Guest Column

Your District’s Pipeline for Principals


Every year, taxpayers pour billions of dollars into our nation’s most troubled public schools, hoping the effort will result in classrooms with better teaching and learning.

If school administrators want to give this investment a stronger chance of success, they should be paying close attention to what goes on in the principal’s office, too.

Within schools, teachers play the biggest role in determining whether children learn well or not, but research shows that school leadership is the second-most-important school-related influence on student achievement. It’s revealing, too, that teachers tell us the quality of the school leader is their primary consideration when deciding whether to work in low-performing schools. We know of no examples of a troubled school turning around without a powerful leader.

If the leadership of a school is such an important factor in the quality of education, the critical question becomes what makes for good principals? The Wallace Foundation has learned a lot about them in its decade of support for school leadership projects and research.

Studies we have commissioned report that effective principals shape a vision of success for all students in their schools and build a climate centered on learning. They also focus on instruction, not the administrative details of buses, budgets and boilers.

Effective school leaders know they can’t fly solo. They cultivate and share leadership with teachers and others whose talents expand the expertise brought to bear in school improvement efforts.

Best Behaviors
These insights are hardly new. Indeed, a landmark research report documenting the importance of principals in student achievement, “How Leadership Influences Student Learning,” was published in 2004. Yet few school districts with large numbers of troubled schools have established a corps of effective principals big enough to meet district needs.

At the same time, deep problems persist in how principals are trained and then supported once on the job. Too many principal training programs remain mediocre, unable to meet district needs. Hiring practices often are at odds with what schools require from principals. New principals frequently are left to sink or swim, fending for themselves without the mentoring and professional development they need to fully master their difficult jobs.

Finally, most principal performance assessments fail to scrutinize the behaviors that research has linked to improved student learning, leaving school districts without a clear idea of whether their principals are focusing on instruction — and principals with little clue about how to become better at helping teachers improve.

It should come as little surprise, then, that high principal turnover plagues many districts — the average principal tenure is 3.6 years, according to one estimate — when a rule of thumb is that a principal needs to be on the job about five years to have a beneficial impact on classrooms.

Four-Piece Construction
To change this picture and work toward placing an exemplary principal in every school, superintendents and other district leaders would do well to consider building a pipeline of highly qualified school leaders. Our fieldwork and commissioned research suggest that such a pipeline consists of four parts:

Defining the job of the principal and assistant principal. Districts need to create clear, rigorous job requirements detailing what principals and assistant principals must know and do. These standards should be based on research that describes the knowledge, skills and behaviors principals need to improve teaching and learning, and they should be used to underpin principal training, hiring and life on the job.

Providing high-quality, preservice training for aspiring school leaders. Principal training programs, whether run by universities, nonprofits or districts, should recruit and select only individuals with the potential and desire to become effective principals in the districts the programs feed. The programs need to give first-rate training. That means, among other things, a curriculum that emerges from research-based standards underlying the district’s job descriptions and that stresses the skills necessary for improving instruction, leading change and meeting districts’ expectations. It also means quality internships to give aspiring leaders the chance to learn on the job.

Recruiting and hiring selectively. For principal and assistant principal jobs, districts need to recruit and hire only well-trained candidates who have the aptitude and personal characteristics needed for the roles.

Evaluating leaders and giving them on-the-job support. Districts should regularly evaluate principals, assessing the qualities that research associates most closely with improving teaching and student achievement. Districts then need to follow up by providing professional development, including mentoring, that responds to what the evaluations find for each individual.

A Steady Flow
Principal pipelines will have the best chance of success if they are integrated and comprehensive, with each part designed and managed with the others to form a coherent whole. Moreover, each part must be aligned to the standards for principal performance that rest on good evidence.

Although some school districts have several pipeline components in place, and a few even have all, the rare district carries a pipeline substantial enough to supply effective principals to all its schools. This is understandable because building a pipeline takes time and resources. Districts have to work with universities or nonprofits to change training programs. They need to shake up employment policies to ensure candidates demonstrate the ability to provide leadership that aims to improve instruction.

When it comes to evaluating principals, school district officials should gauge whether the time has come to scrap old assessments and bring in new ones. Good mentoring needs to be worked into the lives of novice principals.

Yes, it’s hard work. But given that all other reform efforts hinge on how a school is being led, isn’t it worth doing?

Will Miller is president of The Wallace Foundation in New York, N.Y. E-mail: