Cover: Pathways to Instructional Leadership

Pathways to Instructional Leadership

Implementation and Outcomes from a Job-Embedded School Leader Training Program

Published Jul 7, 2020

by Benjamin K. Master, Elizabeth D. Steiner, Christopher Joseph Doss, Hannah Acheson-Field


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Research Questions

  1. What were the features of the PLUS program, and how did those features compare with historical district practices for AP selection, training, and support?
  2. To what extent was the PLUS program implemented as intended, and what were Leaders' experiences at each stage of the PLUS program?
  3. How did the career trajectories of Leaders compare with those of other new APs in the district?
  4. To what extent did Leaders influence the student achievement outcomes or job-retention outcomes of teachers that they coached as part of the PLUS program?

The contributions of assistant principals (APs) toward improving student and staff outcomes has not yet been a focus of much empirical research. In recent years, as the increased focus on improving student outcomes has shifted expectations and APs are now expected to perform some instructional leadership tasks, such as coaching and evaluating teachers. To date, there have been few studies of AP professional development programs, and little is known about the extent to which APs are trained to undertake instructional leadership activities. The authors present findings about implementation and impacts on staff and student outcomes from a four-year study of the Pathway to Leadership in Urban Schools (PLUS) program in a large, urban public school district.

PLUS was developed by TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) to train APs in instructional leadership. The findings could help policymakers, district staff, and training program providers understand participants' perceptions of programs that focus on training APs in instructional leadership and the impact that such a program can have on student and staff outcomes. The findings could also help program providers and district staff understand some of the benefits and challenges associated with training school leaders in the context of district-provider partnerships.

Key Findings

  • More than one-third of new APs in the district participated in PLUS, and the program influenced the selection process and criteria for all new APs in the district.
  • Many Leaders perceived the job-embedded coaching they received from PLUS staff to be the most valuable component of the program and described their PLUS cohort as a key source of support.
  • Most Leaders viewed PLUS as good preparation for the role of school leader, but some desired additional emphasis in areas other than instructional leadership.
  • Most Leaders struggled to find adequate time to coach teachers because noninstructional leadership responsibilities often took priority.
  • Leaders reported receiving varying amounts of support for their instructional leadership work from their host principals.
  • Misalignment between PLUS and district expectations for APs was a challenge in the first years of the program, but, over time, the district's expectations for APs shifted to place more emphasis on instructional leadership.
  • Students of teachers coached by Leaders had somewhat larger English language arts achievement gains than students of comparison teachers who received business-as-usual district supports.
  • Teachers whose students had very low achievement gains departed the district at higher rates than if they had received coaching and observations from Leaders.
  • Leaders were not significantly different from other new APs in the rates at which they remained in the district or were promoted to principal roles.


  • Recruitment and development of APs with a focus on instructional leadership can significantly influence outcomes for staff and students.
  • When implementing a job-embedded AP development program, districts and external partners should set realistic expectations for APs and engage with host principals early.
  • Additional research and more comprehensive data are needed to fully understand the impacts of APs' instructional leadership work.
  • Research evaluating impacts of AP training should keep in mind APs' varied responsibilities and contributions.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by TNTP, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, and conducted by RAND Education and Labor.

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