In the United States, the work of developing and supporting a cadre of effective school principals is left largely to each of the nation’s 14,000 school districts. But does that mean the 50 states need to be bystanders to the efforts of localities?
That’s the premise of this report by state education policy scholar Paul Manna. In it, he describes an array of policy actions that states can consider taking if they want to help school districts build what have come to be called “comprehensive, aligned pipelines,” that is, a pipeline of parts that interlock to produce high-quality leadership for large school districts. Those parts, or “domains,” are: rigorous leader standards; high-quality pre-service preparation; selective hiring and placement; on-the job evaluation and support through coaching and mentoring; growth-oriented principal supervision; “leader tracking systems” that collect data on the careers of aspiring and sitting school leaders; and a system to sustain these activities.
In the areas of standards, for example, states can go beyond generalized descriptions of “school leadership” to define the skills and know-how needed specifically by effective principals, says Manna, a professor of government and public policy at William & Mary. Then, by wielding their oversight authority, developing incentives, drawing on their convening power and other means, states can see to it that principal training, and other aspects of the pipeline—such as how principals are supported and evaluated on the job—reflect those specifics.
Throughout the report, Manna offers key questions that officials at state and local levels, and their external partners, can ask to help guide their efforts, working at the “nexus” where state policy intersects with local district pipeline activities.
The report also suggests some creative possibilities for state action, such as using licensure renewal as a means of cultivating principal mentors. Rather than taking random courses to meet credit requirements, the report says, interested veteran principals could gain credit for license renewal if they pursued training to be coaches or mentors to principals early in their career.
Manna also urges states to strive for flexible policies that can be adapted to the needs and circumstances of the wide variety of districts within state borders. Drawing on the pipeline metaphor, Manna concludes the report by reminding readers of how powerful state policy can be in aiding communities as they seek to build a corps of first-rate principals.
“Just as it would be difficult, if not impossible, for local governments to secure the rights of way needed to construct major pipelines that transport water and gas across many different political jurisdictions, local districts alone will be challenged to see their principal pipelines produce a steady flow of excellent school leaders without the states drawing on their own particular areas of strength to help,” he says. “Summoning such state-local coordination is a tall order, no doubt, but given the evidence showing that excellent principals can transform school communities for the better and, further, that comprehensive and aligned principal pipelines can generate those sorts of formidable leaders, the potential payoffs are obvious and within reach.”
This publication is the first in an occasional Wallace series titled Considerations, in which we invite leading scholars to share insights based on research and theory on issues of importance to the fields that the Foundation supports.