Six school districts will receive funding from a $75 million initiative that will help them develop a much larger corps of effective school principals and determine whether this improves student achievement across the districts, especially in the highest-need schools.
Based on 10 years of research, the Wallace Foundation, the nonprofit educational group spearheading the project, has identified four key parts of a “principal pipeline” that can develop and ensure the success of a sufficient number of school principals to meet district needs: rigorous job requirements, high-quality training, selective hiring, and on-the-job evaluation and support.
The six districts, which serve thousands of low-income students, are Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Denver; Gwinnett County, Ga.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; New York City; and Prince George’s County, Md.
The foundation selected these districts from 90 candidates because they already have efforts under way to groom qualified school principals and thus are best able to put strong, complete pipelines in place, it said. The six districts’ plans include working closely with select principal preparation programs to improve the training aspiring school leaders receive before they are hired by the district.
The new “principal pipeline” initiative takes previous Wallace Foundation work an important step further. The foundation is seeking to find out whether districts can create pipelines that produce a large number of highly qualified school principals and whether student achievement rises as a result. A strong pipeline would have four interlocked parts:
- Defining the job of the principal and assistant principal. Districts would create clear, rigorous job requirements detailing what principals and assistant principals must know and do. These research-based standards underpin training, hiring, and on-the-job evaluation and support.
- High-quality training for aspiring school leaders. “Pre-service” principal training programs, run by universities, nonprofits, or districts, recruit and select only the people with the potential and desire to become effective school principals and provide them with high-quality training.
- Selective hiring. Districts hire only well-trained candidates to be school leaders.
- Leader evaluation and on-the-job support. Districts regularly evaluate school principals and provide professional development, including mentoring, that aims to help novice principals overcome weaknesses pinpointed in evaluations.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) will receive $7.5 million—$2 million in the 2011-12 school year and the balance over the remaining four years. The district has several leadership programs in place, including its Strategic Staffing Initiative, which puts strong principals and leadership teams into struggling schools. Strategic Staffing has led to increased achievement, and the district has put it in place at 21 schools.
Hugh E. Hattabaugh, interim superintendent of CMS, said in a statement that effective school leadership is a “critical factor in helping students learn and raising student achievement.”
CMS also has active partnerships with the national group New Leaders for New Schools, with Winthrop University, and with Queens University to train potential leaders. The district also uses internally developed programs to help find and train effective leaders, including principals, assistant principals, and teachers.
Over the next five years, Wallace will give each district $7.5 to $12.5 million to develop, hire, and support new school principals. The six districts also are required to contribute their own funding to the effort. Wallace’s grants are to account for two-thirds of the total investment; district funding is to make up the remaining third.
Wallace is launching the first phase of the initiative with $21.35 million, of which:
- Up to $17 million will go toward strengthening efforts to build the pipeline in the six districts;
- Up to $3.5 million will support independent research that will answer a number of important questions, including whether a strong pipeline results in student achievement gains; and
- $850,000 will provide needed expertise and learning opportunities to the six districts.
“We have … selected exemplary urban districts that are well on their way to putting in place the training and support necessary to have enough effective principals for all of their schools,” said Will Miller, president of the Wallace Foundation. “The crucial question these grants and the associated research will explore is: Can building a stronger principal pipeline improve teaching quality and student achievement district-wide?”
An answer to this question will provide education decision-makers with a key missing piece of the school reform puzzle. Research suggests that leadership is second only to teacher quality among school influences on student learning, but more needs to be known about whether efforts to improve leadership pay off for student achievement and whether these efforts can achieve results at the scale of an entire district. If the results are positive, policy makers will know more about whether and how to invest in such improvements.
Over the next five years of the initiative, the six districts will be able to replace all their retiring principals and assistant principals with graduates of high-quality training programs. As important, the initiative will allow the districts to evaluate the performance of these novice school leaders once they are on the job—and then provide them with mentoring and other forms of professional development that address needs determined by the evaluations. The districts project that by the end of the initiative they will have filled at least two-thirds of their principal slots with highly-qualified school leaders.
Throughout the endeavor, independent researchers—to be selected by the foundation in coming months—will be examining the six efforts, in part to see what works and what doesn’t in putting a district-wide pipeline together. By the sixth year, the researchers will measure the effects on student achievement of principals who have emerged from these pipelines. The research team periodically will publish reports about its findings.
Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) will work with the University of Georgia, the University of West Georgia, and the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement. J. Alvin Wilbanks, GCPS’ chief executive officer and superintendent, and the nation’s longest-serving urban superintendent, said the district already has put a priority on closing the achievement gap and looks forward to “hard evidence about whether and how building a complete pipeline of effective principals can boost student achievement.”
School leadership often has been overlooked as an education improvement strategy, the foundation says, despite the evidence that leadership influences student achievement. Indeed, there are virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around without effective principals. One reason is that the principal is the single most important factor in determining whether a school can attract and keep the high-quality teachers necessary to turn around struggling schools.
The Wallace Foundation also will make additional grants to support the districts in their efforts to strengthen and complete their principal pipelines. These include $600,000 for Education Development Center (EDC), a global nonprofit organization, to work with each district to assess the quality of its leader training programs using a tool previously developed by EDC with Wallace support. Based on that assessment, EDC will recommend ways to improve principal training to each district and its training programs.
Wallace also gave a two-year grant of $250,000 to the New York City Leadership Academy to manage creating a “learning community” among the six districts so they can exchange ideas, discuss common problems and engage with the evaluators and other experts.