In 2011, six large school districts set out, with support from The Wallace Foundation, to build a “principal pipeline”—a set of policies and procedures to help cultivate a large corps of effective professionals who could lead schools to better teaching and learning. This study, which examined the districts’ pipeline work in 2018, two years beyond foundation funding, finds that pipelines remain both intact and valued, demonstrating their “staying power” so far. It also finds some changes in pipeline activities and reorganization of some responsibilities.
As the report states: “The overall stability of the pipeline vision and pipeline structures is notable. In interviews, district leaders made it clear that they see benefits from their principal pipelines, particularly in the strengths shown by recently appointed principals and in retention of these principals.”
Each district had its own approach to the work, building pipelines that reflected district needs, priorities and context. But all six pipelines had—and continue to have—four key components:
- Job standards that clearly spell out what principals need to know and do,
- Strong pre-service training for future principals based on those standards,
- Careful procedures to hire highly-qualified professionals and match them to the right schools, and
- Plenty of on-the-job supports and the appropriate performance evaluation for principals, especially those new to the principalship.
One of the most striking findings of the study is that changes in pre-service training set in motion by the pipeline work are now apparently bearing fruit, as those trained in pipeline-informed programs ascend to the principalship—an average of seven years after graduation in recent years. In surveys, these novice principals report in significantly higher percentages than their predecessors that their training emphasized two skills the districts are keen for, leadership for school improvement and instructional leadership. Newer principals also said, in much higher numbers than earlier groups of principals, that the program content had been tailored to the district context.
The districts are altering some aspects of the pipelines as they learn more and their circumstances evolve. In pre-service training, for example, two districts have modified the residencies offered to aspiring principals in response to considerations ranging from a reduced number of principal vacancies to a rethinking of what makes the most sense in a meaningful learning experience. In addition, districts are facing some new challenges. Among other things, they recognize a need to improve how administrators spot leader talent and to ensure that all the new support players in principals’ lives are not overwhelming the principals or dispensing contradictory guidance to them. Districts also believe they need to better coordinate the work of principal supervisors, whose jobs have taken on heightened importance in lending principals support, with the work of district leader development offices. Finally, the districts have seen a drop in the percentages of new principals who say the match with their school was “excellent.” The decline was not statistically significant, but bears watching to see if a trend is beginning, the report says.
All in all, however, the study finds that both the visions for and structures of the pipelines remain notably stable. “Seven years after making a commitment to the Principal Pipeline Initiative, district leaders are pleased with the results,” the authors write. “They no longer report struggling to find highly qualified candidates for vacancies.”