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States Can Wield Huge Influence Over Principal Quality. Are They Using It?

By Denisa R. Superville — November 30, 2020 4 min read
Image shows an illustration of a man climbing a ladder, with encouragement.

How are states using their influence to improve principal quality?
A new report from the RAND Corporation gives some insights into what seven states are doing to better prepare principals for their jobs, using policy levers at their disposal.
The states are California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia, where seven universities and several districts have partnered as part of a Wallace Foundation initiative to redesign principal preparation programs. Each university-district partnership is also collaborating with a state agency (for example, the state department of education or the standards board).
The premise is that states can play an enormous role in both elevating school leadership and making regulatory and other changes to improve the selection criteria for school leaders, the curriculum in preparation programs, licensure requirements, and the kinds of professional development that are available to principals once they are the job.
The areas that the Wallace Foundation calls “levers” are:

  • Standards for principals
  • Recruitment
  • Licensure requirements
  • Approval and oversight of preparation programs
  • Professional development
  • Evaluations

States have a number of ways to put their thumb on the scale when it comes to improving principal quality. They can signal it’s a priority through laws, regulations and oversight, and funding, according to the report. And a variety of actors can play a role, depending on the lever, from the governor, to the legislature, to the state standards boards. Non-governmental organizations (such as state principals associations and education cooperatives) can also influence the state policy agenda.While none of the states in the RAND report were using all of the levers, the majority of those interviewed from all states said they were using standards effectively. Five of seven felt program approval and oversight were also being used effectively.
North Carolina was the only state where a majority of those interviewed believed the state was using the aspiring leader recruitment tool effectively. While all the states had prerequisites for entering leadership preparation programs, few offered subsidies for aspiring leaders to participate in pre-service programs.
The report also found that the states were not using evaluations effectively; only in two states, Florida and Virginia, did a majority of those interviewed agree that was the case. (Few had tied evaluation to state standards, set expectations and reporting requirements, or had performance pay for principals.)
And none of the states had leader tracking systems, which would allow policymakers to collect data that would help to recruit candidates for programs, better match them with schools that fit their skill-set and provide individualized professional development over the course of their careers.

Flowchart showing the program pathway to the principalship

States often used mandates to wield influence over these areas, according the report. That, in itself, posed a challenge in some of the areas because local control is often sacrosanct in education. And mandates were not always accompanied by financial resources or expertise to make them work, or with the kind of early stakeholder involvement that would increase their chances of taking root.
But states can also utilize incentives. Connecticut, for example, gave small grants as part of a two-year partnership with university-prep programs to help them identify areas of strengths and weakness and then develop improvement plans.
Why are states not making use of all of their policy levers?
School leadership often takes a backseat to issues related to teachers. That means that principals are generally not the forefront—for either attention or resources.
Other challenges include limited financial resources, turnover in state departments of education, state capacity, conflicting education priorities, local autonomy, and lack of stakeholder buy-in.
Part of the argument for taking stock of these policy levers is that they are all connected, and focusing on one leads to changes in others, according to the report. For example, revamping the job requirements may lead to corresponding changes in licensure requirements and preparation programs.
How can states overcome some of these challenges?
They can ensure there’s both financial resources and expertise to facilitate and implement changes, including for things like professional development. States should include stakeholders—school districts, principals, and others—early in the process, and they should do so in meaningful ways, according to the report.
And a hugely important step is giving school leadership the attention it deserves, by moving it higher on the education agenda, according to the authors.
To help with the lack of capacity at the education departments, states can tap into other state-level organizations with school leadership expertise, including principals’ associations, regional education cooperatives, and education standards boards.
And some of this work could be attached to other educational reforms that are already underway in states, the authors recommend.
You can read the full report, along with specific details on individual state changes, here.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.

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