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Building a Principal Pipeline? These Tools Can Help

Pipeline researcher talks building, sustaining, and bringing an equity lens to pipelines
February 22, 2024 6 Min Read

Two big questions we know district leaders are constantly grappling with when it comes to building principal pipelines are: how do we fill them and how do we sustain them? We’ve got some ideas.

Five years ago, RAND conducted a groundbreaking study of Wallace’s Principal Pipeline Initiative that concluded that principal pipelines were a feasible, affordable, and effective way for districts to improve schools. Policy Studies Associates evaluated the implementation of the initiative, which produced a series of reports that looked at the successes and challenges of developing and sustaining a strong principal pipeline. These reports became the basis of four tools developed by Policy Studies Associates to help districts and their partners build and run principal pipelines. The most recent are:

These tools complement two earlier tools developed by Policy Studies Associates: the Principal Pipeline Self-Study Guide for Districts and Strong Pipelines, Strong Principals.

Wallace caught up with Leslie Anderson, senior managing director at Policy Studies Associates and a lead developer of these tools. Anderson has been deeply involved in the principal pipeline work since the initiative launched in 2011.

This interview, which was conducted over email, has been edited for length and clarity.

The Wallace Foundation: Why should districts invest time and money into sustaining–or developing–strong principal pipelines?

Leslie Anderson: Districts should invest in developing and sustaining principal pipelines because they yield long-term gains in the quality and preparedness of new principals and the reduction in rates of turnover among school leaders. Two years after the Principal Pipeline Initiative (PPI) ended, district leaders no longer reported struggling to find highly qualified candidates to fill vacancies. They saw their university partners produce more candidates who were highly qualified and who felt better prepared to be instructional leaders. Moreover, principals were more likely to remain in their school for at least two or three years compared with newly placed principals in comparison schools.

While developing and sustaining pipelines certainly requires time, pipelines do not require a significant investment of money. On average, PPI districts allocated less than 0.5 percent of their annual expenditures. In return, they saw positive effects on math and reading achievement and principal retention rates. Indeed, it is hard to think of a better, more valuable investment. 

WF: The Assistant Principal Advancement to the Principalship guide focuses on preparing assistant principals for the role of principal. Why is it important to focus on assistant principals?

LA: Establishing the assistant principal role as a strategic step towards the principalship supports succession planning and cultivates a bench of leaders who are ready to experience success as a principal. The number of principals with previous experience as an assistant principal has increased. However, insufficient preparation remains a significant factor contributing to principal turnover. The Assistant Principal Advancement to the Principalship Guide provides a roadmap for school districts to forecast principal vacancies. It can also help districts identify a promising pool of assistant principals who demonstrate potential for the principalship and implement a professional learning pathway that supports the preparation of assistant principals for promotion to the principalship.

WF: How can districts bring an equity lens to their development and sustaining of principal pipelines?

LA: A critical component of pipeline development and sustainability is ensuring that districts generate equity-centered, culturally responsive leaders who can respond to the needs of an increasingly diverse student population. Across the seven key parts, or domains, of a pipeline, districts need to address equity gaps and develop equity goals. For example, because there are behaviors that define cultural responsiveness that may not be explicitly included in districts’ leadership standards, districts need to actively work to ensure that their pipelines develop effective—and culturally responsive—school leaders.

Regarding pipeline sustainability, districts should consider whether they have paid attention to gaps in the diversity of their pipeline partners. In addition, they can use their evaluation data as evidence of pipeline effectiveness in generating a corps of equity-centered, culturally responsive leaders, which can help sustain and even expand stakeholder support.

WF: The Principal Pipeline Sustainability Guide is particularly timely with the ARP/ESSER funding winding down. What should districts be doing or thinking about right now to prepare for that funding cliff? 

LA: Sustaining a pipeline requires leveraging various “soft” or time-limited and “hard” or stable, longer-term funding sources. Districts can use “soft” funding like ARP/ESSR opportunities for more costly, one-time investments or to demonstrate to key decision makers the efficacy of a new pipeline practice to gain support for institutionalizing that practice. We would therefore encourage districts to use ARP/ESSER funding—which comes with very few restrictions, but is winding down soon—to fund big-ticket pipeline items such as principal residencies, mentors and coaches, principal supervisors, or data systems.  

To the extent that districts want to sustain pipeline work that they started with ARP/ESSER funding—such as principal residencies or principal supervisors—we recommend they consider blending and braiding available “hard” funding sources, such as many federal funding streams (see Strong Pipelines, Strong Principals) or re-purpose existing funds.  We developed a Financial planning template for a principal pipeline that districts can use to account for the funding sources they have available to support their pipeline’s one-time and ongoing costs across the seven pipeline domains. The template can also help them think about ways to build a new base of pipeline funding by weaving in support from existing federal and local funding sources.

WF: For districts that have some elements of principal pipelines in place and are looking to further develop their pipelines, where should they begin? 

LA: It is safe to say that every district has put key elements of a principal pipeline in place because every district hires and places their principals in schools, provides their principals with on-the-job support, and evaluates their principals’ performance. It was for these very districts that have elements of pipelines in place—but that might want to know where there is room for improvement—that we developed the Principal Pipeline Self-Study Guide for Districts

We created this guide to help districts reflect on their policies, processes, and infrastructures related to school leadership and begin planning for improvement. We also created the guide to help district decision makers start to connect and strengthen the seven domains of aligned, effective pipelines.

WF: You’ve been part of the principal pipeline work from the start in 2011. What have you seen over the years in terms of sustainability? Are there any district sustainability efforts you’d like to highlight?

LA: While not surprised, we are encouraged and impressed to see so many districts engaging in pipeline work over the last 13 years. In 2019, we found the pipeline initiative had real staying power as all six PPI districts still had their principal pipelines seven years after the work began. In addition, among the 84 districts that engaged in the pipeline self-study process in 2020 as part of the Wallace-funded Principal Pipeline Leadership Community (PPLC), we know that many worked throughout the pandemic, well into 2022, to build their pipelines, supporting each other through connections they developed in the PPLC network. 

We believe this cross-systems approach to leader development will be sustained in districts where it’s been implemented. Pipelines will continue expanding across the country as an effective, affordable, and worthwhile process to improve student and school outcomes.  

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