Studies Find Cahn Fellows Improve Student Performance | Teachers College Columbia University

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Studies Find Cahn Fellows Improve Student Performance

While there were no statistically significant differences in the student demographics of the schools studied, the two studies found that schools run by Cahn Fellow graduates out-performed their peers in terms of student English Language Arts and math scores, attendance, graduation rates, school environment surveys and Department of Education Quality Review.

Both an independent study of New York City public school records and an evaluation of the Cahn Fellows Program show that principals who participated in the program at Teachers College, Columbia University, have improved student performance and the learning environment at their schools.  While there were no statistically significant differences in the student demographics of the schools studied, Cahn Fellow schools out-performed their peers in terms of student ELA and math scores, attendance, graduation rates, school environment surveys and DOE Quality Review.

Begun in 2003, Cahn Fellows is a 15-month program for experienced, effective principals in New York City public schools. It is designed to recognize their success and provide them with opportunities for professional, intellectual and personal growth, and to strengthen the city’s public schools. To date, more than 15 percent of New York City principals, who work with more than 200,000 school children, have participated in the Cahn Fellows Program.

“School Principals and School Performance,” a study jointly authored by Damon Clark, an economics professor at the University of Florida; Paco Martorell, an economist at the RAND Corp.; and Jonah Rockoff, an economist at the Columbia Business School, found that schools perform better when they are run by experienced principals, and that the positive impact of a Cahn Fellowship on student math scores is “roughly the same as the effect of a first-year principal acquiring five years of experience.” The study, which was completed last December and has not yet been published, was conducted without the knowledge of Cahn Fellows Program staff and participants. It is a working paper for the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER).

A program evaluation, by Brian K. Perkins of the Perkins Consulting Group, found that schools run by Cahn Fellows graduates improved in a number of aspects, including gathering data, planning and setting goals and aligning them with instructional strategy, and monitoring and revising educational results. Perkins also found that Cahn Fellows schools had “significantly better” learning environment scores and graduation rates than comparison schools.

Focusing on middle and elementary schools, Clark, Martorell and Rockoff analyzed New York City Department of Education employment data on principals since 1982, standardized math and English test scores for students in grades three through eight, and school performance data for 1,000 schools from 1998 through 2007. The authors compared data for about 60 Cahn fellows with those for about 120 graduates of the Aspiring Principals Program (APP), a 14-month professional development program run by the New York City Department of Education. They looked at data for   Cahn Fellows schools both before their principals went through the program, and after they completed their fellowships.

According to the program’s criteria, Cahn Fellow schools are high performing institutions led by exemplary principals with at least four years of experience. Not surprisingly, they outperformed schools headed by APP principals, who are drawn from struggling schools, at both points in time. The bigger news, however:  the margin of superior performance by Cahn Fellows’ schools widened after the principals of those schools had completed their fellowships.

“Our estimates suggest that when an experienced principal becomes a Cahn Fellow, school performance improves,” Clark, Martorell and Rockoff write. “On the other hand, our estimates suggest that when a school is assigned a principal from the APP, relative school performance does not improve (and may even drop) in the short run, but may improve in the longer run.”

Among the study’s other key findings:

* The Cahn Fellows Program leads to improvements in school performance and student outcomes.

* Students at Cahn Fellow schools well outperformed peers in other schools with similar demographic characteristics.

* On average, math and English achievement test scores improved in Fellows’ schools after they enter the program.

* Student absences decreased in Fellows’ schools after they enter the program.

* The selection process for Cahn Fellows identifies principals whose schools are high-performing.

* Principal experience matters, so the impacts of the Cahn Fellows program on retention also benefits students.

Perkins compared results in 67 schools whose administrators participated in the Cahn Fellows Program, with those of 47 schools whose leaders applied but were not selected for a fellowship.

He examined Quality Review Reports formulated by the New York City Department of Education to assess how well a school is organized to improve student achievement. Quality Reviewers are experienced educators who assess student performance and talk to principals, teachers, students, and parents, and they observe classroom teaching, planning programs, and collaborative interaction among school professionals. On average, the Quality Review ratings of Cahn Fellows’ schools were 0.2 points higher than the comparison group.

Perkins also studied the DOE’s Learning Environment Assessment surveys of teachers and students and found that Cahn schools “were superior to the comparison schools” in academic expectations, communication, student and teacher engagement, and safety and respect. “The findings from the Quality Review and Learning Environment Assessment are vital because a strong positive school culture is an essential ingredient for the success of the school, instruction, and learning,” Perkins writes.

Perkins also found that Cahn Fellows schools outperformed the comparison group in the percent of students meeting proficiency in English/Language Arts and math. They had four- and six-year graduation rates nearly 20 percent higher than the control group, with six-year rates at 79 percent versus 60 percent. “Overall,” Perkins concludes, “the Cahn Fellows Program seemed to have a favorable effect considering that for almost all outcomes, the CFP schools scored higher than the comparison schools, while the opposite never occurred.”

Both studies suggest that, since experienced principals are, on average, more effective than their less-experienced colleagues, programs like the Cahn Fellows that help retain experienced talent should improve student outcomes. The CALDER study notes that, in New York City, principals tend to flee low-income schools as soon as they can to schools with more resources. The Cahn Fellows Program, by rewarding successful principals and supporting them even after participants complete the fellowship, helps New York City keep talented principals and, ultimately, helps the city’s public-school students succeed.

For more information about the studies and the Cahn Fellows program, please visit

Helping the Best Get Better

Four former TC Cahn Fellow principals describe the challenges they've faced in transforming their schools into some of New York City's best—and the program’s founder explains his vision.


Published Thursday, May. 27, 2010


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