Taking Stock of Principal Pipelines

What Public School Districts Report Doing and What They Want to Do to Improve School Leadership

by Susan M. Gates, Julia H. Kaufman, Sy Doan, Andrea Prado Tuma, Deborah Kim

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Research Questions

  1. To what extent do U.S. school districts view school principals as a key lever for school improvement?
  2. Are district administrators satisfied with their current pool of candidates for principal vacancies?
  3. To what extent do district administrators report having mechanisms and strategies for preparing, hiring, supporting, and retaining principals?
  4. What is the level of interest in developing or improving those strategies?
  5. What barriers do district leaders report to implementing mechanisms and strategies for preparing, hiring, supporting, and retaining principals?

The authors share new findings about the presence and potential importance of principal pipeline activities for preparing, hiring, supporting, and evaluating school leaders as reported by administrators from a national sample of school districts across the United States. The research on which this report is based was prompted by positive findings in a recent evaluation of the Principal Pipeline Initiative (PPI) conducted by the RAND Corporation and Policy Studies Associates. The PPI, launched by The Wallace Foundation in 2011, supported six large public school districts in implementing comprehensive, strategic efforts intended to improve the quality of school leaders over a five-year period.

Overall, the vast majority of our interview participants across districts reported that their district views principals as important and engages in some pipeline activities. That said, only about half of district respondents reported that they are satisfied with their current pool of principals. Interviewees reported some of the pipeline activities to be far more prevalent than others. In addition, our data suggest variation in what principal pipelines look like in different district contexts. The variation in prevalence of specific pipeline activities reported by our interviewees suggests that there are opportunities for districts to learn from one another. Responses from officials in small districts suggested some potential differences between small and large districts in the way principals are supervised and supported; these differences are worthy of further exploration in future research.

Key Findings

  • Ninety percent of 10K+ districts (public school districts serving 10,000 or more students) respondents reported that their district goals, strategic plans, or initiatives tie school leadership to school improvement.
  • Less than half of 10K+ districts respondents reported moderate or high satisfaction with their pool of principal candidates.
  • All respondents were able to identify someone responsible for supervising principals. More than three-quarters of 10K+ district leaders reported having leader standards, processes to encourage individuals to be school leaders, efforts to give aspiring principals professional development and support, standards-aligned evaluation, and coaching for all first-year principals.
  • Medium districts were less likely than large districts to report engaging principal pipeline activities in general; the differences between medium and large districts (public school districts serving 10,000–49,000 students and 50,000 or more students, respectively) were statistically significant with regard to having leader standards, having a process to encourage individuals to be school leaders, using performance-based hiring metrics, using standards-aligned evaluation, and having a position dedicated to school leadership.
  • A majority of respondents expressed moderate or strong interest in improving their district's efforts around leader standards, principal preparation, selective hiring and placement, and on-the-job support and evaluation.
  • Respondents mentioned lack of time and funding when asked about barriers to doing more in regard to pipeline efforts.
  • A majority of respondents in our exploratory sample of small districts (fewer than 10,000 students) reported that superintendents are responsible for principal supervision and that the district is engaged in many of the pipeline activities.

Recommendations

  • There are opportunities for districts to learn from one another. Many districts, especially medium-sized ones, might welcome guidance, examples, and tools that could support them in their strengthening of pipelines.
  • Large districts might be tapped to be models and provide guidance and support to medium and small districts, given that large districts reported a higher level of engagement with pipeline activities.
  • Further research is needed to support district decisionmaking by identifying specific approaches or programs that are effective in these areas.
  • Preparation programs and state entities that oversee them might think about ways to support meaningful engagement, especially between programs and smaller districts.
  • Research is needed to identify effective collaboration approaches for smaller district and preparation programs.
  • Responses from officials in small districts suggested some potential differences between small and large districts in the way principals are supervised and supported; these differences are worthy of further exploration in future research.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Results

  • Chapter Three

    Discussion and Conclusions

  • Appendix A

    Data Collection

  • Appendix B

    Data Analysis

Research conducted by

This study was sponsored by The Wallace Foundation and conducted by RAND Education and Labor.

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