Effective principal pipelines can lead to benefits for student outcomes, according to a groundbreaking 2019 study. But could these pipelines be designed to advance a district’s vision of equity as well? If so, what would that design look like? 

That’s the question tackled in this think piece by a team of six education scholars. They consider how the pursuit of educational equity—across multiple dimensions but foregrounding racial equity—could be embedded in pipelines to the principalship.

The paper draws in large part from an influential framework, developed several years ago by three scholars (including two members of the team) that describes four key characteristics of equity-centered school leaders. The characteristics are:

  • Having a “critical consciousness,” or an understanding of historical oppression that informs approaches to achieving equity today,
  • Ensuring schools are inclusive places where all feel welcomed,
  • Supporting teachers to provide culturally relevant and responsive classrooms, and
  • Engaging with a broad range of community members to define what educational justice means for a school’s students. 

The authors apply these characteristics to the seven key parts, or “domains,” of “comprehensive, aligned” pipelines. Backed by robust evidence of effectiveness, such pipelines are comprehensive because they cover a range of actions districts can take to shape school leadership and aligned because their domains—from rigorous leader standards to principal supervision that helps school leaders grow—reinforce one another.

Take the example of the domain of high-quality pre-service principal preparation. In mapping the four elements of culturally responsive school leadership to the training of aspiring principals, the authors suggest a number of possibilities. Among them: 

  • Programs could help ensure critical consciousness in future school leaders if—in interviews, role playing, and other admissions activities—they required applicants to grapple with equity issues.  
  • They could cultivate enrollees’ ability to create inclusive school environments through teaching them such skills as how to conduct climate surveys and focus groups.    
  • Programs could develop culturally responsive instructional leadership capabilities by making sure their students learned about and understood the needed pedagogical practices.
  • And they could help future principals become adept in meaningfully engaging in communities by having them learn about historical or current oppression through assignments ranging from compiling neighborhood histories to interviewing community leaders.

Research about some aspects of comprehensive, aligned pipelines, such as the use of data systems to inform leader hiring and other decisions, is sparse, the authors note. But for those domains, too, they offer ideas. For example, they say that districts could take advantage of data systems to identify a wider range of district employees to take part in leadership development activities.  

In the report’s conclusion, the authors offer a number of general considerations about embedding equity into pipelines. They lead with the idea that those who write or revise standards for the principal’s job should focus explicitly on equity and justice. And, they say, building equity into education overall requires more effort by many hands. “We hope this report adds to the excitement of making schools more equity-centered by recognizing that indeed, leaders, and those who support them, have a great deal of work to do,” they write.   

​This publication is part of an occasional Wallace series titled Considerations, in which Wallace invites leading scholars and other experts to share insights based on research and theory about issues of importance to the sectors that the foundation supports.

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