This Funder Has Been Betting Big on Principals. What's It Learning?

With its education funding, Wallace Foundation is all about the importance of school leadership. The funder recently launched a $47 million initiative to help universities improve their programs for developing principals. Before that was the funder's $85 million Principal Pipeline Initiative, which began in 2011.

This emphasis on principals distinguishes Wallace from many other K-12 education funders. But the way the foundation has zeroed in on this nicheas a key leverage point for its grant dollars—makes a lot of sense. A lengthy body of education research identifies principals as second only to effective teachers as the most important in-school factor influencing student achievement. In any school, the principal is a pivotal figure, the person not only responsible for management of the school building and supervision of students and staff, but also the school's instructional leader. It is the principal who is responsible for observing classrooms and coaching teachers on techniques for improving their instruction.

The importance of the principalship underscores the importance of developing effective school leaders. School systems need effective hiring and training processes for new principals, as well as evaluation systems to identify the most effective principals, and mentoring and other types of support to retain these leaders. A recently released report funded under Wallace's Principal Pipeline Initiative singled out six urban school districts for high praise in constructing stronger principal pipelines.

"Building a Stronger Principalship: The Principal Pipeline Initiative in Action" is the last in a series of implementation reports under this Wallace program. Policy Studies Associates (PSA) and the RAND Corporation collaborated to evaluate the Principal Pipeline Initiative.

The six districts participating in the initiative are Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina; Denver Public Schools; Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, FL; Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia; the New York City Department of Education; and the Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland.

In their report, PSA and RAND identified four critical aspects of principal pipelines that the districts strengthened through their participation in the initiative: 

  • Anchoring their principal preparation programs by defining sets of standards and competencies for school principals;
  • Reshaping pre-service preparation programs for principals, including offering internships and establishing partnerships with other providers;
  • Strengthening hiring procedures beyond recommendations and interviews by requiring candidates to demonstrate skills and by using data to match principals with the right schools;
  • Revamping the role of principal supervisors, as well as utilizing mentors and coaches, to provide better supports for principals and improve evaluation systems.

Surveys of novice principals conducted as part of the study indicate that changing the role of the principal supervisor from a  compliance function to a mentoring role designed to help principals succeed as instructional leaders was a significant step. These principals also gave high marks to the stronger hiring processes.

For the participating school districts, as well as school systems across the country, many rookie principals come from the ranks of the assistant principals. Recognizing this, the six school districts paid greater attention to the ways in which assistant principals are chosen and coached. The work taking place through this initiative suggested a need to restructure the role of assistant principals to place greater emphasis on instructional leadership, a responsibility that has not traditionally been a part of the assistant principal's role.

Forthcoming studies under this initiative include a RAND report on the costs associated with improving principal pipelines, slated for release in 2017, followed by a 2018 report that will analyze student achievement in schools led by pipeline principals.

Despite these strides, the districts involved in this Wallace-funded initiative do not consider this to be the end of their work to strengthen principal pipelines. They acknowledged a need to improve professional development opportunities and saw a need for improving university-based programs for training school leaders. The latter links Wallace's Principal Pipeline Initiative to the funder's new $47 million University Principal Preparation Initiative. This program emphasizes redesigning university programs for developing principals and recently selected seven universities for funding to redesign their programs. We look forward to continued important findings from Wallace's work on school leadership.