Principal pipelines made of particular, well-interlocked parts can benefit schools and students, a major research study has found. So, how can school districts build such a pipeline? This report looks at the work of 84 medium- and large-sized districts that set out to do just that when they joined a Wallace Foundation-sponsored effort—the Principal Pipeline Learning Community—which offered guidance on pipeline development.

The pipelines in question—known as “comprehensive, aligned” pipelines—comprise seven key parts, referred to as “domains,” including rigorous leader standards, high-quality pre-service preparation, and principal supervision designed to encourage growth in a principal’s leadership abilities. They are comprehensive because they cover the range of activities districts can undertake to promote effective school leadership, and they are “aligned” because these activities are synced with one another.

Through a survey of participants in the learning community and interviews with central office leaders from districts that took part, the researchers found that the districts worked on strengthening a variety of domains. Actions included revising and refining the leader standards they already had in place and offering new opportunities for learning to those aspiring to the principalship. A number of participating districts also widened the scope of their leadership-development work beyond principals to include teacher leaders and assistant principals.

Almost all of the districts prioritized equity in their efforts, with nearly 90 percent of survey respondents reporting that “building leaders’ skills to improve equity of student experiences and outcomes” and “increasing diversity of school leaders” were a medium or high priority for the use of their pipelines. Few considered this work “fully operational” yet, however, according to the survey.

The districts encountered several impediments to their efforts. One was that addressing equity and diversity became particularly difficult when district leaders lacked clarity about goals and when districts found themselves in politically charged climates. Another was that some central office leaders lacked sufficient time to work on pipeline activities.

Several actions seemed to aid district work. The establishment of a core team of central office staffers charged with running the pipeline was especially helpful. So was fostering collaboration and good communication among the different central office departments involved in pipeline work.

The report concludes with a set of recommendations for other districts interested in creating or bolstering their pipelines. Among them:

  • Consider pipelines for multiple types of school leadership roles, not just the principalship.
  • Use pipelines to diversify school leadership and develop principals’ skills to support equity and inclusion.
  • Develop a core central office team and dedicated leadership department to lead across pipeline domains.