Top 5 Reasons for School Leaders to Engage in Action Research

By Nancy Fichtman Dana

Many school districts use action research as a powerful professional development strategy for teachers; far fewer focus on cultivating the principal’s role as action researcher. Yet action research can be an equally powerful mechanism for principal professional development and school improvement.

Principal action research begins with questions principals have about their school, such as “What happens to struggling readers in our school after they leave intervention programs?” or “In what ways are out-of-school or in-school suspensions as discipline strategy affecting student performance?”

Then, principals work alongside colleagues in their buildings to collect and analyze data to gain insights into their question, take action based on what they learn in the process, and share their learning with others so the entire education community can benefit.

In David Letterman style, I offer the top five reasons for principals to develop their roles as action researchers.

  • Reason No. 5. Action research brings principals out of isolation.

Norms of isolation surround the principalship. In Roland Barth's 1990 book title Improving Schools from Within: Teachers, Parents, and Principals Can Make the Difference, he writes, “Principals, like teachers, need and treasure collegiality and peer support. Yet, perhaps even more than teachers, principals live in a world of isolation.” This isolation keeps principals from learning, growing and becoming the best administrators they can be.

Engaging in action research challenges these norms, as principals surround themselves with other professionals engaged in a process that helps them converse about practice in systematic and meaningful ways.

  • Reason No. 4. Action research enables principals to become role models for the teachers and students in their buildings.

Learning must be something teachers and students do, not something that others do to or for them, according to Barth:

"Perhaps the most powerful reason for principals to be learners as well as leaders ... is the extraordinary influence of modeling behavior. Do as I do, as well as I say, is a winning formula. If principals want students and teacher to take learning seriously ... they must not only be head teachers, headmasters or instructional leaders. They must, above all, be head learners."

Engaging in action research enables principals to become “head learners.”

  • Reason No. 3. Action research helps principals slow down and take control.

Because of the nature of their job, principals spend a good deal of their time reacting rather than acting. Participating in action research lets them take charge of something they can own and control. It also allows principals to step out of the frantic pace of the principalship, if only temporarily.

  • Reason No. 2. Action research focuses and strengthens school improvement efforts.

In their 1998 book What’s Worth Fighting for Out There?, Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan describe how teachers and principals fall into the trap of being projectites, frantically pursuing school improvement efforts through one uncompleted task after another. When they engage in action research, principals must devote sustained attention to one issue, tension, problem or dilemma, enabling them to be pro-active rather than reactive.

  • Reason No. 1. Action research enables best practice to flourish at a school.

Mark Bracewell, principal of Lake Butler Middle School in Lake Butler, Florida, learned a great deal from his action research exploring the ways a newly implemented inclusion model in his middle school affected regular education students. As a principal, Bracewell confronted tensions between (1) his knowledge of research that touted the implementation of an inclusion model as an important setting for special education students, (2) two teachers on his staff who were interested in trying the model and (3) parents and other teachers who were suspicious about how this model would affect regular education students in the inclusive classroom.

Bracewell used action research to gain insights into how this model was playing out at his school and what he, as principal, could do to foster it as an effective practice. He learned that the regular education students placed in the inclusive classroom performed as well or better than their counterparts on various measures of student achievement.

In addition, by surveying students in the class, Bracewell learned that contrary to popular belief, the regular education students in the inclusive classroom didn’t feel inferior because they were in a class with two teachers. Rather, students reported they felt fortunate to have two individuals from whom they could learn.

Finally, by interviewing and observing the regular education and special education teachers who teamed to co-teach this class, Bracewell discovered that teachers teaming in an inclusion model need more time to plan what they are going to do.

Through action research, Bracewell gained valuable insights into the ways co-teaching between a special education and regular education teacher might play out in the classroom. He used the knowledge he gained through this inquiry to inform and educate other teachers on his faculty who were interested in co-teaching, and adjusted the schedule to allow more time for co-teachers to plan together. In the absence of Bracewell’s action research, faculty enthusiasm for inclusion might not have received the administrative nurturing necessary for this innovation to expand and grow.

Leading with Action

Action research is a powerful, underutilized tool principals can use to cultivate their craft and improve school performance. Learn more about this powerful process in the AASA book Leading with Passion and Knowledge: The Principal as Action Researcher.


Nancy FichtmanBook_LeadingPassionKnowledge Dana is professor and director of the Center for School Improvement at the University of Florida and author of the AASA book Leading with Passion and Knowledge: The Principal as Action Researcher.


Barth, R. (1990). Improving Schools From Within: Teachers, Parents, and Principals Can Make the Difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bracewell, M. (2008). The “Forgotten Factor” in the Inclusion Equation: What Effect Does the Inclusion Environment Have on the Reading Achievement of Eighth Grade Language Arts Students? In D.C. Delane & S.B. Hayes (Eds.) Improving Florida Schools Through Teacher Inquiry: Selections from the 2007 Teaching, Inquiry, and Innovation Showcase. Gainesville, Fla.: Center for School Improvement and North East Florida Educational Consortium, pp. 239 – 240.

Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (1998). What’s Worth Fighting For Out There? New York: Teachers College Press.