Two veteran principals and a leading researcher from the RAND Corporation explored both the role principals play in student achievement and the positive effects of building principal pipelines at the Education Writers Association’s recent National Seminar in Baltimore. The annual event brings together journalists and education experts from across the country.
The discussion focused on the results detailed in a new RAND report, Principal Pipelines: A Feasible, Affordable, and Effective Way for Districts to Improve Schools. Moderated by Matt Barnum, a reporter for Chalkbeat, the panel featured Susan Gates, a senior economist with RAND and co-principal investigator of the evaluation; Mary Beck, principal of Nicholas Senn High School in Chicago; and Robert Motley, principal of Atholton High School in Columbia, Md.
The RAND research examined the impact of The Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline Initiative, which supported six large school districts in developing the four major components of a principal pipeline. The districts were not creating a new program, Gates emphasized. Rather, by setting rigorous standards for school leaders, ensuring high-quality preservice preparation, being selective in hiring and placement, and providing aligned on-the-job support and evaluations, the districts were “doing regular and routine work strategically and effectively,” Gates said. “And they had to develop systems to sustain these improvements over time.”
The Benefits of Pipelines
The districts, researchers found, were able to build pipelines and to do so at an affordable cost. Better still, the RAND study concluded that the pipelines were effective, benefiting districts, schools and students. Schools with new principals in pipeline districts outperformed matched non-pipeline schools with new principals in the same state by 2.87 percentile points in math and 6.22 percentile points in reading after three year or more years. (They also saw gains after two years.) Further, the districts saw less turnover among principals, Gates explained.
“This is a great study showing this program appears to be effective,” commented Barnum. He asked Gates whether national and state policymakers had been wise in focusing so much attention on teachers, rather than principals.
“The number one factor driving teacher turnover is the quality of the school leader,” Gates answered. “At the end of the day, people don’t want to go to work for a [bad] boss. If we could get stellar school leaders in every school, teachers would be happier and more effective.”
Beck agreed, saying that working for an ineffective principal had spurred her own interest in becoming a school leader. “It comes down to motivation and dedication and commitment to kids,” she said. “In the Chicago Public Schools we’re high poverty, and we are really successful. And it’s because principals believe in social justice and the transformative power of education.”
Motley concurred, noting that, among other things, he has bought a “rolling desk” that he pushes around school hallways so he can stay in touch with teachers and students.
What Principals Do
Asked by Barnum to describe a typical day for a principal, Beck and Motley also agreed: There isn’t one.
“You walk in each day with a schedule, but you’re dealing with kids, so every day something comes up and the schedule gets thrown out the window,” Motley said. “Meeting with a parent. Making the observation schedule for teacher evaluations. Lunch duty. Mandatory state testing. Covering for my [assistant principals]. Sports activities in the afternoon. Award recognitions for kids who are getting scholarships.”
Pressed by a reporter to be more specific about what effective principals do, Beck said they don’t let things slide, addressing problems right away and setting a tone for the school. “I often view my staff as my students,” she explained. “I approach coaching 108 adults the same as I would approach teaching a class with a lesson plan.”
“I see my role as helping my teachers become better teachers,” added Motley, a 13-year veteran of the job. Participating in professional learning opportunities also refreshes and sustains him.
For Gates, such answers struck a familiar note. “It’s interesting, because those responses are well aligned with our research study,” she said. “It effectively shows that if districts can create the conditions for success, then principals will stay, and schools will be successful.”
Reporters asked whether the RAND study looked at effects of the pipeline on diversity, which it didn’t. But Gates said research shows school principals come from the ranks of teachers, “and there is a dramatic diversity gap when you compare the teacher workforce relative to the student population. This is an area where a concerted effort needs to be made with the teacher pipeline.”
Gates offered reporters a tip: “Pose questions to the senior leadership in school districts. Ask what their standards are, how they are defining what is a good principal and what are they looking for to assess the leaders in every school. Ultimately, that’s what the principal pipeline initiative was trying to do.”