacher interactions are limited because many teachers do not feel confident in their instruction (Halverson, Kelley, & Kimball, 2004). In other cases, teachers believe principals lack the necessary knowledge of the teacher’s subject area which does not engender the conversational give-and-take required for quality feedback. Finally, teachers may feel threatened because the principal is their evaluator (Hord, 1997). Similarly, principals may also be inhibited in their ability to develop meaningful principal-teacher interactions because they lack confidence in their knowledge of specific curriculum or may get caught up in managerial duties of the school day (Marshall, 2008).

In schools where a rich tradition of principal-teacher interaction has developed despite the impediments discussed above, principals and teachers may interact conversationally but not intentionally toward improving instructional practices. Marshall (2008) and Toch and Rothman (2008) agree that principals spend a large amount of time discussing initiatives and directives, but schools rarely are impacted by these initiatives because there is no follow up on the initiatives and no real expectations established.

Constructive Effects of Principal-Teacher Interactions

            When frequent principal-teacher interactions occur, especially interactions that focus on principal expectations, goals and strategies, follow-up and feedback are critical. Many teachers are self-motivated and seek to continually improve, and these teachers benefit from a supportive, knowledgeable principal. Some teachers need only a small amount of encouragement to improve, while other teachers will only improve if pressured considerably. Simply put, it is the expectations put forth and meaningfully supported by principals that facilitate the improvement of instructional practices (Leithwood & Jantzi 2000). Although teacher credentialing is necessary and important as one piece of evidence to ensure quality teaching, it is not necessarily sufficient to produce good teaching. All professionals benefit from frequent, ongoing professional guidance and collaboration to reach their full potential.

Principals who have the expectation of and the ability to monitor instructional practices can improve the quality of collaboration in their building. Klingner, Arguelles, Hughes, and Vaughn (2001) wrote,

A second factor affecting the sustainability of classroom specific innovation is school leadership. Schools at which principals devote time to the development of an innovation are more likely to have teachers committed to its practice. Teachers respond to principals actively trying to improve instruction. The principals’ interest in curriculum validates the teachers’ role in student learning. Further, districts that procedurally rotate principals may have more difficulty sustaining a classroom specific strategy than schools where principals are retained” (p. 225).


It is the teachers’ and the principals’ responsibility to embrace professional development and follow it through to instructional practice. Hallinger and Murphy (1985) found that instructional leadership variables connected to achievement included supervision and instructions and embedded professional development. If embedded professional development is focused, ongoing and regularly used in the classroom, it will assist rather than hinder the educational process and can improve student learning.

When principals demonstrate knowledge of the instructional practices occurring in the classroom, teachers are more confident that principals are part of the learning solution leading to student achievement. Marzano (2003) claimed, “Rather than prowling through classrooms with checklists of ‘correct’ practices, administrators should be looking at interim results with their teachers, identifying the most effective practices” (p. 167). Haycock (1998) found, “successful strategies differ from many professional development programs…these strategies are ongoing, on-site, and focused on the content that students should learn” (p. 13). Thus, regular and meaningful principal-teacher interactions that focus on quality instruction are the key to improved collaboration between principals and teachers and student achievement.

Effects of Principal-Teacher Interactions

Principal-teacher interactions that focus on social exchanges are an easy and comfortable way for principals and teachers to interact, but they do not yield quality reflection to improve classroom instructional practices. Marshall (2008) claimed that in order to be a change agent in curricular areas in the building, a principal must know what the teachers are teaching and be familiar with the content and delivery system in order to suggest useful improvements to the classroom. Glanz, Shulman, and Sullivan (2007) agreed, finding that “supervision is a non-evaluative process in which instructional dialogue is encouraged for the purpose of engaging teachers to consider effective strategies to promote student learning” (p. 7).

The mere leadership status of a principal does not impact teacher knowledge of instructional practices, but the principal’s interaction with teachers in classrooms around curriculum and instruction will. Hirsch (1999) found that administrative roles do not inherently improve quality academic principal-teacher interactions on a professional level. The principal must intentionally invest time in classrooms and in principal-teacher interaction focusing on quality instruction. Alig-Mielcarek (2003) claims, “Instructional leadership has a direct and indirect effect on student achievement” (p. 74). To be effective, principal-teacher interactions cannot be an intermittent or low priority initiative; it must be a pervasive and regular process immersed in the daily work of teachers. Teachers want feedback on the instructional practices they use in class. They want other adults to see the good work they do and to discuss suggestions for improvement. But, without the information gained from frequent classroom visits, principals tend to consider teachers’ personalities instead of their classroom practices to gauge quality instruction; they tend to control rather than enable teachers; and they tend to interact socially with teachers in lieu of professionally (Marzano,Waters, & McNulty 2005).

