A Major Strategy to Improve Student Achievement Districtwide PRINCIPAL PIPELINES

All districts want to improve schools and make a difference for students.

A major report from the RAND Corporation points to a way forward—through
improved school leadership. The report finds that schools in six large districts that had
built principal pipelines markedly outperformed similar schools in other school districts in the same states in both reading and math. The districts also saw better retention
of new principals compared with the similar schools.

“We found no other comprehensive district-wide initiatives
with demonstrated positive effects of this magnitude
on student achievement.”

– Susan Gates, lead researcher, RAND

Why Principals

school and books

What Effective
Principals Do

principal wearing a ribbon

Why Principals Matter

“Leadership is second only to classroom instruction
among all school-related factors that contribute to
what students learn at school.”

“Teacher turnover is lower in schools led by high-quality principals. More-effective schools retain and hire higher-quality teachers and have teachers who improve faster.”

“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.”

What Effective Principals Do

Support improved instruction Cultivate leadership in others Create a climate hospitable to education Shape a vision of academic success for all students Manage people, data and processes to foster school improvement
Shape a vision of academic success for all students Cultivate leadership in others Support improved instruction Create a climate hospitable to education Manage people, data and processes to foster school improvement

Where do principals come from?

There is no one career path to becoming a principal, but the overwhelming
majority of pipeline district principals have served as assistant principals.

School leadership positions previously held by
first-, second- and third-year principals in pipeline districts, 2014

Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N=52)

Denver (N=67)

Gwinnet County (N=47)

Hillsborough County (N=40)

New York City (N=237)

Prince George’s County (N=61)

In some cases, numbers may not add up as expected because of rounding.

81% Assistant Principal 25% Department Head 38% Curriculum Specialist and/or Coach 4% None of these positions 30% Department Head 39% Curriculum Specialist and/or Coach 6% None of these positions 85% Assistant Principal 94% Assistant Principal 23% Department Head 30% Curriculum Specialist and/or Coach 6% None of these positions 98% Assistant Principal 18% Curriculum Specialist and/or Coach 13% Department Head 3% None of these positions 68% Assistant Principal 29% Department Head 54% Curriculum Specialist and/or Coach 10% None of these positions 77% Assistant Principal 64% Department Head 46% Curriculum Specialist and/or Coach 3% None of these positions

What Is A Pipeline?

A principal pipeline is a districtwide strategy to develop a large, ongoing supply of effective school leaders. With Wallace Foundation support, six large school districts built pipelines with four aligned components: leader standards, preservice preparation, hiring, and on-the-job support and evaluation.

Building The Principal Pipeline

Leader Standards:

Adopting rigorous standards for what principals need to know and do—standards that guide principal preparation, hiring, and job support and evaluation.

Pre-service Prep:

Delivering high-quality pre-service preparation to promising candidates, through university programs developed in partnership with districts, district-led programs, high-quality independent programs—or a combination of the three.


Using selective hiring procedures, informed by data on candidates and their demonstrated skills, to make good matches between principal and school.

Ongoing Support:

Aligning on-the-job evaluation and support for novice principals.

Gr ea t er pool of effecti v e leaders Benefits for Student Achie v ement open bookwith gear icon clipboard checklist icon HIGHER EDUCA TION SCHOOL DIS TRI C T SCHOOL Greater pool of effective candidates Benefits for Student Achievement HIGHER EDUCATION SCHOOL DISTRICT SCHOOL

Pipeline Supports


organization chart

Leader Tracking

magnifying glass and chart

Principal Supervisors

The pipeline districts reshaped the job of principal supervisors so it focused less on administration and more on supporting and evaluating new
principals, especially in improving instruction.

Leader Tracking Systems

Data systems offered easy access to up-to-date information about the qualifications, performance and other key characteristics of principals and aspiring principals—information that could be paired with data about individual schools and their leadership needs.

The data helped district leaders to better match principal candidates with the right school, improve on-the-job support, project hiring needs and shape the bench of successors.

For Large Districts,
Principal Pipelines Are:


clipboard with flowchart


piggy bank


bar chart pulled down

Pipelines Are Feasible

Each of the six participating districts was able to put the four
components in place fully or in part by the end of the initiative.

District Experience with Pipeline Components as of School Year 2010–2011:

District Experience with Pipeline Components as of School Year 2016–2017:

Before Pipeline

After Pipeline

Component not in place Component partially in place Component in place District A Pipeline Component Leader standards Pre-service training Selective hiring Evaluation and support District B District C District D District E District F

The districts developed the four pipeline parts in different ways, depending on their unique needs and circumstances. This shows pipelines are adaptable to local contexts.

“Every district put effort into designing and implementing its
own way of carrying out each component of the pipeline.”

– Brenda Turnbull, lead researcher, Policy Studies Associates

Pipelines Are Affordable

RAND found that pipelines, which included costs that districts were already
incurring, were not a big ticket item and were quite cost-effective.


of district expenses
were related to

Leader standards:

1% of total annual pipeline expenditures, about $0.50 per student

Principal preparation:

31% of total annual pipeline expenditures, about $13 per student

Selective hiring:

10% of total annual pipeline expenditures, about $4 per student

On-the-job support and evaluation:

47% of total annual pipeline expenditures, about $19 per student

Pipeline system supports
and technology:

11% of total annual pipeline expenditures, about $5 per student

See Breakdown of Pipeline Expenses

The pipelines annually cost the districts about $42 per student on average. To put that figure in context, U.S. school districts spend about $608 per pupil yearly on school administration, $477 per pupil on transportation and $447 per pupil on food services.

“Leader standards have been probably the most enlightening
aspect of our work, and it’s actually the most economical
because all it cost us was brain power.”

– Douglas Anthony, Associate Superintendent of Prince George’s County Public Schools

Pipelines Are Effective

Student Achievement

Pipeline district schools with a newly hired principal outperformed a set of matched comparison schools in other districts in their states. These differences were statistically significant:

See achievement across grade level

Notably, effects were positive and statistically significant for schools in the lowest quartile of student achievement.

Principal Retention

For every 100 newly placed principals, pipeline districts had eight fewer losses after three years, implying that pipeline districts are dealing with less churn in school leadership in the short run relative to comparable schools.

In addition to being disruptive to teachers and students, turnover costs money: $75,000 per principal.

Sustaining The Pipeline

Two years after foundation funding ended, district commitment to pipelines remains strong, and all pipeline components remain in place. Superintendents are championing the work, and an office dedicated to leadership development is part of every district’s ongoing budget.

RAND’s report is part of a wide-ranging study, co-led with Policy Studies Associates, that explored the pipelines’ implementation, affordability, effectiveness and sustainability. The research on pipeline effects is based in part on analyses comparing more than 1,000 pipeline district schools with more than 6,000 similar schools in other districts in the same states as the pipeline communities.