Over the last two decades, the role of the principal in ensuring high-quality teaching and learning in public schools has moved from a marginal issue to one high on the education improvement agenda. But how does the field go about developing a large corps of effective principals? A groundbreaking study from the RAND Corp., published in spring 2019, found that a comprehensive, systemic approach to training, hiring and supporting school leaders—known as developing “principal pipelines”—proved to be feasible, affordable and effective for six large Wallace-supported school districts, leading to statistically significant benefits in both student achievement and principal retention.
In the wake of the RAND findings, Wallace commissioned market research to help the foundation and others communicate effectively about pipelines. The idea was to understand how state and local education decision-makers view principals, what benefits of pipelines were most important to them and what barriers they viewed to putting pipelines in place.
This slide deck summarizes key findings from that research, which entailed detailed interviews in summer and fall 2019 with 36 education decision-makers—evenly divided among state education officials as well as district superintendents and school board members in medium to large school districts. Interviewees were all made familiar with a basic description of the pipeline approach as consisting of actions including developing leader standards; providing strong pre-service principal training; using selective hiring procedures; and aligning apt on-the-job support and evaluation of principals—and then asked for their reaction.
The research found broad acceptance of the idea that effective principals are key to good schools. As one Midwestern state education official said: “If you don’t have good leadership, you’re not going to have the outcomes that you want for kids. So, you’ve got to invest in that.”
At the same time, most of those interviewed reported that identifying and attracting high-quality, effective principals is a major challenge. Reasons include the difficulty of finding candidates who are not just campus administrators but adept at supporting effective instruction.
The response to the description of the principal pipeline as a way to develop a robust corps of effective principals was “resoundingly positive,” the researchers found, with interviewees indicating that the fact that the benefits for student achievement were statistically significant was the most compelling impact of pipelines. A key challenge in advancing pipelines, the market researchers found, was that many leaders believe they already have in place a comprehensive, systemic approach to preparing and supporting principals, suggesting a need to build understanding of the full range of components in a comprehensive pipeline.