Principal-Teacher Interactions and Distributing Leadership

Another area of interest, when considering principal-teacher interactions, is goal alignment and capacity building through a distributed leadership style. There are many forms of administrative leadership; however, the research summarized below suggested that a distributed leadership style is effective; and, if used properly, can increase student achievement. With leadership responsibilities distributed to many stakeholders sharing a common goal, school improvement strategies can be implemented effectively.

Many schools, especially large high schools, have multiple principals and staff who may or may not work well together. With the rigorous demands on school leadership to affect student achievement, such inefficiency must be addressed. As Fullan (2005b) stated, “capacity building must become a core feature of all improvement strategies, and we need to focus explicitly on the difficult issues of sustainability” (p. 180). Principals must activate and encourage designated leaders in any building (department heads, curriculum leads, counselors, informal teacher leaders etc.) in order to effectively pursue instructional goals. The degree to which a principal’s goals and methods are aligned with the many staff engaged in distributive leadership can make a significant difference in the success of the school.

            Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee (2003), suggested that every person in every role at some point acts as a leader. This creates a system to build capacity that will sustain improvement should a particular leader leave. Ritchie and Woods (2007) described a distributed leadership model that is a “distribution of responsibility, working in teams, and engendering collective responsibility” (p. 364). In other words, the goals and responsibilities of leaders and stakeholders become interdependent. Moreover, the sharing of power and decision making creates an environment that improves the quality of decisions and builds a collaborative culture that will not disappear with changes in leadership. In other words, distributive leadership builds real change that is sustained.

Ritchie and Woods (2007) found that a distributed leadership model falls into different categories. Although the study reviewed self–reported data, identifying factors for distributed leadership included staffs that (a) were challenged and motivated; (b) regarded themselves as learners; (c) felt valued, trusted, listened to and supported;

(d) were involved in creating, sharing and developing a collective vision; (e)were aware of their talents and leadership potential; (f) appreciated responsibilities and opportunities given to them; (g) felt supported; (h) appreciated autonomy. Faculty involvement in leadership also yields useful ideas and concepts that could otherwise be overlooked by the principal acting alone.

            When implemented correctly, a distributed leadership style is not only effective but is also popular among staff. A study by Liethwood (1987) described the “popularity of distributed leadership as a desirable approach to leadership practice in schools. Justifications for the optimistic consequences associated with this approach to leadership invoke democratic values, shared expertise, and the commitment that arises from participation in decision making” (p. 65). In essence, the complete engagement of all stakeholders forms a community of learners that will positively impact instructional practices and eventually positively impact student achievement. To succeed there must be a sense from all stakeholders that everyone is moving toward the same goals, and with all stakeholders focused on a common vision and mission, positive movement will occur

Summary of Constructive Effects of Principal-Teacher Interactions

Effective principals approach principal-teacher interactions with the objectives of working together with all stakeholders and using every opportunity to become part of the educational process. Typically, teachers are trying their best to be effective and want to improve their instructional practices. Principals can facilitate their endeavors of distributing leadership and assisting all teachers to be more effective by reducing isolation, discipline issues, poor climate, and other contributing factors. Since research exists (e.g. Connors , 2000; Felner & Angela, 1988; Haycock, 1998; Lezotte, 2001; Price, Cowen, Lorion, &Ramous-McKay, 1988; Raudenbush, Rowan, Cheong, 1992) that concludes that good teaching does make a difference in student performance, improving and implementing high quality collaborative principal-teacher interactions may reasonably be hypothesized to lead to better teaching and subsequently improved student achievement.

            According to Cushman and Delpit (2003), teachers and principals rarely interact with each other on a professional level (e.g., curriculum, daily lessons, student relationships, new innovations or programs). Many educators claim time constraints significantly inhibit principal-teacher interactions (Downey & Frase, 2001). Haycock (1998) nevertheless found that “If education leaders want to close the achievement gap, they must focus, first and foremost, on developing qualified teachers and document the clear relationship between low standards, low–level curriculum, under-educated teachers and poor results” (p. 3). This process takes time, but it is worth the investment to improve classroom instruction and the culture of the building so high quality teachers can flourish. Haycock (1998) and Jordan, Mendro, and Weerasinghe (1997) also found that students who have highly effective teachers for consecutive years increased their performance on standardized tests more each year. Thus, if we want to close achievement gaps, we must make sure students have consistently effective teachers rather than intermittently effective instruction. Principals must make the time to interact with teachers toward improving test scores, curriculum, daily lessons, student behavior and innovative programs.

