Research Findings to Support Effective Educational Policymaking: Evidence and Action Steps for State, District and Local Policymakers

Click here to download the full report:
Research Findings to Support Effective Educational Policymaking: Evidence and Action Steps for State, District and Local Policymakers

"Great principals attract great talent. They nurture that great talent and they develop that great talent. Bad principals are the reverse: bad principals don’t attract good talent, they run off good talent. They don’t find ways to improve those that are trying to get better. They don’t engage the community." — U.S. Education Secretary Arne L. Duncan, addressing The Wallace Foundation’s National Conference on Education Leadership, October 2009.

Research confirms that there are no documented instances of failing schools turning around without powerful leadership. While teachers have the most direct and obvious impact on student learning, leadership is second only to teaching in influencing outcomes for all students. For the first time, there is empirical evidence that links what leaders do with student performance.

  • Regardless of the turn-around approach, investing in good principals is a particularly cost-effective way to improve teaching and learning throughout entire schools.
    • Principals are uniquely positioned to ensure that excellent teaching and learning spreads beyond single classrooms.2
    • Effective principals can improve learning in large part by motivating teachers and by creating "professional communities" – in which teachers are no longer acting in isolation but give each other help and guidance to improve instructional practices.3
  • A good principal is the single most important determinant of whether a school can attract and keep the high-quality teachers necessary to turn around schools.
    • As Stanford University education policy analyst Linda Darling-Hammond has stated: "It is the leader who both recruits and retains high-quality staff. Indeed, the number one reason for teachers’ decisions about whether to stay in a school is the quality of administrative support – and it is the leader who must develop this organization." 4
  • To turn around schools, principals need to share decisionmaking.
    • High-performing schools with strong student achievement gains tend to have a high degree of "collective leadership." New research concludes: "Principals are most effective when they see themselves as working collaboratively towards clear, common goals with district personnel, other principals, and teachers." Paradoxically, principals willing to share authority do not diminish their own.5
    • But the principal still must lead school improvement by: creating structures and incentives around a common agenda for learning among all staff; aligning resources with learning activities, needs and priorities; and building external relations that can support a school-wide learning agenda, including garnering community support, sufficient resources and anticipating resistance or conflict.6


"If our 95,000 schools each had a great principal, this thing would take care of itself." — U.S. Education Secretary Arne L. Duncan, addressing The Wallace Foundation’s National Conference on Education Leadership, October 2009.

Experts have raised serious concerns about the quality and relevance of the leadership preparation provided by many university-based programs – which are where most of our principals are trained – and about the speed and effectiveness of state actions to address those shortcomings.7 To attract and keep the right leaders, particularly in low-performing schools, states and districts should draw on the following effective but underutilized approaches to preparing them for the job:

