The RAND Corporation’s new groundbreaking report, Principal Pipelines: A Feasible, Affordable, and Effective Way for Districts to Improve Schools, presents strong evidence that student achievement benefits when large districts invest in hiring, developing and supporting high-quality principals. But what does it take for a school district to build a sturdy pipeline of talented principals and sustain it? Superintendents from four districts shared insights during a panel discussion marking the publication’s launch at Baruch College in New York City.
The panelists—Richard Carranza, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education; Jeff Eakins, superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools, Florida; Monica Goldson, interim CEO of Prince George’s County Public Schools, Maryland; and J. Alvin Wilbanks, CEO and superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools, Georgia—engaged in a lively conversation moderated by Sonja Santelises, chief executive officer of Baltimore City Public Schools. The panelists’ districts, along with Denver Public Schools and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, North Carolina, participated in Wallace’s Principal Pipeline Initiative, which helped fund their pipeline-building activities from 2011 to 2016. The RAND report examined the results of the effort and found that across the districts, student math and reading achievement in schools with new principals outpaced achievement in similar comparison schools elsewhere in the districts’ states. The impact was notable. “We found no other comprehensive district-wide initiatives with demonstrated positive effects of this magnitude on student achievement,” RAND’s lead research on the project, Susan Gates, has said.
The panel discussed the importance of building all four components of a comprehensive principal pipeline—rigorous leadership standards, effective pre-service training, selective hiring and placement, and on-the-job support—to see results. Here are a few key takeaways from their conversation:
Creating a principal pipeline takes a village.
Every district department has to get behind the work, and to succeed “all parts of the pipeline have to be in alignment, from beginning to end,” Eakins said. In Hillsborough, this has meant examining the work of principal supervisors, the district staff members who support and evaluate principals. The district created standards for supervisors and re-interviewed everyone in the position to ensure they were the right fit to develop principals as instructional leaders.
These efforts resonated with Valerie Wanza, chief school performance and accountability officer for Broward County Public Schools, Florida, who attended the event. Broward (as well as Santelises’ Baltimore) is one of six schools districts in Wallace’s Principal Supervisor Initiative, which aims to refashion the supervisor job so it focuses less on administration and more on work with principals to boost instruction. “As a supervisor of principal supervisors, what was reported today reaffirms that we’re going in the right direction,” she said.
Principal burnout is real. On-the-job support combats it.
The RAND report found that pipeline activities had a profound effect on retention, with new principals in the Pipeline districts more likely to stay in their jobs for at least three years than new principals in comparison schools. On-the-job support is critical to reducing turnover, the panelists noted, especially for principals leading schools in disadvantaged communities. “We just don’t pat them on the back and tell them, “Oh, you have the tools in your toolkit to handle that,” said Goldson from Prince George’s County Public Schools. Instead, the district figures out how to help. One strategy: Staff at-risk schools with a community resource advocate who can address students’ social and emotional needs, allowing the principal to stay focused on improving instruction.
Be a data-driven matchmaker.
New York City’s Carranza likened hiring a principal to online dating. “Look at it as an eHarmony moment,” he suggested. “You have to match the right leader with the right community, and couple that with the right types of support.” Operating a leader tracking system, essentially an electronic collection of profiles of aspiring and current principals, has made finding the best qualified candidate much easier for the Pipeline districts. It also ensures that great people don’t slip through the cracks. Not every graduate of Gwinnett’s internal training program becomes a principal immediately, noted Wilbanks. Using the leader tracking system, the district can review the skills and experiences of all potential candidates when a position opens.
Your future principals are in the classroom.
The panelists also noted that the pipeline work has made them more attentive to their leadership pools. Gwinnett, for instance, recognized it had few male principals and assistant principals who are African American. In response, it plans to launch a formal program to identify high-potential African American male teachers who might step up to the job. Hillsborough actively mines its classrooms, too—a big departure from pre-pipeline days when the district typically waited for individuals to express interest in school leadership. Today, it seeks out talented teachers, gives them opportunities to demonstrate leadership, and then gets “in their ear” about becoming a principal, said Eakins.
Take advantage of partnerships.
University partnerships, too, have proven beneficial to Hillsborough’s pipeline, added Eakins. After recognizing that the district lacked principals with the skillset to lead struggling schools, it worked with the University of Tampa and the University of South Florida to develop a master’s degree in educational leadership for turn-around schools. Four years later, nearly 50 Hillsborough principals are now graduates of the program.
Federal dollars could be available to build principal pipelines.
An independent analysis of the RAND report found that RAND’s research about student achievement and principal retention is of sufficient quality to meet evidence standards required (or encouraged) for certain pockets of funding under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, including the major Title I funding stream. Will Miller, president of The Wallace Foundation, took note of that at the event. Evidence from the RAND study, he said, “suggests that the creation of principal pipelines, aligned with the evidence base, deserves serious consideration by large districts, understanding that they can adapt the approach to their local context and use Title I funds to do so.”
Goldson advised districts to examine their system data to make the case for change, then use RAND’s research to show why building a pipeline is money well spent. “For $42 per child [per year], you have an opportunity to invest in human capital that will deliver improvements in student achievement,” she said.
Learn from your peers.
Wilbanks offered advice to districts starting to build their pipeline: Don’t do it alone. Reach out to other districts, learn from them, then share you own strategies. In fact, he plans to call on fellow Pipeline districts that are excelling in particular areas to find out “how I can catch up with them.” After all, the RAND report confirms that they’re on to something. The findings, he added, are “proof positive that the efforts and cost in both human resources and physical resources can and does make a difference to student achievement.”