High Quality Principal-Teacher Interactions

Although principals put forth their best efforts to make quality hiring decisions based on interviews and references, teachers still need ongoing encouragement and mentoring for continuous improvement. In most schools, intentional high quality principal-teacher interactions do not occur on a regular basis. This study posits that if principals and teachers (a) intentionally discuss the quality of instructional practices and collaboratively make plans for improving the quality of instruction; (b) use classroom level student data on a frequent basis to aid teachers in reflection on the success of their students; (c) periodically collaborate in classrooms throughout the year; (d) use the same rubric based instrument to define quality instruction, then instructional practices, student achievement, and the frequency and focus of teacher conversations will improve.

The Reality of Principal-Teacher Interactions

Principals typically work within an established structure for observing teachers’ instructional practices for summative evaluation, but they rarely observe student learning in order to provide frequent ongoing feedback to teachers (Marshall, 2006b). The assumption seems to be that teachers would not benefit from collaboration regarding their instructional practices until after the formal evaluation process is completed. Yet even excellent teachers benefit from encouragement and constructive feedback as well as reviewing data and reflection on their instructional practices (Downey & Frase, 2001). Principals and teachers need to collaboratively discuss data and reflect on instruction to improve instructional practices. Simply put, in order for principals to have an accurate understanding of instructional practices they must visit classrooms. Many teachers are isolated in their practice with the exception of the mandatory, scheduled observations during the school year; and if these observations are the only curricular interaction the principal has with the teacher, the principal will often get an atypical instructional performance measure during pre-scheduled observations.

Glanz et al., (2007) found that many principals only see teachers teaching during official observations, and Marshal (2008) noted that, “Principals make an educated guess about what’s happening during 99.5 percent of the year when they’re not there, saying a prayer and relying on teachers’ professionalism” (p. 1). Rather than relying on chance, principals and teachers should be frequently discussing instructional practices and observing student learning to continually improve classroom instructional practices.

Collaborating with Teachers (Summer Meetings)

The principals’ and teachers’ most important long-term work is improving instruction (Leithwood, Louis, Stephen, and Wahlstrom, 2004), and Ginsberg (2001) claimed that knowing exactly what is taught in the classroom will facilitate conversation and self- reflection in teachers, adding a new level of professionalism often overlooked. Unfortunately, many principals rarely initiate these conversations with teachers or talk only about non-instructional topics (Downey & Frase, 2001). To address this problem principals and teachers must intentionally take time to discuss the quality of instructional practices as well as collaboratively plan for improving the quality of instruction. Summer meetings between principals and teachers will facilitate this process. In these meetings principals and teachers can more clearly focus on adjusting methodology for improving student learning than during the school year when implementation of strategies commands the attention of teachers and principals. With administrative involvement in teacher reflection during summer meetings objectives for quality instruction and student performance become mutual goals for principals and teachers and frame appropriate principal-teacher interaction throughout the year. Summer meetings also provide time to share feedback with teachers from the completed school year in order to consider areas of growth for the coming year.

A study by Martinez, Firestone, Mangin, and Polovsky (2005) found that teachers desired feedback on their work, and their statements were grounded in distributed leadership which asserts, “Monitoring progress during change periods of reforms is important to institutionalize change” (p. 7). Summer meetings between principals and teachers provide an excellent opportunity to monitor progress and to guide and encourage continuous instructional improvement. In these meetings monitoring can be formal or informal but must be present so that teachers can be confident their goals are shared and supported by the principal. This kind of encouragement was also a key piece of the Martinez et al. study. They found that teachers need to be rewarded for innovation and know that their ideas and hard work are valued. Collaboration will be more successful and effective change is more likely to occur when teachers feel valued by their supervisors.

Principals in Classrooms (Origin of Snapshots)

            In many schools the principals only visit a few teachers’ classrooms (teachers who are on their evaluation year) on two to three announced visits for the purpose of formal observations. This study hypothesized that for principals to have knowledge of the instructional practices happening on a daily basis in their building, they must be in classrooms more frequently and consistently. Another substantial change from typical practice at the core of this study was that principals made frequent unannounced visits to all teachers’ classrooms throughout each year and that the nature of these visits be a collaborative effort to improve student learning—not threatening visits for the purpose of teacher evaluation. The resulting snapshots (short classroom visits) structure required a significant change to many traditional principal behaviors.

According to Wagner (2006), in the 1970s and 1980s most principals worked in isolation and focused on management of the building more than instruction. Beginning at this time principals recognized the need to be more visible throughout the building in order to ascertain a better understanding of instructional practices and to effectively manage their buildings. To accomplish this, Management by Walking Around (Peters & Waterman, 1982) became a popular approach. Unfortunately, this strategy did not achieve a curricular purpose; and after walking around with a clipboard and or checklist noting details about instruction, there was little to no subsequent interaction with teachers or students to improve instructional practice.

