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Building Pipelines to Develop Effective School Principals

Building Pipelines to Develop Effective School Principals
October 26, 2016


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                               


Brenda Turnbull 
Policy Studies Associates    

Jessica Schwartz
The Wallace Foundation 

After Four Years, Six Urban School Districts Have Made Significant Progress 
In Building Pipelines to Develop Effective School Principals 
 Top District Leaders and Novice Principals Both Reported Improvements

WASHINGTON, D.C. (October 26, 2016) – After four years, six large urban school districts made significant progress in building stronger principal pipelines, according to a new independent study of The Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline Initiative. The study especially noted direct benefits to novice school principals by raising the quality of their training, hiring, evaluations, mentoring and other support during their crucial first years on the job.

“To a striking extent, all six districts carried out the kinds of policies and practices called for by the Principal Pipeline Initiative,” said lead author Brenda Turnbull of Policy Studies Associates . “The result has been that both superintendents and novice principals are already reporting changes for the better.”

Superintendents and other top district leaders reported in interviews with the study team that principal candidates were showing leadership strengths, especially in improving instruction. Surveys of novice principals also showed that over time, a higher percentage of new principals said that their skills were an “excellent” fit for their schools’ needs.

Building a Stronger Principalship: The Principal Pipeline Initiative in Action is the fifth and final implementation report from The Wallace Foundation’s $85-million Principal Pipeline Initiative, launched in August 2011. The multi-year evaluation is being conducted by Policy Studies Associates and the RAND Corporation. A report by RAND Corporation, to be released in 2017, will look at the costs associated with building pipelines; and a culminating report, to be published by PSA and RAND in late 2018, will analyze student achievement in schools led by “pipeline” principals.

“This report is something of a milestone, first because it confirms that districts can successfully implement meaningful changes in a complex system of hiring and developing leaders, and second because the resulting principal pipelines quickly produce benefits for both districts and principals,” said Will Miller, president of The Wallace Foundation. “The work of these six large urban districts offers important lessons for other districts across the country that want to prepare and place effective principals in all their schools.”

Offering the foundation’s analysis of its major pipeline project, Wallace also released its own Perspective entitled Building Principal Pipelines: A Job That Urban Districts Can Do, which concludes that other districts can take on building pipelines of school leaders due to the success of the six districts in constructing important aspects of a principal pipeline. The report includes considerations for both districts and states interested in building pipelines. Though primarily a district responsibility, “states could play a major role in encouraging the development of pipelines,” the report notes, due to state powers such as licensing principals, overseeing preparation programs and approving degree programs at universities. “States could assert these powers more aggressively to improve pre-service training, hiring, and performance evaluation and support – each a key pipeline element,” the report adds.

The six districts participating in the initiative are: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, N.C.; Denver Public Schools; Gwinnett County Public Schools, Ga. (near Atlanta); Hillsborough County Public Schools, Fla. (Tampa); New York City Department of Education; and Prince George’s County Public Schools, Md. (near Washington, D.C.).  At least half the students in each district are from low-income families.
The Policy Studies Associates report details how six districts strengthened the four key parts of “principal pipelines:”

  • Defining and actively using job standards that anchor preparation programs, hiring and evaluations;

  • Reshaping pre-service preparation through new or revamped in-house programs and partnerships with other providers, including internships;

  • Tightening hiring by requiring candidates to demonstrate skills, creating talent pools and using data to match principals with the right schools; and  

  • Providing new evaluations and better on-the-job support through mentors, coaches and the revamped principal supervisor role.

District actions made a difference to the novice principals, according to surveys. As the districts worked to eliminate hiring decisions based only on recommendations and interviews, novice principals more often said the new more rigorous hiring processes gave them a chance to show their skills in practical demonstrations. Over time, they also gave higher ratings to their principal supervisors, a position that districts revamped so the supervisors managed smaller caseloads of principals. A key finding was that as districts shifted the focus from administrative compliance to helping principals succeed as instructional leaders, principal supervisors took on important responsibilities of on-the-job evaluation and support for principals.

In addition, novice principals had positive perceptions of new standards-based evaluation systems. Principals also expressed enthusiasm about their mentors and coaches, describing them as “lifelines” who provided hands-on help vital to principals’ “immediate survival.”

“This report provides the broader field with a solid understanding of how principal pipelines work and a demonstration of their feasibility as well as benefits,” said Elizabeth Ty Wilde, senior research and evaluation officer at The Wallace Foundation. “Given the complexities of the steps involved in developing principals, it’s hard to image how districts that want consistently effective principals can develop them without a well-organized pipeline pathway.”

Another innovation by the districts was the development of leader tracking systems, which captured individual, longitudinal data on aspiring and novice principals’ experience, performance and competencies. This data system helped districts make informed decisions on hiring, placement and succession planning.

At the same time, the report makes clear that the six districts consider their efforts a work in progress. Some important aspects of pipeline building, such as improving professional development, are unfinished.  And others have proved to be particularly complex, long-term undertakings, notably upgrading university-based training (as opposed to district-provided training) for aspiring principals.

Over the course of the initiative, district leaders also took steps to systematically select, induct, and coach assistant principals, because 70 percent of novice principals came from the assistant principal ranks. At the same time, district leaders wondered if the job should be restructured because much of assistant principals’ work had little to do with instructional leadership.

“These reports are particularly timely because districts and states are currently developing plans for their work under the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act,” said Jody Spiro, Wallace’s director of education leadership. “These reports offer new evidence about the feasibility and value of building pipelines, and the new law provides significant funding opportunities for districts and states to support school leaders.”

The first report in the Policy Studies Associates series described the districts’ plans and first-year activities; the second report analyzed the preparation and support for school leaders offered by districts and their partners. A third report examined how districts were faring three years into the initiative. A fourth report looked at principal evaluations and support to help principals improve.


Policy Studies Associates, Inc. (PSA) conducts research in education and youth development. Founded in 1982, PSA believes in the importance of using accurate information to guide decision making. The studies PSA conducts for its clients span evaluation, policy analysis, and other forms of systematic inquiry. PSA's studies have involved evaluation, research, and policy analysis in school improvement, youth development, out-of-school-time programs, professional development, community involvement, and technical assistance in the scale-up of innovative programs. 

The Wallace Foundation seeks to improve education and enrichment for disadvantaged children and foster the vitality of arts for everyone. The foundation has an unusual approach: funding efforts to test innovative ideas for solving important public problems, conducting research to find out what works and what doesn’t and to fill key knowledge gaps – and then communicating the results to help others. Wallace, which works nationally, has five major initiatives under way:

  • School leadership: Strengthening education leadership to improve student achievement.

  • Afterschool: Helping selected cities make good afterschool programs available to many more children.

  • Building audiences for the arts: Enabling arts organizations to bring the arts to a broader and more diverse group of people.

  • Arts education: Expanding arts learning opportunities for children and teens.

  • Summer and expanded learning: Better understanding the impact of high-quality summer learning programs on disadvantaged children, and enriching and expanding the school day in ways that benefit students.



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