Cover: Using State-Level Policy Levers to Promote Principal Quality

Using State-Level Policy Levers to Promote Principal Quality

Lessons from Seven States Partnering with Principal Preparation Programs and Districts

Published Nov 17, 2020

by Susan M. Gates, Ashley Woo, Lea Xenakis, Elaine Lin Wang, Rebecca Herman, Megan Andrew, Ivy Todd


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Research Questions

  1. How does a state's context shape its use of policy levers to improve principal quality?
  2. What policy levers are states using, how are the levers used, and what policy changes have states made that affect the way levers are used?
  3. What supports the effective use of policy levers?
  4. What are the barriers to and facilitators of policy change?

Effective school principals are associated with better outcomes for students and schools, and states play a role in fostering an environment that develops and supports effective principals. The authors of this report examine how seven states are using state-level policy levers to improve the quality of school principals. Each of the states is part of The Wallace Foundation's University Principal Preparation Initiative (UPPI), which launched in 2016 and brings together a university-based principal preparation program with school districts and state partners in each state to support the development of effective principals.

In examining state efforts, the authors focus on seven policy levers that states can use to improve school leadership—standards, recruiting, approval and oversight of principal preparation programs, licensing, professional development, evaluation, and leader tracking systems—and identify cross-state themes and generalizable lessons.

Key Findings

  • Standards, licensure, program approval and oversight, and professional development are core levers. All or most of the seven states used key activities associated with these levers to improve principal quality.
  • Features of the state context influence opportunities to improve principal quality, including the degree of influence key actors have in this sphere, the structure of the pathway to the principalship, and ways in which levers are currently used.
  • In all seven states, stakeholders agreed that the standards lever was being effectively used to promote principal quality. Stakeholders in five states also felt that the program approval and oversight lever was being used effectively.
  • State policy levers are interconnected, and these interconnections can extend a lever's influence. For example, standards have their greatest influence when used to align licensure, program approval, professional development, and evaluation.
  • Levers are most effective when they are connected to high standards or evidence-based requirements and when states provide support to programs and districts in meeting these standards and requirements.
  • Challenges states face in implementing policy changes include limited staff time and resources, competing priorities, turnover of state leaders, local autonomy, and lack of stakeholder buy-in.
  • Early and meaningful engagement with stakeholders and leveraging other statewide efforts are factors that facilitate policy change.


  • When setting policy priorities to improve principal quality, consider the mix of policy options available. Consistent and aligned use of different policy levers can promote a coherent strategy for improving principal quality.
  • Identify opportunities to build stakeholder engagement and state-level expertise on principal quality by looking beyond state agencies and creating forums for information-sharing.
  • When using state mandates to drive principal quality, couple them with information, resources, and supports. Doing so can help support the capacity of policy targets, such as aspiring leaders and preparation programs, to meet the policy expectations and increase the odds of policy success.
  • Be opportunistic: Link principal initiatives to key state education priorities and build on related initiatives. Building off of existing policy efforts can be a politically expedient and efficient way to promote policy change to improve principal quality in spite of low agenda status of this issue.

Research conducted by

This study was funded by The Wallace Foundation and undertaken by RAND Education and Labor.

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