As technology improved and became more accessible to principals, significant changes in principal data collection occurred; but the purpose and impact was no different from the paper and pencil checklist used in Management by Walking Around. In the 1990s, according to Downey et al. (2004), personal data assistants called e-walks became the new tool for administrators. It was best described as the electronic check-off list for the learning walks, and was founded on the belief that if small amounts of data help, perhaps more data would be better. To collect and analyze such data, districts and schools began to seek assistance from research in gathering classroom data because principals could not see every teacher every day. Soon after, the Pittsburg Learning Walks (Downey et al., 2004) were designed to track the work teachers were doing in their classrooms while the observers recorded data and talked with students (pulling students out of the classroom) to gain information. While e-walks and Pittsburg Learning Walks offered principals many new sources of classroom data; it isn’t the data themselves that help change schools, it is how data are used that impact instruction and ultimately student achievement (Downey et al., 2004).

            The common threads of classroom visit strategies in the past thirty years were increased principal visibility and getting principals in the classrooms so they were aware of what is going on with curriculum and instruction within the school. The critical missing piece in these initiatives however has been connecting these classroom-based principal experiences to meaningful principal-teacher interactions to improve instruction. In schools where principals visit classrooms without interacting with teachers to improve instruction, students have only shown short-term local success within the buildings where they were implemented, but there is a lack of long term data to follow (Toch & Rothman, 2008).        

As indicated by Connors (2000), principals constantly make decisions based on their perception of a teacher’s performance; and often this perception relies on hearsay and reputation. Marshall (2008) stated, “it’s important for principals to get into classrooms and observe” (p. 1), and it would benefit school administrators to be in classrooms in order to know what is going on versus hoping teachers are doing their best everyday in the classroom. Unfortunately, many principals begin the year with a momentous speech, followed by professional development sessions periodically throughout the year, but there is no sustained procedure for principals getting intimately involved with the teaching and learning process. Snapshots, as defined in this study, are the next logical step to improvement.

While short classroom visits may add value to the principal’s knowledge, until now short classroom visits have been little more than monitoring and collecting data for administrative teams to examine. Additionally, teachers have not embraced principals visiting their classrooms in short time periods (10-15 minutes) because of the low frequency of visits, lack of feedback, and concern that principals viewed activities inaccurately demonstrating their practice or censoring comments from the visitor. As a result, teachers often dislike and discount short visits as not helpful for improving instructional practices. Conversely, the snapshot structure at the heart of this study emphasized frequent principal interaction with teachers and students and focused specifically on providing collaborative feedback to improve instructional practices. As Dufour and Marzano (2009) discussed, for growth in instruction to occur, the principal needs to be in the classroom alongside the teacher to validate learning. Snapshots put principals in classrooms alongside teachers and students on a frequent basis, promoting collaboration and improvement of instructional practices.

Data Based Decisions (Data Reviews)

Principals and teachers need to collaborate, discuss data, and reflect on the instructional process so teachers are encouraged and instructional practices improve. According to Wayman (2005):

Accountability mandates such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) have drawn attention to the practical use of student data for school improvement. Nevertheless, schools may struggle with these mandates because student data are often stored in forms that are difficult to access, manipulate, and interpret. Such access barriers additionally preclude the use of data at the classroom level to inform and impact instruction (p. 295).


Data are not new to education, and with the addition of advanced technology, data are now easier for principals and teachers to access and manipulate. But data cannot be acquired and then simply handed out with the expectation that all teachers will draw reasonable and actionable inferences from data (Marshall, 2008; Toch & Rothman, 2008). Teachers, department chairs, and principals must work together to effectively process and interpret the data. When principals and teachers use data, they have the potential to report gaps, enhance the education of students, and refine instructional practices. According to Doyle (2003) “Only when data become genuinely useful and common-place in the classroom will teachers and administrators welcome it. And only when it is useful will data qualities improve” (p. 23). Guided by the principal, active introduction and use of quality data will enhance teaching and teachers’ ability to improve instructional practices.


Teacher Self-Assessment

Principals gaining knowledge regarding classroom activities throughout the school has great potential to improve teacher instructional practices, to impact student performance, and to increase the frequency and focus of teacher conversations through self-assessment (DuFour & Marzano, 2009). Many teachers do not take the time to formally reflect on the quality of their own instructional practices. When teachers do reflect they usually do not have the advantage of a comprehensive instrument to accurately evaluate instruction or use a language describing instruction that is common among educational professionals (Danielson, 2007). Conversely, when teachers evaluate themselves using the same rubric based instrument principals use to define quality instruction, they engage in rich dialogue regarding instructional practices and often gain recognition as curriculum leaders (Danielson & McGreal, 2000). According to Hirsch (1999), teachers are often unaware of how their classroom environment, evaluations, and students’ performance compare to others outside of their own classroom. When teachers learn what other teachers are doing, the experience often initiates collaboration, enhances instructional practices, and improves student performance; this quality teacher-teacher collaboration is the basis of a professional learning community.

