Principal leadership: How knowledge, agency, and beliefs influence grade-level K–8 student retention

Matthew Thomas Evans, Fordham University


Despite voluminous research on the detrimental effects of grade-level retention, it continues as a regular practice in American public schools as an intervention for struggling students. While research has been done on the roles and influences of teachers on the retention process, little has been done to measure the influence of the school principal on retention's use. An original survey instrument—the Practice of Retention in Middle and Elementary Schools (PRiMES) survey—was designed and validated for this study. Approximately 744 middle and elementary principals were invited to take the survey; 198 principals participated in the survey. The sample was drawn from school districts in a northeastern American state and consisted of rural, suburban, and urban middle and elementary schools of varying socioeconomic status. Middle and elementary principals were able to shape and influence grade-level retention practices in their schools to their liking. Most principals (94%) were actively involved in every retention decision made on their students. Principals' satisfaction with their schools' retention practices is best predicted by their levels of involvement and influence in them, and the extent to which they believe them to be effective. The principals surveyed held ambivalent beliefs towards grade-level retention. Principal beliefs in retention were significant correlates and predictors of schools' retention rates. Principals who hold more positive beliefs in retention retain more frequently than their colleagues who think of retention less positively. Principals' beliefs towards retention predicted 24% of their schools' rate of retention. Yet as principals' beliefs in retention increased and they retained students more frequently, their satisfaction with retention and sense of its effectiveness significantly decreased. While principals seemed generally satisfied with their schools' retention practices, comparative analyses yielded more nuanced significant findings. Principals of retention schools were not as satisfied with their schools' retention practices; found them to be less effective; and were more willing to change them when compared to their non-retention school peers. Schools' rates of poverty and student achievement were also significantly correlated with their rates of retention. Schools with higher rates of poverty retain more students. Schools with lower rates of student proficiency on standardized assessments also retain more students. Several implications for future research and practice are made from this study. School communities and researchers may consider closer examinations of the attitudes of principals towards retention and how they impact retention practices.

Subject Area

Educational leadership|School administration

Recommended Citation

Evans, Matthew Thomas, "Principal leadership: How knowledge, agency, and beliefs influence grade-level K–8 student retention" (2012). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3487821.