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Nine Lessons for School Districts to Cultivate Top-Notch Principals

New Report: Nine Lessons for School Districts to Cultivate Top-Notch Principals
February 26, 2013
The Wallace Foundation



Jessica Schwartz
The Wallace Foundation

Angie Cannon
The Hatcher Group

Wallace Foundation "Perspective" is Third in Series about School Leadership

NEW YORK (February 26, 2013) Great school principals rarely just happen. They need to be cultivated by school districts, and a major new Wallace Foundation publication describes nine major steps districts can take to do just that.

Districts Matter: Cultivating the Principals Urban Schools Need distills insights from school leadership projects and major studies supported by the foundation since 2000 to highlight key district actions to boost school leadership, including drawing up meaningful job descriptions and mentoring novice principals.

"We know that leadership is second only to teaching among school-related influences on learning, and effective principals enable teachers to do their jobs well," said Jody Spiro, director of education leadership at Wallace. "If we are serious about improving education in the nation's urban schools, school districts must make school leadership a top priority. The good news is that's happening in a growing number of districts. This report offers policymakers, district leaders, training providers and others valuable lessons about what districts can do to cultivate effective principals for their schools."

Specifically, the report recommends that districts recognize that they have two chief areas of responsibility and a number of concrete tasks to do within each:

First, build a large corps of well-qualified candidates for the principalship:

  • Create job descriptions that clearly spell out what principals need to know and do to drive better instruction.
  • Improve "pre-service" principal training.
  • Establish selective hiring procedures that identify the most promising future leaders and match them to the right schools.
  • Ensure that hard-to-staff schools get top-quality leaders.

Second, support school leaders on the job:

  • Develop fair, reliable performance evaluations that hold principals accountable for student progress and inform their ongoing training.
  • Offer mentoring to novice principals and professional development to all principals, so school leaders improve throughout their careers.
  • Provide school leaders with timely, useful data and training on how to use it.
  • Enable principals to devote sufficient time to improving instruction and to making the best use of that time.
  • Plan for orderly turnover and leadership succession.

The publication is the latest in a series of Wallace Perspectives, occasional reports that mine foundation-supported projects and research for insights to help solve difficult problems in education. It draws largely from Wallace's work financing education leadership projects in 28 states and urban districts in them, as well as supporting some 70 research studies and other reports. The report also includes interviews and information about large school districts that already have put into place efforts to develop their principals, such as New York City, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., and Hillsborough County (Tampa), Fla. These districts are part of Wallace's Principal Pipeline initiative, a $75-million effort launched in 2011 to help six urban school districts develop a much larger corps of effective school principals and to determine, through an independent study, whether this improves student achievement across the district, especially in the highest needs schools.

Each district is emphasizing different aspects of developing top-notch principals, ranging from improving training programs to establishing more rigorous hiring practices and developing meaningful principal performance evaluations. The report highlights some of these innovations, showing, for example, how Hillsborough County uses the results of performance evaluations to shape the on-the-job training principals receive and how Charlotte-Mecklenburg has introduced a new hiring procedure to bring in only the best candidates. In a report Q&A, Shael Polakow-Suransky,chief academic officer for New York City's Department of Education, describes how New York has "tried to flip the normal district structure" by giving principals greater control over things like staff training and budgeting in exchange for greater accountability for student success.

To read the report, click here.


The Wallace Foundation is an independent, national foundation dedicated to supporting and sharing effective ideas and practices that expand learning and enrichment opportunities for children. The Foundation maintains an online library of lessons at about what it has learned, including knowledge from its current efforts aimed at: strengthening educational leadership to improve student achievement; helping disadvantaged students gain more time for learning through summer learning and an extended school day and year; enhancing out-of-school time opportunities; and building appreciation and demand for the arts.


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