 Teachers and principals can benefit from formally reflecting on their practices (self-assessment) and participating in discussions with other teachers and principals utilizing an instrument which accurately evaluates the quality of instruction and supports a common language among educational professionals. Principals, who recognize teachers as equal partners in the process of change, acknowledge their professionalism and capitalize on their knowledge and skills to become agents of change (Darling-Hammond & McCloskey, 2008; Rowan, Chiang, & Miller, 1997).

According to Marshall (2006a):

Over the last decade, a number of districts and charter schools have experimented with a new way of evaluating teachers – rubrics. A major source of inspiration has been Charlotte Danielson’s 1996 book, Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching (ASCD), which contains an extraordinarily thorough set of scoring guides. Supporters of rubrics say that this approach addresses some of the most glaring problems of conventional teacher evaluation. First, rubrics are more ‘judgmental,’ giving teachers clearer feedback on where they stand, usually on a 4-3-2-1 scale. Second, rubrics explicitly lay out the characteristics of each level, giving mediocre and unsatisfactory teachers a road map for improving their performance. And third, rubrics are much less time-consuming for principals to complete, since lengthy narratives and lesson descriptions are not required. (p.2)


Although Marshall’s (2006a) description implied that the rubric score is sufficient to provide effective feedback to teachers, the principal-teacher discussions that take place around a rubric evaluation provide more valuable assessment of instruction than numbers corresponding to teacher behaviors. Teacher self-assessments combined with principal-teacher verbal interaction around that assessment provide a forum for effective discussions about a teacher’s own practice. With this approach, the teacher may also provide artifacts that will enhance the principal’s understanding of the teacher’s performance and permit a strong evidence-base to support the verbal conversation.

Summary of High Quality Principal-Teacher Interactions

Principals typically establish a pattern for observing teacher instructional practices, but rarely collaborate with teachers. In order to improve instructional practices principals and teachers must regularly be in the classroom together to review data and to reflect on instructional practices. The use of an instructional practices rubric provides an effective structure to accomplish these goals. Through this process, the practices that impact instruction include (a) summer one-on-one discussions focused on quality teaching that prepare the teachers for future high quality principal-teacher interactions; (b) snapshots that place principals in classrooms where instruction is taking place and provide a launching point to enhance discussions of the teachers’ instructional practices as well as opportunities to model high quality instruction; (c) data reviews that provide both the teacher and the principal indicators of student performance to aide in recommendations for improving instructional practices; (d) discussion of the common language in the quality instruction rubric that provides the participants common concepts and focus necessary to improve instructional practices.

Effective Ways to Measure the Quality of Teacher Instructional Practices

 The Quality Instruction Rubric (QIR) used in this study was developed in the Kenton County School District School System (the school system for Dixie Heights High School where this study took place) from the work of Charlotte Danielson (1996). Co-facilitated by the teachers union and central office, the QIR articulates a shared understanding of the indicators for quality instructional practices. As an informal, formative assessment tool the QIR uses a research supported rubric to assess the quality of instructional practices and establish the correlation between good teaching, classroom grades, and student discipline (Danielson, 1996; Halverson, Kelley & Kimball, 2004; Danielson & McGreal, 2000). The development and validation process of the QIR is described in more detail in the instrumentation section of chapter three.

Rubric Based Evaluation

            As discussed earlier in this chapter, rubric evaluation can enhance discussions of instructional practices between a principal and teacher. The principal can also be provided with artifacts of teaching that can further help the principal understand the nuanced details of the teacher’s instructional practices. Assigning ambiguous numbers to teacher behavior, a common practice of most teacher evaluations, may or may not reflect the teacher’s true performance and determination as either an effective teacher or a teacher requiring support. Often teachers do not value this type of evaluation and dismiss accompanying feedback (Hirsch, 1999; Marshall 2008; Whitaker, 2003).

            According to Mathers, Oliva, and Laine (2008), “An evaluation is considered reliable if two or more evaluators use the same evaluation instrument and come to the same conclusion” (p. 8). The rubric used in this study was pilot tested in the district by principals and central office personnel. To ensure reliability and validity of any evaluation instrument, Mujis (2006) recommends training for teachers and principals. The central office staff trained the principals intensely on the use of this instrument. See measure and instruments section of chapter three for more details on reliability and validity of the rubric based tool (QIR) used to measure teacher instructional practices during this study.

