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Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

A Big Mistake in Reading Improvement Initiatives — Don’t Make This One

From the start, include the principals and provide them with the tools they need to help improve reading achievement. Let’s make it more possible for them to use their leadership skills to work collaboratively and effectively with their school’s reading coaches.

Teacher question

I know you led a successful reading initiative in Chicago. You’ve written much about the keys to your success. Did you make any mistakes? Would you change that experience in any way if you were to do it again?

Shanahan’s response

Ah, for the chance to live life’s unfortunate moments again …

I’m suspicious of those who say they have no regrets and would change nothing if they could go back. For real for real?

A major error in my Chicago Reading Initiative experience was not pulling the principals in early enough or thoroughly enough. My attentions were laser focused on hiring coaches and readying them for their important role.  

I eventually turned my thoughts to the principals, not just to try to smooth the way for the coaches, but to try to help them to have a bigger and more positive impact on their school’s reading achievement.

No doubt about it, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, today I would reverse that equation: bring the principals on board first and then bring coaches in to support and extend what the principals have started.

These days many states and districts are planting their flags. They are going to improve reading achievement (huzza, huzza) and are hiring reading coaches (more huzzas). Rarely do I see much acknowledgement of the need to incorporate the principals into these efforts in any substantial or meaningful ways.

What does research have to say about this?

My take has been that much of the research on principals and school achievement is a bit misleading, though it has repeatedly underlined principals’ potential for positive impacts on learning to read (Karadag, Bektas¸ Cogaltay, & Yalcin, 2015).

The misleading part? Principal research tends to emphasize leadership styles. Different leadership styles (in terms of characteristics like authoritarianism or willingness to distribute leadership) supposedly mediate academic outcomes. Such studies conceptualize principals as leaders with coherent philosophies – usually in terms of qualities only vaguely related to what affects learning.

I question that approach. I can imagine principals with very different styles making similar choices when it comes to consequential reading decisions. Principals who may go about establishing the same literacy policies in very different ways (the style part) could, ultimately, have the same outcomes. [The distributional leadership principal may or may not gain greater buy in from the teachers; I’ve seen charismatic, inspirational principals with very centralized leadership styles who have no trouble getting and keeping teachers on board with their visions.]

When I have been successful as a reading coach, I have always been in supportive, collaborative relationships with the school principals. Some of those principals had very different styles than my own, but together we made things work for the teachers and kids. Without such supportive collaboration, I’ve never been successful.

There are so many ways that principals can undermine efforts to improve reading. Studies, for example, have revealed how principals may reassign their best reading teachers to the grade levels to be tested rather than placing them in the primary grades or matching them to the kids in need of the greatest support, and how that weakens reading achievement over time (Grissom, Kalogrides, & Loeb, 2017). I’ve personally dealt with principals who divert coaches from efforts to improve reading achievement, to efforts to make it look like the school is improving by assigning them to tutor kids near the achievement criterion.

Unfortunately, there are few experimental studies into whether principals can be trained to be more effective as reading leaders — leaders capable of instigating higher reading achievement. And the results are not uniformly pretty.

An example of the kind of study that scares me is one that trained principals in how to improve reading instruction. Its results were negative (Corcoran, 2017). Kids did worse when their principals had this training. I don’t know the specifics of what the principals were told in that study, but I’d guess that much of it was baloney (inconsonant with sound research) or correct but irrelevant to the principal’s role.  

Though I’m more interested in principals’ actions than their philosophies or styles, these studies make it clear that school leadership has a significant and moderate sized impact on student learning including reading achievement (Brewer, 1993; Chin, J. M. C., 2007; Hattie, 2009; Heck, Larsen, & Marcoulides, 1990;  Hallinger, Bickman, & Davis, 1996; Karadag, Bektas¸ Cogaltay, & Yalcin, 2015; Leithwood & Mascall, 2008; Mark & Printy, 2003); Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005;  Robinson, Hohepa, & Lloyd, 2009; Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008).

My research quibbles aside, one of the most important things I’ve ever learned about reading improvement I have drawn from this scholarship on principals.

Unlike so many other areas of research on reading achievement, only the leadership studies heavily emphasize the idea of “indirect effects” (Hallinger, Bickman, & Davis, 1996).

A model for reading improvement

I’ve previously posted my “Reading Improvement” model and this notion of indirect impact is central to it. I’ve reposted that model here for the sake of convenience.

In this model, direct impacts on learning are limited to those things that directly touch the students, that define or characterize their experiences — how much reading engagement and reading instruction the students receive, the focus of this work (e.g., phonics; phonemic awareness; text reading fluency; language; comprehension strategies; content knowledge; writing; spelling), and the quality of the instruction.

All other variables that influence school learning exert their impacts through those direct influence variables.  

That includes leadership.

A principal may set a school policy aimed at raising reading achievement. The impact of that on classroom instruction will vary greatly depending upon individual teachers: how they interpret the requirements, whether they agree with them, their ability to implement them, and so on. Almost all principal efforts will be filtered through other people and other mechanisms. That’s what makes their outcomes indirect.

The major ways that principals raise achievement are in the actions they take that get teachers, parents, and communities to increase the amount of literacy teaching, to focus those efforts on the key things that students need to learn, and that improve the effectiveness or efficiency of the teaching that is provided.

Principals play an important role in increasing, maintaining, or suppressing reading achievement.

