School district officials have faced the urgent task in recent years of ensuring that all schools, not just a lucky few, benefit from sure-footed leadership by professionals who know how to focus on instruction and improve it. The question boils down to this: How can districts develop a pipeline of great school principals?
Research about a Wallace Foundation school leadership initiative in six large school districts provides insights that may offer districts a way forward, as described in this Wallace Perspective, an update of a 2016 publication. Most important, the research finds that it is possible for districts to put in place the four key parts of a strong principal pipeline: apt standards for principals, high-quality pre-service training, rigorous hiring procedures, and tightly aligned on-the-job performance evaluation and support. Moreover, building a pipeline can produce several swift benefits for districts and principals alike. These include principal job standards that foster a districtwide understanding of what constitutes effective leadership for local schools, a possible greater compatibility between principals and the schools to which they are assigned, and performance evaluations designed not only to measure what’s important but also to help principals succeed at their very tough jobs.
At the same time, the research makes clear that some elements of the pipeline are particularly complex undertakings. For example, it’s simpler for districts to upgrade their own training programs for aspiring principals than it is to work with universities to improve the university-based programs from which many aspiring school leaders graduate. In addition, fixing what many see as the weakest link in principal training—providing candidates with meaningful, practical experience in the form of internships or residencies—can be expensive and involved.
The Perspective also provides estimates of what it cost the initiative districts to build and operate the various pipeline components. Overall, the pipelines proved affordable, costing the districts on average about $5.6 million yearly, or less than 0.5 percent of their annual expenditures.
The publication, which offers a set of considerations for districts interested in building principal pipelines, as well as for states that want to help localities in this work, draws from a number of sources. One of the chief ones is an independent evaluation of the implementation of the Wallace six-district effort, the Principal Pipeline Initiative, an $85-million venture launched by the foundation in 2011. Another important source is a RAND examination of the costs of pipeline construction and operation in the pipeline initiative districts. A separate RAND study, expected to be published in 2018, is exploring the pipelines’ impact on schools and student performance.