Foundation of the QIR

The Quality Instruction Rubric (QIR) was developed by a committee of stakeholders from the Kenton County School District based on the work of Charlotte Danielson (1996). See development of the quality instruction rubric section of chapter three, for more details on the development process for the QIR. Danielson’s (1996) work established standards to assess and promote teacher development across career stages, school levels, subject matter fields, and performance levels. The Kenton County Schools QIR embedded Danielson’s standards within a framework that included the four domains of planning and preparation, the classroom environment, instruction, and professional responsibilities. These domains included 22 components:

The teacher demonstrates knowledge of course content, core content and depth of knowledge and considers prerequisite knowledge necessary for successful student learning environment, instructional goals that represent high expectations, reflect relevant learning and demonstrate conceptual understanding of curriculum, standards and frameworks, coherent lesson and unit plans, instructional grouping and learning activities, integrates resources for rigor and relevance, creates a respectful environment, develops a rich learning, recognition of acceptance of and sensitivity towards diverse opinions and cultures, effectively manages student behavior, demonstrates clear content-related practices, incorporates higher order questioning and manages effective instructional activities assignments, and student grouping, effectively differentiates, instruction, demonstrates a clear knowledge of developmental characteristics, assessment criteria and standards, reflects upon own teaching and uses self-assessment to improve future teaching, integrates new knowledge from professional development, contributes to school and district through active involvement in school initiatives, professionalism and positive relationships, communicates with families, manages accurate records , manages non-instructional records, demonstrates professionalism in demeanor, dress, language and punctuality. (Danielson, 1996, p. 4)


For each component the rubric specifies a 4-category range for assessing appropriate teacher behaviors that can be referenced and modeled. Good teaching can become a quantifiable practice once teachers are familiar with the rubric. The QIR framework offers multiple applications for teaching and learning. It provides guidance for experienced professionals regarding the significance of principal-teacher conversations to validate quality instruction and to discuss effective teaching techniques.  For a mentor or coach, the framework provides a guide to assist inexperienced teachers through their first few years (and beyond). The framework also fosters teachers’ development by specifying techniques for assessing each aspect of practice, establishing a program for evaluator training, and using the framework for formative as well as summative evaluation.  For the community, the framework communicates the attributes of high quality instruction in its schools (Danielson & McGreal, 2000).

Another important feature of the QIR framework has been that it was publically derived, comprehensive, and generative – a living document that changed with the culture of the school and did not endorse a specific teaching style. It was not a checklist of specific behaviors, but rather a launching pad for discussion to enrich instruction.   Because the QIR was grounded in Danielson’s work, had a common language and communicated a shared understanding of quality teaching practices, it facilitated effective professional conversations between principals and teachers.

Principal Evaluation of Teacher Instructional Practices

            Teacher evaluations are most effective when principals and teachers agree about what instructional practices should be evaluated and when the principal has been trained in evaluation protocol. According to Jacobs and Lefgren, (2006), “When trained in quality evaluation techniques and how to recognize quality teaching, most principals can become effective evaluators of teachers” (p.67). When principals are further trained to recognize effective instructional practices and to replicate these practices, the principal’s role as instructional leader becomes indispensible for school improvement.

As a study by Jacobs and Lefgren (2006) found, principals can evaluate teachers effectively and teachers were comfortable with principals evaluating them, though not for merit pay. Although there is little research on principals being the primary evaluators of teachers, they are the supervisor of the teacher and therefore the most logical evaluator. As this study demonstrated, in an effective evaluation process the principal must be trained and the teacher must agree that the evaluation instrument is an accurate reflection of what good teaching looks like. According to Epstein (1985), “Principals and curriculum supervisors have long been recognized as appropriate evaluators of teachers, despite the problems of partiality in ratings or infrequent and incomplete observations“ (p. 4).

Student Performance

            Student performance is defined in a number of ways by different researchers and educators, but student grades and discipline are clearly connected to student performance regardless of definition. Grades are universally used as stand-alone indicators of student performance in most educational institutions and research has clearly established the link between discipline and student achievement (Jimerson, 2001). Although neither grades nor discipline is an ideal indicator of student performance, they are common, easily accessible, and valued by stakeholders.