  • Provide better, more selective training to prepare transformative leaders whose goal is to significantly improve teaching and learning and to turn around failing schools.
    Proven effective practices in the preparation of future school leaders include:
    • Selective recruitment to identify expert teachers with leadership potential;
    • A challenging, coherent curriculum that focuses on instructional leadership, the ability to change the culture of schools and improve the skills and effectiveness of teachers;
    • Active instruction that integrates theory and practice, problem-based learning, budget exercises, hiring and effective data use; and
    • Well-designed and supervised internships that provide real opportunities for aspiring principals to experience leadership first-hand.8
    Graduates of these more effective preparation programs perform better.
    • Graduates of the NYC Leadership Academy, which incorporates the above practices, were placed in extremely low-performing schools and improved their schools’ academic performance at higher rates than other new principals in English-language arts and math.9
    Redesigning training programs has payoffs for districts and for universities.10
    • Districts had an increased pool of better prepared principal candidates.
    • Universities were able to reform and improve their leadership preparation programs and gained more prestige.
  • Don't ignore state policies that can affect principal training.
    • States have a number of policy levers to influence the preparation and quality of school leaders, including: improving leader training standards, developing tougher program accreditation and leader licensure requirements, and allocating funding to the most effective programs.11
    • Collaborative efforts by state and local leaders have shown promise in improving training programs in some states. About 200 such programs located in Wallace-funded states have either been forced to redesign their programs to align with new leadership standards and proven training practices or, less frequently, have been shut down for failing to do so.
  • Encourage school districts to better exercise their own “consumer” power to influence the training of the school leaders they will eventually hire.
    Some districts are using their consumer clout by:
    • Becoming a discerning customer – for example, by developing district-level leadership standards or core competencies and then selecting only graduates of programs whose training is redesigned to meet those standards (Chicago, Fort Wayne, IN and Louisville, KY).12
    • Becoming a competitor – by creating their own district-level leadership programs aligned with their standards and priorities (Boston, Springfield, MA, Fort Wayne, Providence, Atlanta and New York City).13
    • Becoming a collaborator – by using contracts and other inducements; e.g., conferring “preferred provider” status on universities that agree to take such steps as changing admissions criteria, curricula, internships, etc., to better meet district needs (Louisville, St. Louis, Providence, Chicago and Springfield, IL).14
  • Provide more and better mentoring for new principals once they’re hired.
    • More than half the nation’s states and many districts have recently introduced mentoring for principals – a sharp reversal of a long-held “sink-or-swim” attitude toward novice school leaders.15
    • In the absence of quality criteria, however, mentoring can be just a “buddy system” that fails to propel the progress of new principals as effective leaders of learning.
    • States and districts should ensure that mentoring is focused on student learning. For example, the NYC Leadership Academy guides its mentoring by using a Leadership Performance Planning Worksheet, which identifies key behaviors linked to successful instructional leadership.
    • Missouri now provides mentor training both online and in person.
  • Enhance peer and district support for both novice and veteran principals.
    • Recognizing that effective instructional leadership requires regular, sustained support for both novice and veteran principals, central office staff in some urban districts are providing individual support to school principals, as well as creating networked groupings where peer principals can support each other.16
    • Districts should also avoid one-size-fits-all professional development for its principals and instead tailor it to the differing leadership needs of elementary and secondary schools and to school context (size, student population being served).17

« Previous | Next »


2 Leithwood, et al., 12

3Karen Seashore Louis, Kenneth Leithwood, Kyla L. Wahlstrom, Stephen E. Anderson, et al., Learning from Leadership: Investigating Links to Improved Student Learning, Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement/University of Minnesota and Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, 2010, 42, 50

4 Education Leadership: A Bridge to School Reform, The Wallace Foundation, 2007, text of speech by Linda Darling-Hammond, 17

5 Seashore Louis, et al., 21, 35, 107

6 See Michael Knapp, et al., Leading for Learning: Reflective Tools for School and District Leaders, Center for the Study of Teaching & Policy, University of Washington, 2003; see also Leithwood, op. cit.; and Bradley S. Portin, Michael Knapp, et al.,Leadership for Learning Improvement in Urban Schools, Center for the Study of Teaching & Policy, University of Washington, 2009.

7 Southern Regional Education Board, Schools Need Good Leaders Now: State Progress in Creating a Learning-Centered School Leadership System, 2007, 2

8 Linda Darling-Hammond, et al., Preparing School Leaders for a Changing World: Lessons from Exemplary Leadership Development Programs, Stanford Educational Leadership Institute, 2007, 6; see also The Wallace Foundation, Becoming a Leader: Preparing School Principals for Today’s Schools, 2008

9 New York University Institute for Education and Social Policy, The New York City Aspiring Principals Program: A School-Level Evaluation: An Update Through 2008-09, 2011

10 Margaret Terry Orr, Cheryl King, Michelle LaPointe, Districts Developing Leaders: Lessons on Consumer Actions and Program Approaches from Eight Urban Districts, Education Development Center, Inc., 2010, 12

11 Orr, et al., 11

12 Orr, et al., 5

13 Ibid. (See also The Wallace Foundation, Report ’09: Appraising A Decade, 12, concerning Atlanta and New York City).

14 Ibid.

15 The Wallace Foundation, Getting Principal Mentoring Right: Lessons from the Field, 2007, 3

16 See Portin, op. cit., and Margaret Plecki, Michael Knapp, et al., How Leaders Invest Staffing Resources for Learning Improvement, Center for the Study of Teaching & Policy, University of Washington, 2009.

17 Seashore Louis, et al., 101