School & District Management

6 Districts Invested in Principals and Saw Dramatic Gains. Dozens More Will Try to Do the Same

By Denisa R. Superville — February 11, 2020 7 min read
Principal Alethea Bustillo joins a 3rd grade class with students Lindsey Lazo Argueta, at left, and Yancy Gomez-Argueta at Bruce Monroe Elementary School in Washington.
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Higher math scores. Higher reading scores.

Over several years, six large school districts had doubled down on making their principals more effective as a major lever for improving student performance. And they’d seen gains in both subjects. There was also dramatic academic growth in their lowest performing schools where new principals were placed.

So, it begs the question: Can those results be replicated on a grander scale?

The Wallace Foundation, which invested tens of millions of dollars into strengthening the ranks of school leaders in those districts, is trying to answer that question. Over the next several months, the foundation will take the knowledge and lessons learned in its “principal pipeline” districts to 90 more school systems in 31 states.

It’s providing 24 consultants and technical assistance to help a wider array of districts evaluate how they hire, train, and match principals to schools and figure out what they can do to make those processes similar to those in the pipeline districts.

The new pilot program is costing the Wallace Foundation about $4 million, according to Jody Spiro, the foundation’s director of education leadership. (Education Week’s coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by The Wallace Foundation.)

Can Other Districts Replicate Success?

The districts are using a tool kit that’s based on the steps the so-called pipeline districts took to overhaul their leadership programs. Those districts developed specific standards that define what they expect of school leaders and ensure that assistant principals and other aspiring school leaders are trained based on those standards.

They crafted more strategic approaches to match principals’ strengths with the needs of schools and to support them while they were in their positions. They also created systems to track and project school leader vacancies, among other things.

The tool kits include summaries of the pipeline districts’ efforts, as well as “guidance that districts can use in looking at what they now do with respect to principals and seeing ways in which it does or doesn’t look similar to what [the pipeline] districts did...,” said Brenda Turnbull, who works for Policy Studies Associates, a Washington-based firm that tracked the pipeline districts’ work over the six years.

“It kind of walks them [through] that in a fair amount of detail, and encourages them to look closely at what they are doing now, to think about ways in which what they are now doing is different from what the pipeline districts did. And, if they so choose, to make a plan to move their own policies and structures and activities to be closer to what we found in the field.”

The foundation plans to use the feedback from the districts in the pilot to create a similar framework for other districts to use. The framework is expected to be released in the fall.

But Spiro said they are also hoping to learn whether it’s even possible to create a tool that all districts can use. A key component of the pipeline initiative was that the districts all adopted strategies that were customized for their needs.

The pipeline initiative ran from 2011 to 2016 in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Denver; Gwinnett County, Ga.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; New York City; and Prince George’s County, Md., school districts.

An independent analysis of the program by the RAND Corporation found that schools that got new principals while the districts were in the program outperformed other schools in their states that weren’t in the program by 6.22 percentile points in reading and 2.87 percentile points in math three years after the new leaders had been hired.

Principal Alethea Bustillo speaks with Instructional Superintendent Eric Bethel at Bruce Monroe Elementary School in Washington.

The lowest-performing schools in those districts also saw statistically significant academic growth, and new principals in those districts were more likely to stay in their schools longer than new principals in non-participating districts.

A separate analysis also found that the pipeline districts spent less than 1 percent of their budgets, on average, on their revamped leadership development work.

‘We Can Always Be Better’

Wallace sent invitations for the next phase to districts with more than 50,000 students. Half of the districts in the pilot were culled from a randomized sample of districts with at least 20,000 students but which have at least one high-needs school that needs comprehensive improvement and support.

Some districts have well-developed pipelines; others are just getting started.

“The whole point of the analysis of the tool is to see, ‘Does the tool work well in all those situations or how might the tool need to be modified if you’re a district that already has a lot in place versus a district that’s really just starting to think about this?’” Spiro said. “That’s the kind of information that the tool developer is looking for.”

The districts, which the foundation did not name because it promised them confidentiality, include both urban and suburban systems, Spiro said.

Officials in the Orange County, Fla., school district, told Education Week they are one of the pilot districts. The district already had been working diligently to develop its ranks of future school leaders. Susan Abbe, an executive area director who leads the district’s professional learning department, said she accepted the invitation because it was a great opportunity for her team to network with peers across the country who are focusing on leadership development and also for the team’s own professional learning.

“We think we can always be better. That’s just our mantra here, ‘What can we improve?’” Abbe said. “We know there were areas that we can improve upon in our pipeline, and so we were really anxious to work with other people who had some research-based knowledge to provide input to us or insights on that.”

So far, the district team has found the project beneficial. The self-assessment helped them to detect both strengths and weaknesses in their leadership pipeline, and they’ve already come up with ideas for short and longer-term projects to strengthen the pipeline.

They also got validation that they were doing some of the right things. The district already uses Florida’s Principal Leadership Standards to guide its school leader training programs, professional development, and hiring interviews for assistant principals and principals, and they got confirmation they were on the right track with how they support and evaluate school leaders.

“We also learned that we have strengths in the way we differentiated and individualized support to administrators, as well as mentoring and coaching,” said Patricia Bowen-Painter, a principal on assignment who works on training principals and assistant principals. “I think we suspected that we were doing things well, but to have that confirmed through this process has been a strength for us.”

Making Path to Principalship Clear

In the short-term, the district is making it easier for people to understand the different pathways for both internal and external candidates to become principals.

“We have lots of different processes and communications around that that were all over the place; so we have tightened that up and created a flowchart for every possible avenue that somebody might have coming into our district,” Abbe said. “Step by step, it gives you what do you do first if you are this person, these are the things you do, if you’re this person…We’ve put that all together into a document that will be a lot more user-friendly and understandable for outside candidates.”

Longer-term projects include creating a tracking system that will help them better match principal candidates based on their backgrounds and experiences with school vacancies—that will require a software upgrade—and increasing the rigor of the interview process by adding performance tasks to reflect real-world scenarios that principals will likely face in schools but are difficult to tease out through questioning.

Abbe said she’s found the process quite useful, particularly taking the step by step look at what the district already had in place and figuring out how to make those processes better. They were paired with a consultant from the Hillsborough County school system, who was also very frank about the challenges that system faced in developing its pipeline and pitfalls to avoid.

The Wallace Foundation has a lot more questions than answers at this point.

“We have no idea at all what that is going to turn out to be,” Spiro said. “It might be that that is very different in every place. It might be that there are some needs that are...common. We simply don’t know, which is another reason why we are doing this test, and that’s why the main answer to all these questions is stay tuned. Because we don’t know.”

An alternative version of this article ran in the February 26, 2020 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 2020 edition of Education Week as Districts to Use Principals as Major Lever for Gains


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