Grades and Instructional Practices

Although not one of the most reliable indicators of student achievement, classroom grades provide some measure about how well students are performing in class, according to the teacher. Grades also allow principals to mark changes across the year that reflect the teacher’s perspective of student performance. According to Guskey (2006), grades indicate how a particular student is learning at a given time in a subject area. While not essential to learning, grades provide important information regarding the progress of a student at a given time, but according to O’Connor (2009), “It is essential to be clear about the primary purpose of grades, which is to communicate students’ achievement of learning goals” (p.2). Teachers and students may disagree on how a grade should be assigned. For example, students believe effort should be a major factor in grades, while teachers do not believe effort should be a factor in the students’ grades (Adams, 2002). O’Connor (2009) reported in a recent review of all literature concerning grading practices in secondary schools, “that most teachers have combined achievement with behavior to varying extents in determining grades because they believe it demonstrates what they value and will motivate students to exhibit those behaviors” (p. 3). According to McMillan (2001) “findings from other studies show that this practice (intertwining grades and behavior) is still pervasive” (p. 30). Gathercoal (2004) noted that “due to the excessive entanglement between achievement and behavior, achievement grades are often misinterpreted” (p. 153). Myers, Milne, Baker, Ginsberg (1987) claimed that research clearly indicates that grades are a combination of student achievement and effort in some varying combination. Thus, grades may be viewed as an indicator of student performance that reflects instructional practices and student effort and allow researchers to track changes in student performance from the teacher’s perspective (effort and achievement).

Discipline and Instructional Practices

            Students who are not prepared for class, who are bored, or who have underdeveloped social skills will act out and grades will be lower than a student who has the afore mentioned skills and preparation (Danielson, 1996). Hence discipline may be a good indicator of quality instructional practices because if a teacher’s instructional practices are high quality, the number and frequency of discipline infractions, especially aggressive infractions, tend to be reduced.

 Students with behavior problems earn lower grades and suffer a higher failure rate. Teachers are more likely to find success with these students when they have the support of the principal and both work together to help the student. According to McIntosh, Flannery, Sugai, Braun, and Cochrane (2008) “Problem behavior presents another distinct barrier to high school graduation because of school disruption and increased use of exclusionary discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions” (p. 244). Frequent principal-teacher collaboration better equips the teacher in the classroom to reduce such disruptions and supports the students’ learning. In classrooms where teachers worked with students and believed that students could achieve, students earned better grades and demonstrated fewer behavior problems than teachers who felt that students were in complete control of their environment (Jimerson, 2001). According to Cotton (1996), for quality instruction to take place, teachers need a supportive principal, standards for student behavior, high expectations for students, student input into discipline policies, consistent application of rules and the authority to discipline students. With these structures in place, discipline will be reduced, allowing the teacher to improve and maintain quality instructional practices.

Frequency and Focus of Teacher Conversations

The frequency and focus of teacher conversations impacts the success of the school and it is the principal’s responsibility to establish procedures that result in a collaborative environment among instructional leadership, teachers, and students. According to some research, collaborative school environments yield improved instructional practices and increased student performance (Leithwood, Seashore, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004). Thus, the principal must nurture a culture of collaboration among teachers because if teachers feel valued, they will value the students. To create this climate of collaboration, teachers must speak frequently with each other, with the principals, and with the students. Establishing high quality conversations  between teachers and students is imperative for students to know that teachers care about them and are interested in their learning (Gurr, Drysdale, & Mulford, 2006; Halawah, 2005; Hirsch, 2008; Liethwood et al., 2004; Wagner, 2006).


Principal-Teacher Conversations

This study institutionalized quality principal-teacher interactions into the culture of the school; but, as mentioned earlier, these interactions would be ineffective without a collaborative component. Collaboration between principals and teachers is essential. In the absence of such, many common interventions like walkthroughs provide only basic data and fail to focus on improving instructional practices.

Principals must establish a culture of collaboration with teachers to support their teaching. According to Barth (1990), collegiality should be the norm and principals are the catalyst to initiate collegiality for teacher conversations. Principals must then set the expectation that the collegiality continues in teacher to teacher conversation. Routman (2002) goes as far as to suggested that principals should be viewed as a “learner and equal group member” when working with teachers (p.35). This type of intense involvement of the principal establishes great credibility when working with teachers on specific curriculum and discipline issues.

According to Ginsberg (2001), “Frequent, brief, unscheduled walkthroughs can foster a school culture of collaborative learning and dialogue” (p. 44). Such unscheduled classroom visits outside the context of the evaluation can foster collaborative conversation between the principal and teacher. Additionally, Downey et al. (2004) concluded, “the frequent sampling of a teacher’s actions give greater validity to what you observe and often lower teacher apprehension over time, making formal observations more effective” (p. 6). By providing follow-up feedback to teachers, principals’ demonstrate knowledge of teacher instructional practices and these quality follow-up conversations with teachers improve teacher instructional practices, and lead to increased student performance.

