In overwhelming percentages, top-ranking officials in large and medium-size school districts regard effective school leadership as essential to school improvement. Yet only about half are satisfied with the pool of candidates in their principal pipelines—suggesting that pipelines themselves could be improved. That’s one takeaway from this first-of-its-kind study, a national overview of the use of and interest in principal pipelines to shape a large corps of effective school leaders.
Interviewees for the report—superintendents or other leading administrators from a nationally representative sample of 175 medium- to large-size districts—clearly thought that principals were crucial players in efforts to upgrade education. Fully 90 percent said that their district’s goals, strategic plans or initiatives tied school leadership to school improvement. At the same time, far fewer respondents—49 percent—reported being either satisfied or very satisfied with the principal candidate pool in terms of demographic background and competencies, “implying they see room for improvement in principal pipelines,” the report says.
The pipelines as defined in the study encompass seven major elements that are aligned to one another—leader standards, pre-service preparation, hiring, on-the-job support and evaluation, principal supervision, data systems to track leader careers, and systems to sustain the pipeline. Schools in six large districts that, with Wallace Foundation support, had put these types of pipelines in place saw benefits in student reading and math, according to a 2019 study by RAND.
This follow-up report sought to determine the prevalence of the seven-element pipelines in districts nationwide. It found that in the views of the interviewees, a substantial number of the elements—or activities associated with them—were in place in their districts. All the districts had principal supervisors, for example, and more than three-quarters had leader standards, principal evaluations linked to those standards, efforts to encourage and support potential and aspiring school leaders, and coaching for all first-year principals, according to the interviewees. However, far fewer reported other pipeline activities, including hiring from a talent pool (51 percent) and asking job applicants to demonstrate their skills through performance tasks (18 percent).
Conducted in late 2019, the study defined medium-size districts as those with enrollments of 10,000 to 49,999 students and large districts as those with 50,000 or more. The two groups of districts differed from one another mainly in the extent of their usage of the various pipeline elements. For example, almost all of the large districts (98 percent) had leader standards, while 84 percent of medium-size districts did, according to the interviews.
But large majorities in both large and medium-size districts showed interest in strengthening aspects of their pipelines, notably leader standards, principal preparation, hiring and placement activities, and on-the-job evaluation and support. The biggest obstacle to undertaking this work? Time and funding, the district leaders reported.
The researchers also interviewed officials in 17 districts having fewer than 10,000 students. That sample was not large enough to be representative of the approximately 12,000 small districts nationally, but the interviews suggest areas for future investigation. This is important because small districts serve about 21 million students, or 45 percent of the public school population in the U.S. Responses showed some similarity with responses from the larger districts—including unanimous agreement (100 percent) that school leadership was tied to school improvement. A majority of interviewees also reported that their districts had a number of pipeline elements including leader standards, engagement with at least one pre-service principal preparation program, and coaching for first-year principals.