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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

The Answer to the Leadership Crisis Is Not a Principal Pipeline

Guided learning is one way to increase the aspiring leader’s chance for success
By Vince Bustamante & Tim Cusack — September 11, 2023 6 min read
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It is no secret that we are in a leadership crisis in education. More and more great leaders are retiring, shifting their career focus, or are leaving their leadership positions and the profession completely. In a nationally representative survey of public and private K-12 principals in the United States, the National Teacher and Principal Survey (NTPS, 2022) indicated that as of the end of June 2022, 11.2 percent of all principals left the role. For those younger than 54, about 9 percent are leaving, whereas for those 55 or older, it is almost 20 percent (Taie & Lewis, 2023). While there are many reasons why they are leaving, the fact remains, we need to attract more aspiring leaders to the principalship.

There is no doubt that we are faced with the dilemma of seeking out aspiring leaders and appropriately preparing them for principalship. It is also possible that the way we have been looking at leadership preparation may not be the best way to solve the shortage we currently face. Let’s think about what generally we consider as markers for a principal: time spent in the classroom, age, credentials, and time spent in a district and/or school. While important, they shouldn’t be the only attributes we are considering for leadership development.

In Leader Ready: Four Pathways to Prepare Aspiring School Leaders, we offer an alternative philosophy of leadership preparation. We feel the “pipeline” may not be the best analogy. Think about it, whatever commodity enters a pipeline at the beginning (eg., water) is the exact same thing that exits the pipeline at the end. There is no growth or change. This can’t be the way we think about leadership development. Rather, a more appropriate analogy would be that of a pathway system. When we embark on a journey along a path, there are opportunities to deviate along the journey, embrace the scenery, and, most importantly, stop and reflect on progress made. Leadership development is better served when aspiring leaders embark on a pathway to leadership that seeks to individualize the process of development with the journey being equally as important as the destination.

As we discussed in the book what aspects of leadership development were most significant, we landed on the following principles:

  • Leadership is not a linear progression.
  • Time cannot be the only determining factor for leadership effectiveness.
  • Across districts, there needs to be a higher degree of agreement regarding the attributes of effective leadership.
  • Practical experiences for aspiring leaders must be relevant and impactful.
  • Aspiring leaders need clear, consistent communication at every step of the journey.

Through these principles, we developed the roots of school leader preparation, which serve as the four areas that should be the focus of strengthening the development of our aspiring school leaders.


Raising the Bar on Leadership Standards

Practice standards are invaluable! Why? They provide a common language for our aspiring leaders. Standards communicate the skills and competencies our aspiring leaders should know, understand, and be able to perform. When used with greater intentionality, standards help us clarify expected performance. They also provide a consistent way to understand the types of leadership experiences that are needed. When greater emphasis is placed on unpacking standards collectively, it becomes easier to link all aspiring leader development across a district to the established standards. Using the defined competencies within standards as success criteria for daily leadership practices and goal setting for professional growth plans leaves less to chance in enhancing the skills, opportunities, and experiences our aspiring leaders need.

Creating a Culture for Implementation

The success of leadership development hinges on the environment in which leaders are being developed. As a mentor guiding aspiring leaders through the journey, we must ensure specific parameters are considered while preparing aspiring leaders for the principalship. To build the collective efficacy of leadership development, the first step is to learn more about WHO our leaders are as individuals. We advocate a discovery process where we consider the specific skill, will, and thrill of our leaders.


By discovering the specific skill, will, and thrill of our leaders, we will be able to more accurately create leadership-development experiences that cater to their individual development.

Once we have determined the skill, will, and thrill of our aspiring leaders, we should ensure the environment in which we are working is conducive to the development of our leaders. Understanding that how our buildings are structured (both physically and in governance) will help us gain a better perspective on how leadership is perceived. Two things:

Planning Guided Leadership Experiences

We know that leadership standards provide the foundation for what aspiring leaders need to learn. How training experiences are created and implemented is equally important! We are huge fans of guided practice. We learn through observation. When we watch someone perform a task, it often comes down to: “If they can do it, I can do it.” When mentors understand the skill and will of their proteges, they can craft leadership experiences that allow appropriate time and rigor. Guided learning specifies the steps needed to increase the aspiring leader’s self-efficacy. Through a graduated model, which moves from a basic level of understanding to more complex tasks and challenges, we examine how to gradually decrease the responsibility of the mentor in favor of increasing the capability of the aspiring leader. With the development of collegial trust in an environment that seeks to meet the aspiring leader where they are at, our model moves the learner toward a level of mastery of the requisite competencies.

Attaining Mastery Experiences

We hear the work “mastery” a lot in education. Knowing that the level of principal attrition is high, we need to encourage and entice more aspiring leaders to take on the mantle of school leadership. Though celebrating their incremental steps from novice to capable practitioner, we see the fruit that comes from strong roots of leadership preparation. It’s critical for school districts to encourage our teacher leaders to step forward into more defined building leadership positions. Through expert noticing, we offer ways to clearly communicate successes. This leads to the provision of feedback that prompts, pushes, or pulls the aspiring leader to want to take that next step forward. We share examples of directive, contingency, attribution, and impact feedback, which all help to inform how the learning is progressing. Our processes establish the rigor commensurate for the leadership task being learned and equip the mentor with ways to find the sweet spots of complexity and challenge all the while affirming the skill, will, and thrill of the aspiring leader.

The Pathway to Leadership

Allowing aspiring leaders to navigate the various pathways to leadership preparation is essential to the development of our next generation of principals and assistant principals. It is our hope that this shift of thinking will promote a more holistic and personalized journey for our aspiring leaders.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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