Two different efforts by The Wallace Foundation in recent years sought to encourage states to take a more active role in shaping high-quality school principals. In this set of reflections on research about those endeavors, political scientist Paul Manna asks “what does recent evidence show about how states can foster conditions that identify new principals and enable them and their veteran colleagues to thrive in ways that support teaching and learning?”
He answers by finding a number of common themes in the efforts. One is that states can help build partnerships among a range of organizations (from school districts and community groups to state agencies and professional associations) to solve common problems in education. Such partnerships, he writes, “are a source of energy, resources, and fresh ideas for improving principal effectiveness” and can lead to “creative problem-solving that can enhance the likelihood of principal initiatives succeeding.”
Another theme is that state standards for the principal job can be a powerful policy lever to influence principal training, development and support—if they are actively used. “When standard-writing itself becomes an end, rather than a means to an end, standards can proliferate and foster compliance work that fails to enhance quality or equity,” says Manna, Hyman Professor of Government and Director of the Public Policy Program at William & Mary. “In contrast, when states embrace well-crafted standards and make them relevant by tying them to other policy levers that bear on principal training, licensing, support, and evaluation…they can foster coherence and quality and increase the chances that all students are well-served.”
The two efforts varied considerably in both aim and approach. The more open-ended ESSA Leadership Learning Community, set up in response to a federal law providing states with significant authority over federal education funds, brought together 11 state teams comprising districts, community groups, state agencies and others to promote effective school leadership in their localities. The University Principal Preparation Initiative was tightly focused on improving pre-service school leadership training; it assembled institutions including universities, school districts and state agencies to redesign university-based preparation programs. Manna offers considerations for how to use these two models in future state efforts to develop and support principals to lead schools.
In the end, both endeavors show that state officials need not stand on sidelines when it comes to bolstering school leadership. “Even though these were two different efforts, the results convey quite clearly that state policymakers have invaluable roles to play in advancing the principalship, regardless of the particular implementation model or models that might inform future work,” Manna concludes.
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 on issues of importance to the fields that the foundation supports.