New Report Offers a Look into School Districts’ Early Efforts to Develop Qualified Principals

Study is the first evaluation of The Wallace Foundation’s $75-million Principal Pipeline Initiative

WASHINGTON, D.C., (July 9, 2013) A new independent evaluation details how six urban school districts are beginning to build larger pools of strong principal candidates at a time when the job has become more demanding and, in some places, less attractive to some aspiring leaders.

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. 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 or quality of applicants.
  • District leaders want to roll out evaluations that can hold principals accountable. And yet, inseveral 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.”

The six districts, which serve thousands of low-income students, are Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, N.C.; Denver Public Schools; Gwinnett County Public Schools, Ga. (near Atlanta); Hillsborough County Public Schools, Fla. (Tampa); New York City Department of Education; and Prince George’s County Public Schools, Md. (near Washington, D.C.). For example, New York City needs to hire as many as 200 principals a year.

“These school districts, like others nationwide, face a problem: They need strong principals, but it’s a demanding job that, in some places, offers little job security. They want to bring in new principals who are ready to meet those challenges,” said lead author Brenda Turnbull of Policy Studies Associates. “This report details how six large urban districts are launching efforts to find outstanding candidates, train them well and then support them on the job. Other districts can learn from what they are doing.”

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

The six districts are participating in The Wallace Foundation’s $75-million Principal Pipeline Initiative, an ambitious, 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. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, for example, Winthrop University incorporates the district’s leadership standards into its admissions procedures, curriculum and evaluation.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 unselective, 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. They’re gathering data about candidates and organizing it into usable form and weighing how to consider candidates’ intangible qualities. 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.

“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, Wallace’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. This is challenging work, but we are encouraged at the progress being made by these districts and look forward to seeing the future results.”

Over the next several years, Policy Studies Associates will release five more reports about the districts’ collaboration with training providers, early evidence of successes and challenges of district implementation, the use of performance evaluation, the implementation of new pipeline practices and, ultimately, a report in 2018 about the effects of improved pipelines on student achievement.

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To read the new report, click here.


Policy Studies Associates, Inc. (PSA) conducts research in education and youth development. Founded in 1982, PSA believes in the importance of using accurate information to guide decision making. The studies PSA conducts for its clients span evaluation, policy analysis, and other forms of systematic inquiry. PSA’s studies have involved evaluation, research, and policy analysis in school improvement, youth development, out-of-school-time programs, professional development, community involvement, and technical assistance in the scale-up of innovative programs.


The Wallace Foundation is an independent, national foundation dedicated to supporting and sharing effective ideas and practices that expand learning and enrichment opportunities for children. The Foundation maintains an online library of lessons at about what it has learned, including knowledge from its current efforts aimed at: strengthening educational leadership to improve student achievement; helping disadvantaged students gain more time for learning through summer learning and an extended school day and year; enhancing out-of-school time opportunities; and building appreciation and demand for the arts.