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4 Things Districts Can Do to Find (and Keep) Good Principals

A better principal pipeline requires on-the-job support

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Leading a school to better teaching and learning requires a great principal. Unfortunately, finding and training new principals in effective school leadership has been a long-standing challenge for many districts. So it’s good news for districts and states focused on school improvement that six large, urban school districts have shown it is possible—and not expensive—to build principal pipelines that have a mission to produce a steady supply of effective school leaders.

—Getty

The proof is in the hard work by districts in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Denver; Gwinnett County, Ga.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; New York City; and Prince George’s County, Md. These districts tested whether they could put in place the four elements that research and experience have suggested are essential to principal pipelines: rigorous job standards, strong preservice training, selective hiring, and sound on-the-job support and evaluation for novice principals.

Their push was part of a five-year, $85 million effort launched in 2011 by the Wallace Foundation. (As its director of education leadership, I led the pipeline initiative’s implementation team and participated in its design.) Each district received up to $12.5 million to cover expenses, such as staff to direct the project, outside advisers and mentors for leadership training, and information technology. All six districts successfully built the four pipeline components, according to a Wallace-commissioned study by Policy Studies Associates, an independent research firm. (Wallace awarded contracts to Policy Studies Associates and the RAND Corp. to evaluate the pipeline initiative from its inception.)

As it turns out, upgrading leader standards and hiring practices isn’t as expensive as one might think. A study released in June by the RAND Corp. found that the cost to develop a school leader needn’t be steep, generally representing only 0.4 percent of the pipeline districts’ yearly expenditures. That’s about $42 per student, compared with the $608 per student that U.S. districts spend on average for total expenses relating to school administration.

The changes on the ground in these districts have been profound. Denver’s superintendent, Tom Boasberg, said that five years ago, his public schools lacked qualified candidates for principal positions. Now, district officials have many top-notch job seekers from whom to choose. Although each district’s pipeline reflects its unique needs, all six have commonalities and ideas for action that other districts might consider for their own leadership efforts.

"With evidence that districts can build principal pipelines, education leaders have good reason to examine how they develop school leadership."

Here’s what they learned:

• Set the bar high for leader standards. Each district’s independently written description of what principals need to know and be able to do—from conducting high-quality classroom observations to demonstrating a commitment to equity—formed a strong foundation for the work and guided all aspects of pipeline construction. The standards’ development, informed by a set of voluntary national standards published by the National Policy Board for Educational Administration in 2015, was a collaborative effort within and across each district. The districts set up committees with principal supervisors, chief academic officers, teachers’ union representatives, and principals themselves to bring varying perspectives to the table. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the committee included preservice-training-program experts.

• Improve hiring practices. Each district worked to better assess a candidate’s fit with a school that had a principal vacancy. Online data systems that put key personnel and school information in one place allowed for more efficient matchmaking. Several districts began to require demonstrations of candidates’ abilities during the interview process. An applicant might be asked, for example, to role-play a principal responding to a dissatisfied parent; take a “learning walk” through the school with a principal supervisor; or be interviewed by a panel representing the school community. Surveys of novice principals conducted by Policy Studies indicated that they were more likely than those hired a few years earlier to report an “excellent” match between their schools and their skills and experience.

• Provide on-the-job support for novice principals. The pipeline did not end after new principals had keys to the school building. The districts rolled out yearly performance evaluations designed to further learning and growth, especially to enhance instruction. In surveys, new principals who came in under the initiative noted that receiving ongoing feedback was constructive for their work. Districts also had their principal supervisors focus less on compliance and more on assisting principals with teaching and learning—a move that, the Policy Studies surveys suggested, was appreciated by the novice principals. The most valued support, according to those surveyed, came from mentoring and coaching by people like Margaret Ackerman, a retired principal who works with novices in Gwinnett County. She guided Holly Warren, the recently hired principal of Dacula Elementary School, through an examination of testing data, then coached her in creating an instructional plan for students whose scores indicated a need for improvement.

• Don’t forget about preservice training. Most districts independently created or built on in-house training programs for preservice principals, allowing participants to learn about specific district needs and requirements. Each district also collaborated with local universities to improve their preparation efforts in the initiative’s latter days. In both cases, districts put a new emphasis on tapping high-potential candidates according to rigorous criteria. Rachael O’Dea, now a principal at Lanier Elementary School in Tampa, Fla., recalls jumping through hurdles—including writing six essays, having an interview, and providing stellar references—before entering Hillsborough’s Preparing New Principals program.

The districts’ pipeline work is far from finished, and the effort’s impact on student achievement and other measures is the subject of ongoing analysis. What’s beyond dispute is that pipelines have produced benefits for districts and principals alike.

The moment is ripe for other education officials to consider pipeline work. Currently, states and districts are drawing up plans for how they will implement the Every Student Succeeds Act. Funding under the federal law’s Title II may be used to support the four principal-pipeline components individually or the pipeline as a whole—though how much will be appropriated for this part of the law beyond 2017-18 remains to be seen. In addition, the law’s Title I provides funding for improving the highest-need schools, a task rarely accomplished without skilled principals and other school leaders. Moreover, more than 30 school leadership studies identify activities—from principal training to evaluation—with a research base strong enough to pass the law’s evidence thresholds, according to a 2016 review by RAND.

With evidence that districts can build principal pipelines, education leaders have good reason to examine how they develop school leadership and whether they should fortify their efforts. A great teacher can electrify a classroom. A team of great teachers led by a great principal can electrify a whole school.

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