  • They play a major role in creating a school culture focused on higher literacy achievement.
  • They hire teachers and assign them to grade levels or particular students.
  • They observe instruction and provide evaluation and feedback to teachers.
  • They create work environments that help to retain the services of the best teachers.
  • They promote orderly, safe, and supportive learning environments that minimize distraction from learning.
  • They sometimes guide and approve the purchase of textbooks and instructional programs.
  • They shape school day schedules and control external interruptions that will take place in classrooms.
  • They may play an important role in professional development.
  • They take the leadership in establishing school improvement plans and other policy efforts. They matter in gaining parent support — and in establishing productive community partnerships.

What am I suggesting?

I don’t think principals require a great deal of general training in reading. Studies claim that they tend to not have adequate knowledge of that type (Davidson & Algozzine, 2002; Franz, Vannest, Parker, Hasbrouck, Dyer, & Davis, 2008; McHatton, Boyer, Shaunesy, Terry, & Farmer, 2010; Pazey & Cole, 2013; Petzko, 2008; Steinbrecher, Fix, Mahal, Serna, & McKeown, 2015).

But, sadly, those who have such training appear to be no more effective at improving reading than those who do not (Bettini, Gurel, Park, Leite, & McLeskey, 2019).

But principals do require more specific kinds of professional development; professional development based heavily on the best reading research. Enough professional development to enable them to understand, appreciate, and facilitate teachers’ efforts — including the efforts of coaches.

What might these specifics look like?

Here are a few examples:

Principals need questions to ask for hiring or assigning teachers to different grade levels.

They need specific guidance in what to watch for in classroom observations and lesson plan reviews for different kinds of literacy lessons.

Principals need support and training in how to evaluate and use assessment results and how to discuss those results with teachers and to use them strategically.

They need guidance in how to maximize parent and community support – in ways that can impact reading achievement.

No one who is trying to raise reading achievement doubts that teachers can do a better job when provided with high quality professional development, sound curriculum materials, and other helpful professional supports. That’s the driving purpose behind hiring coaches.

That principals need similar — but different — specific supports and guidance to do their jobs effectively, shouldn’t be as surprising as it seems to be to many of these well-meaning initiatives.

Let’s, from the start, include the principals and let’s provide them with the tools that will allow them to do their jobs better in terms of improving reading achievement. Let’s make it more possible for them to use their leadership skills to work collaboratively and effectively with these reading coaches.


Bettini, E., Gurel, S., Park, Y., Leite, W., & McLeskey, J. (2019). Principals’ qualifications in special education and students with and at risk for disabilities’ reading achievement growth in kindergarten. Exceptionality, 27(1), 18-31, DOI: 10.1080/09362835.2017.1351367

Brewer, D. J. (1993). Principals and student outcomes: Evidence from U.S. high schools. Economics of Education Review, 12(4), 281–292.

Chin, J. M. C. (2007). Meta-analysis of transformational school leadership effects on school outcomes in Taiwan and the USA. Asia Pacific Education Review, 8(2), 166–177

Corcoran, R. P. (2017). Preparing principals to improve student achievement. Child Youth Care Forum, 46, 769-781.

Davidson, D. N., & Algozzine, B. (2002). Administrators’ perceptions of special education law. Journal of Special Education Leadership, 15, 43–48.

Franz, D. P., Vannest, K. J., Parker, R. I., Hasbrouck, J. E., Dyer, N., & Davis, J. L. (2008). Time use by special educators and how it is valued. Journal of School Leadership, 18, 551–576.

Grissom, J. A., Kalogrides, D., & Loeb, S. (2017). Strategic staffing? How performance pressures affect the distribution of teachers within school and resulting student achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 54(6), 1079-1116.

Hallinger, P., Bickman, L., & Davis, K. (1996). School context, principal leadership, and student reading achievement. Elementary School Journal, 96(5), 527–549.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London, UK: Routledge.

Heck, R. H., Larsen, T. J., & Marcoulides, G. A. (1990). Instructional leadership and school achievement: Validation of a causal model. Educational Administration Quarterly, 26(2), 94–125.

Karadag, E., Bektas¸ F., Cogaltay, N., & Yalcin, M. (2015). The effect of educational leadership on students’ achievement: A meta-analysis study. Asia Pacific Education Review, 16, 79-93.

Leithwood, K., & Mascall, B. (2008). Collective leadership effects on student achievement. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44(4), 529–561.

Mark, H. M., & Printy, S. M. (2003). Principal leadership and school performance: An integration of transformational and instructional leadership. Educational Administration Quarterly, 39(3), 370–397.

Marzano, R. J., Waters, T., & McNulty, B. (2005). School leadership that works: From research to results. Aurora, CO: ASCD and McREL.

McHatton, P. A., Boyer, N. R., Shaunesy, E., Terry, P. M., & Farmer, J. L. (2010). Principals’ perceptions of preparation and practice in gifted and special education content: Are we doing enough? Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 5, 1–21.

Pazey, B. L., & Cole, H. (2013). The role of special education training in the development of socially just leaders: Building an equity consciousness in educational leadership programs. Educational Administration Quarterly, 49, 243–271. doi:10.1177/0013161X1

Petzko, V. (2008). The perceptions of new principals regarding the knowledge and skills important to their initial success. NASSP Bulletin, 92, 224–250. doi:10.1177/0192636508322824

Robinson, V. M., Hohepa, M., & Lloyd, C. A. (2009). School leadership and student outcomes: Identifying what works and why. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Ministry of Education.

About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
September 11, 2023