Enthusiastic About Principal Pipelines

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Enthusiastic About Principal Pipelines

by Jacquelyn O. Wilson, Ed.D.

Executive Director, National Policy Board for Educational Administration
Director, Delaware Academy for School Leadership, University of Delaware

 wilsonI love principals. Yes, I said it. I was an assistant principal and principal for 12 years and for the past 15 years I have engaged in state and district policy and practice work to improve principal pipelines. I say this proudly and with no excuses. I think principals are the catalyst for change in schools and they are instrumental in building capacity and talent to do the work necessary to support student learning and well-being in schools. Because of this, I have become an enthusiastic principal pipeline fanatic. I am passionate about the development and support of principals because I know that a strong preparation program followed by a well-designed support system in a school district can make the difference in a principal’s success. I know this because I was a principal and I work with hundreds of principals in my role as the Director of the Delaware Academy for School Leadership at the University of Delaware and at the National Policy Board for Educational Administration. So why is this work so important to me and what does an enthusiastic principal pipeline fanatic actually do?

It is important to begin by defining what I mean when I talk about a principal pipeline. I do not want to assume that everyone has the same definition as me. I have had the opportunity to facilitate district teams engaged in principal pipeline work for the Wallace Foundation for over a decade. I have also supported pipeline work in states where I provide technical assistance and professional development on behalf of my academy. For me, the principal pipeline begins with teacher leadership. We need to remember that in most states principals are required to have been teachers first. That is why it is so important that teachers be provided opportunities by their principal to engage in leadership activities while remaining in the classroom. Effective principals distribute instructional leadership to teacher leaders by having them lead professional development, take on responsibilities for data inquiry analysis during PLC time, or participate on the principal’s leadership team where decisions about schedules, budgets and supervisory responsibilities takes place. This is the first phase of a principal pipeline. This is where instructional leadership emerges and where teachers learn how to lead others from their classroom. My enthusiasm grows as I observe teachers learn how to lead their peers in a professional learning community or when sitting on a school committee where they are expected to use their voice on behalf of students. As an enthusiastic pipeline fanatic I advocate for opportunities for teacher leaders. This is the starting point for principal pipeline work.

The next phase of the principal pipeline occurs when a teacher leader is either “tapped” by someone to consider an administrative position or decides on their own to participate in a pre-service preparation program. Many districts design and facilitate their own programs by identifying talented teacher leaders and providing them opportunities for professional development and mentoring. Some teachers try these programs out first before deciding if they want to enroll in a principal preparation program. Others earn their certification first and then apply for district aspiring leadership programs. The order does not matter, it is the decision a teacher makes to step into the arena and explore what it would be like to take on the responsibilities of leadership that are necessary as an assistant principal. This requires courage and decision-making about a career pathway that may be outside of the classroom. It requires careful consideration of the impact on family and a commitment of time and effort.  This is a turning point for teachers who take this step and why selecting a high-quality principal preparation program that is aligned to national standards (PSEL/NELP) is so important. It is helpful when the district has partnered with an effective preparation program that they endorse. As an enthusiastic pipeline advocate I encourage state departments of education and universities to align their preparation programs to national standards and to collaborate with school districts as they redesign program curriculum and internship experiences.    

As aspiring leaders complete their certification programs they often begin looking for positions as an assistant principal or principal. Districts with strong principal pipeline programs have established clear expectations and procedures for selecting candidates to apply for principal and assistant principal positions. Districts have invested in advanced data tracking systems that make it possible to identify candidates by specific criteria and experiences. They often have a pool of candidates who have participated in district programs. These districts have also created policies and procedures for candidate recruitment and induction such as rewriting job descriptions based on district priorities and the strategic plan. Districts create opportunities for the school community to provide input on candidate selection, the use of interview protocols with scoring rubrics and performance tasks are regular parts of the hiring process. The district has an established induction program that includes support for new candidates such as mentoring. Selecting the best possible candidate and matching that individual to a school is very important for the school community. I get very excited when I see districts who make selection of new principal or assistant principal a priority. Selection and placement are instrumental to success and retention.

But the best principal pipeline programs do not stop with selection and placement. Districts have recognized that support and professional growth of principals is key to retention. Identifying individuals to serve in the role of principal supervisor is becoming increasingly more important. Experienced principals who have demonstrated effective leadership in a variety of school settings are often tapped to move into the position of principal supervisor. In these positions they serve as a supervisor responsible for such things as professional development, allocation of district resources, performance evaluation and coaching. Principal supervisors meet regularly with the principals they have been assigned to discuss such things as student achievement data and instructional practices and feedback to teachers. Their role is critically important if principals are to grow professionally. The supervisor often recommends professional development for the principals based on an identified need. The supervisor also uses coaching as a strategy to help the principal improve his/her instructional leadership.  

One of the important roles of the Principal Supervisor is balancing supervision and support with the responsibility to evaluate performance. Principal Supervisors have been trained to use the district or state approved performance evaluation system to provide on-going formative feedback to the principals they supervise. The performance evaluation systems provide opportunities for goal setting, mid-year conferences, evidence collection and a summative rating at the end of the annual cycle. Districts are finding the value of using an evaluation system aligned to the same standards used for preparation, hiring and induction so that principals understand the expectations and criteria for effective leadership in the district.

Foundational to the various components of a model principal pipeline is the alignment of the system to a set of professional standards. States are adopting or adapting the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (PSEL) as the foundation of their work. The standards communicate expectations to practitioners, supporting institutions, professional associations, policy makers and the public about the work, qualities and values of effective educational leaders. The standards are organized around the domains, qualities, and values of leadership work that research and practice indicate contribute to students’ academic success and well-being.

Because I love principals, I encouraged states and districts I work with to develop and articulate a vision for principal pipeline leadership. If we are serious about school improvement, then we need to get serious about designing systems for principal pipelines that include: standards; high quality preparation programs; selective hiring; on the job evaluation and support; principal supervisors; and data tracking systems. I think we all know that if we want a great school where teachers can thrive and develop their expertise as teachers of content and caring, we must send them our very best principals. We also know that if we want schools where children are safe, cared for, and challenged academically we need to send them well-prepared principals. I want all of use to become enthusiastic about principal pipelines. Enthusiasm drives change and commitment. Aligning principal pipelines programs to the Professional Standards for Educational Leadership, creating developmental programs in school districts for aspiring school leaders, and selecting and placing candidates using data tracking system in schools where they best serve students are important first steps. Adding the support system with principal supervisors is important to the growth of principals as instructional leaders. The use of a standards-aligned performance evaluation process that includes coaching and professional development are essential steps to creating high quality principal pipeline systems that are sustainable.  I will continue to enthusiastically advocate for districts to invest in principal pipelines because every teacher and every student deserves an effective principal.