Nationwide, states and localities have become increasingly interested in ensuring the effectiveness of principals and assistant principals as a way to improve public K-12 education. Until now, however, little has been known about the costs involved. This RAND report begins to fill that gap, providing not only an approach to understanding the costs but also estimates of what those costs have been in six large urban districts.

The study examines the resources that the districts drew on as they built and operated principal pipelines to produce an adequate supply of highly qualified school leaders. The districts are all part of The Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline Initiative, a five-year effort launched in 2011. Among the chief findings is that the costs, which include both direct expenditures and personnel time, were affordable, representing a small slice of annual district spending—an average of about $5.6 million yearly for the districts, or far less than one percent (0.4 percent) of their annual expenditures. Looked at another way, the cost came to about $31,000 annually per principal in the participating districts.

The pipelines comprise four components: job standards for principals, high-quality pre-service training, rigorous hiring procedures, and tightly aligned on-the-job performance evaluation and support. The study calculates expenditures for each of four, finding that pre-service preparation and on-the-job evaluation/support were the most costly of the group at about $9,400 and $14,000 yearly per-principal respectively. Annual costs for the two other components were far more modest—revision of leader standards: $292 per principal; hiring/placement efforts: $2,894 per principal. This may be a noteworthy finding for districts contemplating pipeline construction in light of the fact that separate research has described standards revision and hiring/placement change as “quick wins,” with a high impact on the six districts.

Almost half—44 percent—of pipeline costs were personnel time, which raises the question of the pipelines’ “opportunity cost.” In other words, the time that a principal supervisor spends working one-on-one with a principal, for example, or that a district official devotes to revising principal standards are hours lost to other arguably valuable activities. On the other hand, the researchers note, the pipelines have the potential of providing significant savings to districts, if, over coming years, they succeed in cutting costs such as unwanted principal and teacher turnover.

Points of Interest

  • Building and operating principal pipelines cost a group of large urban districts in a Wallace Foundation initiative an average of less than 0.5 percent of their annual budgets.
    Building/running #principal pipelines cost on average less than .5% of annual budget for districts in study.
  • The cost to large school districts of recruiting promising candidates for pre-service training to become principals was a relatively modest $203 per district principal, according to a RAND study.
    Study: Recruitment of promising candidates for pre-service #principal training cost $203 per district principal

Supplementary Materials

  • Principal Pipeline Activities and Sub-Activities by Major Category
  • Average Annual Per-Principal Resources and Expenditures by Major Category
  • Costs and Benefits of Principal Pipelines