Is This the High-Leverage Strategy That K-12 Funders Have Been Waiting For?


It's no secret to readers of IP that the Wallace Foundation believes in the importance of high-quality school principals. More than any K-12 funder in the country, Wallace places school leadership front and center of its education funding. In the last few years, the funder has put more than $100 million into initiatives aimed at improving programs and pipelines for developing principals.

Wallace's emphasis on school leadership makes a lot of sense. A rich body of research places principals second only to effective teachers as the most important in-school factor influencing student academic performance.

Principals manage school facilities, supervise students and staff, and serve as their schools' instructional leaders, observing classrooms and coaching teachers to improve their instruction. While there is plenty of research evidence supporting the value of developing excellent principals, there has been a dearth of research on the cost of actually doing so.

That is, until now.

A new study produced by the RAND Corporation and funded by Wallace shows that better principal development pipelines are not only beneficial, but affordable. Better systems for developing and evaluating principals reduce turnover, improve schools, and cost less than many other school district expenditures, the report concluded.

These findings are important, coming at time when many big emerging philanthropists are keen to improve public education—with some looking beyond charter schools and other strategies embraced by top reform funders. Thanks to Wallace's dedication, private funders and public officials alike now have a lot more knowledge about why and how to invest in principals to improve student outcomes.  

Of course, other funders are in the school leadership space, too. The Broad Center, backed by Eli Broad, is a longtime player, here. And while it's best known for training school superintendents, its Broad Residency for Urban Education—now going for over 14 years—is open to principals and other leaders who work in schools. Explaining why he initially focused his K-12 giving on leadership, Eli Broad wrote in his memoir, "In determining how best to leverage our investment in improving America's public schools, we relied on the essential ingredient in any successful organization: smart people." 

It's also worth mentioning that when Texas grocery mogul Charles Butt made one of the largest education gifts of recent years, for $100 million, he chose to focus on improving school leadership in the Lone Star State—with a vision that includes principals. We've also come across other funders who are focusing on school leadership generally or principals specifically, including initiatives in Chicago and New Jersey. Even the Walton Family Foundation has kicked money to the cause of bolstering principals in traditional public schools at times. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation is another funder that's thinking about school leadership as part of its portfolio model approach to improving education by granting school leaders more autonomy. 


Still, no funder has matched the Wallace Foundation's sustained focus on school principals. In 2011, Wallace launched its $85 million Principal Pipeline Initiative, which sought to help school districts develop better, more strategic systems for hiring, training and developing new principals to identify and retain top-quality school leaders. Six school districts have taken part in the Wallace-backed initiative: Denver; Hillsborough County, Florida; New York City; Prince George's County, Maryland; Gwinnett County, Georgia; and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina.

Wallace also engaged RAND and Policy Studies Associates to evaluate the initiative. Since then, RAND and PSA have released a series of reports on the implementation of the program. We've reported on the last of those studies last fall. 

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The latest report focuses on the resources required to implement better principal pipelines. It found that the six participating school districts spent $5.6 million a year on the principal pipeline program over the four years studied. The largest expense was on the salaries for the district staff members tasked with screening, evaluating and developing principals. These are activities that the participating school districts are already doing, though not in a strategic manner, according to RAND researchers. In a per-pupil context, the cost of the school leadership initiative was only a fraction of what the six districts spent on school administration, food service and transportation. 

Improving one of the most important school-related inputs into student performance at a low cost—what's not to like? The cost effectiveness of improving principal pipelines, coupled with the research-based evidence on the benefits of effective school leaders, should make programs such as this attractive—both for school districts and funders interested in better schools.

The obvious question, of course, is whether these expenses actually lead to improved student achievement. Wallace expects to have that answer in 2018, when RAND and PSA are scheduled to release the final report, which will examine student achievement in schools led by principals developed through the new pipelines. We look forward to covering those results, as well.