Teacher-Teacher Conversations

            Teaching has changed from a lonely profession with little or no feedback from principals, to a profession that includes principals who frequently visit classrooms, participate in team learning, and guide school improvement. Because teacher-teacher conversations are beneficial for each teacher’s pedagogy, principals must also foster such collaboration. Dufour and Marzano (2009), state that “by promoting teacher learning collaborative teams, a principal is far more likely to improve student achievement than by focusing on formal teacher evaluation” (p. 63). Teachers interacting together also promote good teaching practices and problem solving conversations. It eliminates the lonely teacher effect by combining work effort in the building. As Danielson (1996), stated, “Educators have learned the value of a common vocabulary to describe teaching” (p. 5). This vocabulary gives educators common ground to discuss improvement, difficulties, and goals for their classrooms. Teacher-teacher conversations rich in this common language for instructional purposes also establish common ground for those new to the profession to learn and establish baselines for their own classrooms.

Clearly teacher-teacher conversations are instrumental to improving instructional practices and increasing student performance. This strong statement is relevant to this study because, although the interactions did not provide time or a formal means for teachers to discuss their work with each other, we hypothesized that the enriched principal-teacher interactions would generate substantial teacher-teacher collaborations. As Goddard and Heron (2001), argued, teacher-teacher collaboration improves teaching and learning, and “teachers must be central to any meaningful change in schools” (p.44). According to Goddard, Goddard, and Tschannen-Moran (2007), “there is a positive link between student achievement and teacher collaboration” (p.6) and some research further indicates that teacher isolation hinders increases in student achievement. For example, Smylie, Lazarus, and Brownlee-Conyers (1996), found that teacher autonomy often negatively affected student achievement; conversely student achievement improved when teachers discussed curriculum, classroom management, and other aspects of the profession.

Teacher-Student Conversations and Good Teaching

            According to Prusak,Vincent, and Pangrazi (2005), “whether giving instructions, offering compliments, or delivering discipline, how teachers talk can make the difference between success and failure” (p. 21). Students appreciate teachers being involved in their educational lives, and within a school culture of strong collaboration, teachers interact with students to improve learning. In response to quality teacher-student conversation and collaboration, students learn more, are more motivated, and more inspired by good teaching.

As Felner, Kasak, Mulhall, and Flowers (1997) stated, “The assumption of a certain number of acceptable educational causalities is no longer viable” (p. 524). Educators cannot discount any student regardless of ability, and good teaching can significantly impact achievement. For example, studies by Haycock (1998) and Rivkin, Hanushek, and Kain (2001) found that effective teachers show higher gains with low achieving students than less effective teachers show with average students. Student achievement also improved when teachers and principals worked together to improve instructional practices. 

            According to Cushman and Delpit (2003), “Just teaching ‘by the book’ bores anybody, not only teenagers” (p.105); and in quality instruction, teachers “make learning a social thing, make sure students understand, respond with interest when students show interest, care about students and their progress, take pride in student work and provide role models” (p.161). When this good teaching occurs students value their learning. They’re empowered when a teacher asks their opinion and gives them a voice in their own instruction; and teachers who seek student feedback gain a powerful tool for improving student learning and their own instructional practices.


Historically, principals have managed buildings without appreciating the value of collaborating with teachers to improve instructional practices. This study examined the effect of specific principal interactions intended to improve teacher instructional practices, increase student achievement, and improve the frequency and focus of teacher conversations. These principal-teacher interactions were further designed within parameters to make them feasible to a wide range of principals interested in improving their leadership.

When principals understand the strengths and weaknesses of all teachers under their supervision, improvement can be attained. Principals and teachers can collaborate to improve instructional practices based on real data with actual teachers and students and even the best teacher can benefit from feedback and reflection. At the very least, with the treatment investigated in this study, principal opinion will be based on observed instruction in the classroom rather than guessing or hearsay. This study further suggests that principals must accept and adopt a collaborative approach to improving instructional practices by being in classrooms and taking part in the educational process. The day-to- day grind of school management must not displace the priority of ongoing school improvement. A typical day should include principals visiting classrooms and discussing teaching and learning with teachers in some fashion. Research clearly suggests that the more involved and knowledgeable about instructional practices the principals become, the more improvement will happen in schools. As Cubberly (1923) said, ”as goes the principal so goes the school” (p. 351).

This study’s goal was to explore how a specific set of principal-teacher interactions affected teacher instructional practices, and to analyze any effects changes in teacher instructional practices had on student performance and the frequency and focus of teacher conversations. This goal was explored by examining the following specific research questions:

  1. How will the treatment of principal-teacher interactions affect teachers’ instructional practices?

  2. How will changes in teachers’ instructional practices, initiated by the set of principal-teacher interactions, affect student performance?

  3. How will changes in principal-teacher interactions affect the frequency and focus of teacher conversations with principals, students, and other teachers?

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 This research project is sponsored by the University of Louisville, The Kenton County School District, & the head research (Kim Banta/Brennon Sapp)
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Last updated: 07/09/10.