Today's Focus on Principal Effectiveness Breaks Sharply with the Past

 RAND’s Susan Gates reflects on the changed discourse about principals—and what COVID means for their leadership


If you want to know about school principals, consider getting a data dump from Susan Gates. As a senior researcher at the RAND Corp., Gates has been key to numerous studies exploring the principalship, many commissioned by Wallace. The most recent, published in June, is a first-of-its-kind look at the prevalence in large and medium-sized school districts of comprehensive, systemic efforts—known as principal pipelines—to develop a large corps of effective school principals.  

In a way, Taking Stock of Principal Pipelines: What Public School Districts Report Doing and What They Want to Do to Improve School Leadership brings Gates full circle. Close to two decades ago, she was the lead researcher on another Wallace-commissioned report, Who is Leading Our Schools: An Overview of School Administrators and Their Careers. Published in 2003, that study helped overturn the then-common view that the nation was facing a shortage of people certified to become principals. The report influenced Wallace’s decision to devote the foundation’s education leadership efforts to helping more principals work in a way that could improve schools, a move that eventually led to Wallace’s Principal Pipeline Initiative. With that came a groundbreaking 2019 report by Gates and her team finding that pipelines can have significant benefits for student achievement and principal retention.  

gates_9114-(002).jpgWe recently caught up with Gates to ask her to reflect on the “then” and “now” in the principal landscape, including what the COVID-19 crisis has meant for school leadership. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Since 2003, what changes have you seen in the discussions about school leadership? Are we at a different place from where we were 17 years ago—pandemic notwithstanding?

I’ve seen a tremendous shift in the public discourse around school leadership in the last two decades.  Twenty years ago, attention was focused on a pending wave of retirements and questions about whether there would be enough people to replace the retirees. Policymakers were also worried about high principal turnover rates—especially in more challenging high-needs schools. But the focus was really on whether there were sufficient numbers of people to fill vacancies.

Concerns about turnover and filling vacancies remain today, but the discussion is now focused on whether schools have effective principals. It’s not enough to simply put more people through principal preparation programs. There is growing recognition that the principal’s job is exceedingly complex and unpredictable. We’ve learned a lot over the past 20 years about how to prepare people for this important role. Research has identified features of good principal preparation. But we’ve also learned that prep programs can’t do it all. Twenty years ago, there was this notion that a person with two to three years of teaching experience could attend a good preparation program and at the end of it be ready to serve as principal in any environment with minimal support. Today, we understand that school leadership is itself a career with expectations for growth and development. This implies that good school leadership must be a shared responsibility of preparation programs and the school districts that hire and support principals.

The search for strategies to improve principal quality now focuses on improving preparation programs and the activities of districts. Are they hiring the right candidate for the job? Are they providing that person with the supports they need to be effective? Are they helping them identify their growth areas and supporting them in their professional development? And are they working in partnership with preparation programs to improve preparation?

Taking Stock of Principal Pipelines is the first systematic look at the status of principal pipelines in large and medium size districts across the nation. Should readers be surprised by how much activity in pipelines is under way now—or be surprised about the gaps? How do you and your team see the findings?

Pipeline activities are those related to the preparation, hiring, evaluation and support of principals. Districts employ principals and so it is natural to expect that all districts would be doing some if not most of these pipeline activities. And that is what we found. Districts of all sizes reported that they are devoting effort to the preparation, hiring, evaluation and support of principals. Not only that, the leaders in nearly all districts reported prioritizing school leadership as a lever for school improvement. There’s a pervasive understanding across the country that school principals matter. At the same time, less than half of districts reported moderate or high satisfaction with their pool of principal candidates. This suggests that districts see pipelines as an area for improvement.

What does the study tell us about differences in pipeline activities between large districts, medium districts and smaller districts?

Districts of all size reported engaging in pipeline activities and there was substantial interest across districts of all sizes in doing more in each area. Medium districts reported engaging in fewer pipeline activities.  They were less likely to have principal standards and a process to encourage or “tap” individuals to become school leaders. They were also less likely to use performance-based hiring metrics and standards-aligned evaluation and to have a position dedicated to school leadership. 

These differences between medium and large districts were not terribly surprising. It takes some up-front effort to set up some of these activities—you have to develop standards, hiring processes, evaluation metrics. Smaller districts tend to have fewer schools and hence fewer principals. So the payoff to them from such up-front efforts may be smaller. 


The current study found that large numbers of the district officials you interviewed want to upgrade their pipeline activities, everything from pre-service principal preparation to on-the-job support. What do your study and other research suggest will be the easiest and most difficult areas to strengthen?

Research on the principal pipeline districts suggests that efforts to strengthen principal preparation can be challenging because there is a long lag time before such efforts will result in improvements in principal quality. In contrast, efforts to improve hiring and professional development for current principals can have more immediate impact. Although nearly all districts in our study reported doing something with regard to on the job support, this is also an area where most districts also wanted to do more. What struck me as an important growth area was the use of performance-based hiring approaches. This is a pipeline activity with relatively low prevalence nationwide. 

The COVID-19 crisis has placed huge demands on public school education. What role are school leaders playing in keeping education going during this time, and how should districts be thinking now about their principal pipelines?

Even prior to the COVID-19 crisis there was a recognition that the principal’s job is exceedingly complex and unpredictable. National school leadership standards outline 10 areas that principals need to master:  mission, ethics, curriculum and instruction, student support, professional capacity of school personnel, professional community of school staff, community engagement, management and school improvement. It’s as if all principals need to have the same toolbox, along with the ability to figure out which tool to use at which time. When a principal first takes over a school, they have to spend time figuring out what prioritize and how. In other words, which tools to use and how best to use them. Then they make adjustments over time.

The COVID-19 crisis disrupted the landscape for all schools. All principals had to re-think how they were approaching each area. Some may have had to dig deeply into their toolbox to find tools that they hadn’t had to use in a while.

School principals tend to be highly dedicated to the communities and students they serve, and according to a recent Pew survey, they are among the most trusted category of public officials, along with police officers and members of the military. Families and communities are stretched in so many ways, and they are turning to these trusted school principals for help. So while principals are still expected to be the instructional leader of the school (now with a focus on supporting virtual learning options), they are also  in charge of providing meals to families, making connections to social services, developing contract tracing and virus testing plans, and developing options for classroom set-up and bathroom breaks that honor social distancing requirements. And the list goes on. No principal preparation program could have fully prepared a principal for all aspects of this crisis so district support will be critical. Even highly effective veteran principals may need guidance, support or respite in these challenging times. By providing such support this school year, districts might be able to limit burnout and turnover.

Lead photo by Claire Holt