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Six districts get creative to find the principals of their dreams

At a time when the job of principal has become more demanding and less attractive to some aspiring leaders, a new report details how six urban districts are training and retaining school leadership talent.

“The importance of principals to lead education reform, such as the Common Core State Standards and teacher evaluation, has been documented in research and demonstrated in these six districts,” said Jody Spiro, The Wallace Foundation’s director of education leadership. “There is much that they can and should do to support principals, including setting high performance standards, ensuring that leaders are well prepared and supported.”

The report, “Building a Stronger Principalship: Six Districts Begin the Principal Pipeline Initiative,” is the first of several reports that are part of a multi-year evaluation conducted by Policy Studies Associates and the RAND Corporation.

Over time, the researchers will measure the effects on schools and student achievement of principals who have emerged from these pipelines.

(Next page: Why districts are changing tactics)

This first report finds that the districts share several common purposes:

  • District leaders in several sites want a larger pool of strong principal candidates due to a decline in the number of quality of applicants.
  • District leaders want to roll out evaluations that can hold principals accountable. Yet, in several districts, accountability has resulted in principal dismissals, which have increased demand for new principals while making the job seem less secure to applicants.
  • To find new qualified applicants, district leaders want to start as early as possible in educators’ careers, reaching into the teaching force to cultivate leadership talent.
  • All districts are developing standards for the principalship and aligning training, hiring, evaluation, and professional development to them. One district called these standards “the driving force.”

Research for the initial report is based on the collection and analysis of qualitative data, including the districts’ proposals, work plans, and progress reports and semi-structured interviews in spring 2012 with 91 administrators employed by districts and their partner institutions.

The six districts, which serve thousands of low-income students, are Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, N.C.; Denver Public Schools; Gwinnett County Public Schools, Ga.; Hillsborough County Public Schools, Fla.; New York City Department of Education; and Prince George’s County Public Schools, Md.

An example of the extreme demand for high-quality principals can be seen in New York City, which needs to hire as many as 200 principals a year.

“These school districts, like other nationwide, face a problem: They need strong principals, but it’s a demanding job that, in some places, offers little job security,” explained lead author Brenda Turnbull of Policy Studies Associates. “They want to bring in new principals who are ready to meet those challenges.”

(Next page: How they’re changing their strategies)

The six districts are participating in The Wallace Foundation’s $75-million Principal Pipeline Initiative, a multi-year effort supporting the districts and training partners as they strengthen and align the four key parts of a pipeline:

1. Leader standards: In an effort to recruit qualified principals, the six districts are clarifying standards for principals and translating them into required job skills. District officials are working to align principal preparation, hiring, evaluation, and support to these standards. This is a change from the past when each of these functions evolved separately and didn’t always reinforce each other.

2. Pre-service training: Participating districts are creating or strengthening training partnerships with one or more universities, and universities are aligning their curricula with districts’ leadership standards. This collaboration is significant because all too often districts feel that local universities’ graduates don’t meet district hiring needs. Yet some pre-service university training programs remain relatively un-selective, meaning that people who will never be hired are earning credentials.

3. Selective hiring procedures: Pipeline districts are now basing their hiring criteria on the leader standards and, overall, making hiring procedures for principals much more selective. In Denver, for example, candidates must create a professional development plan for a school. And in Prince George’s County, applicants now analyze videos and different scenarios, and personal recommendations are less likely to determine whether someone is hired. Unsuccessful candidates receive information about their identified weaknesses so they can address deficiencies.

4. On-the-job evaluation and support for principals: While principal evaluations are still a relatively new area in education reform, all six districts are working to align evaluation and support for novice principals. Each district’s standards and competencies for principals will provide a common basis for evaluation criteria and will help determine the support principals receive. Districts are developing evaluations that identify gaps in skill, knowledge, or behavior that principal supervisors or coaches can help principals address on the job.

“This first evaluation can provide school districts, especially complex urban districts, with descriptive lessons about how to address current challenges in hiring and retaining qualified instructional leaders,” said Edward Pauly, Wallace’s director of research and evaluation. “Each year we will learn more about how districts implement their pipelines, including progress made on improving principal training, hiring, and evaluation practices.”

He continued: “Ultimately, the research team will determine whether building a stronger principal pipeline improves student achievement across the district. Stay tuned.”


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