Principal Pipeline districts see stronger student achievement gains, retention
The RAND Corp. finds implementing a "cohesive" package of activities made the difference in improving the recruitment and retention of school leaders.
Schools with leaders placed as part of the Principal Pipeline Initiative (PPI) — a major, $75 million effort of The Wallace Foundation from 2011-16 — have higher student achievement in both reading and math compared to similar schools that were not part of the initiative, according to a RAND Corp. study released Monday.
Conducted in six large urban districts across the country, the evaluation also finds that the largest improvements in student achievement were seen in the lowest-performing schools and that those gains were seen as early as two years into the five-year initiative.
“People might have this notion with pipelines that you have to be prepared to not see the results for a long time,” Jody Spiro, the director of education leadership at the foundation, said in an interview. “These pipelines are systemic, strategic, districtwide strategies to change systems in order to use leadership as a lever for improving student achievement, particularly in the lowest-performing schools.”
The evaluation finds PPI is also contributing to higher retention rates among newly placed school leaders. PPI principals were 5.8% more likely to remain in their schools after two years and 7.8% more likely to be at the same schools for at least three years.
Combined with another recent RAND Corp. evaluation showing student leaning gains at schools with principals trained by the nonprofit New Leaders program, the report on PPI provides further evidence that choosing the right principals can be as important has recruiting and retaining well-prepared teachers.
“Districts matter in shaping school leadership. The work they do to manage principals — through pipeline activities — is important,” the authors write. “Our study provides compelling evidence that if districts approach these pipeline activities strategically, paying attention to each component and the coherence of the efforts, they set up their newly placed principals for success.”
The authors suggest PPI has had as much of an impact on student achievement as “major district-led, district-wide initiatives focused on classroom teaching” and that the benefits were seen even at schools in the districts without newly placed principals.
The foundation also commissioned, and released Monday, a separate review of the RAND Corp.’s findings on both student achievement and principal retention rates. Conducted by Abt Associates, the analysis finds the achievement results to be at a Tier 2 — or moderate — evidence level under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which means districts would be able to use Title I funding to support pipeline work, Spiro said. The retention results were at a Tier 3 — or promising — level.
A ‘cohesive’ package
PPI's components included standards for school leaders, preparation activities, being more selective about hiring and placing administrators, and on-the-job support and evaluation — a “cohesive” package that seems to be the key to preparing leaders who are more successful in their early years as principals. The researchers did not find evidence that one of those elements alone would have produced the same outcomes.
The six districts — Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) in North Carolina, Denver Public Schools, Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia (GCPS), Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida, the New York City Department of Education and Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland — were each at different places in their work on principal preparation when they became part of the effort.
The initiative followed the foundation’s previous 10-year effort to support principal pipelines in 15 states and 12 urban districts. That work “gave us a lot of good evidence about what was effective, but … there wasn’t anywhere that someone could go to see everything in action,” Spiro said, adding that the strength of the RAND Corp.’s findings is not only that a district could implement all of the components, but also that “all six of them were able to do it.”
The RAND researchers say districts of a similar size (at least 80,000 students) and composition (majority minority) would likely see similar results if they “view school leadership as a strategic lever for school reform and have the capacity to implement pipeline components.” But the findings, they said, are also relevant for smaller districts or charter management organizations that have made school leadership a priority.
The RAND Corp. report also concludes the changes the districts implemented are not financially out of reach, amounting to about $42 per pupil each year or less than 0.5% of each district’s annual budget. The grant funds supported about 30% of the costs of building the pipeline programs, Spiro said. And the researchers note that many of the activities associated with the initiative were things the districts would be doing anyway. “The commitment was not just to doing new things,” they write, “but to doing routine things in new ways.”
Melissa Tooley, the director of preK-12 educator quality at New America, a Washington-based think tank, said focusing first on clear standards for principals and ensuring the other three components reflected those standards seemed be what made the difference. “An outside observer might think that sounds like a no-brainer,” she said, “but might be shocked to learn that is far from the norm.”
In most states, she said, the standards for those preparing to become principals are not the same for evaluating them once they’re in that role. And in districts, those who hire principals sometimes are not connected to those who lead professional learning for school leaders. “So moving toward coherence is actually no small feat,” she said.
Creating data systems to track principal candidates’ performance and experience rather than relying on “word of mouth” about who might be a good principal has also been an important element of the initiative, she said.
PPI is also just one aspect of the work The Wallace Foundation has supported related to school leadership. Last fall, the RAND Corp. also released a first look at the foundation’s $48.5 million effort to redesign university principal preparation programs.
That’s an area Tooley thinks Congress should address as it considers reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The sections of the law that focus on educator quality have historically “focused almost exclusively on teachers, but New America recommends including an equal focus on school principals, given their importance,” she said.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University and Mathematica Policy Research also reported last year on the foundation’s $24 million effort to improve the role of principal supervisors, such as lightening their caseloads and taking away central office duties so they could spend more time with principals.
‘A good foundation’
In 2005, officials in GCPS, located in the Atlanta metro area, began taking a closer look at how their principals were prepared. Glenn Pethel, the district’s assistant superintendent for leadership development, examined how large school districts across the country, as well as other industries, prepared their leaders. A common thread, he said in an interview, was a “thoughtful design” for examining vacancies and why attrition was occurring.
Through that process, he also learned there was not common agreement over the skills and knowledge that principals should have, and that some university administrator preparation programs were doing a more “complete job” than others. “We had a pretty good foundation, but the Wallace funding and the Wallace guidance caused us to look more carefully and thoughtfully at the standards and preparation,” Pethel said.
They connected with universities that had higher-quality programs for preparing educators for school leadership and shored up systems for supporting new principals once they were hired. “They are not fully cooked at that point. Some things that are best learned once you are on the job,” Pethel said. “We learned more about how important it is with these knew principals to listen to them … and to learn more about what these new leaders’ needs are.”
One of those new leaders, Jeremy Reily, went through the GCPS Quality Plus Leadership Academy twice — first before becoming an assistant principal in 2012 and then before becoming principal of Bay Creek Middle School last fall. As he was preparing to become a school leader, he gradually took on more responsibilities with the guidance of a veteran principal.
"The two jobs of principal and assistant principal are very different," he said in an email. "Getting to step away from the [assistant principal] duties to learn to think like a principal has made my transition to principal this year smooth."
Now after almost a year in his new role, he said he has relied on his training to focus on building relationships and listening to teachers.
"I have endeavored to get into every classroom every day and then stop by later that day or the next day to just have a reflective conversation with a few of those teachers," he said. "This has begun creating a culture and climate of transparency with teachers, and they have gotten the chance to feel safer when I walk in that I am not there to 'get them.'"
Sustainability amid turnover
Questions following any grant-funded effort in education focus on whether the changes and improvements can be sustained. In February, Policy Studies Associates released an evaluation showing that since PPI ended, the six districts are “maintaining principal pipelines, continuing to follow the vision of intentionally managing the career progressions of their aspiring principals and principals.”
The districts have also been able to keep the structures in place despite leadership turnover. Only Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent of the Gwinnett County district, has been in that position since before the initiative began. Some of the districts, including New York City, CMS and Prince George’s County, have had three or four leaders since the effort began.
In CMS, principal talent management work was "deeply embedded" in the district's strategic plan, Ann Clark, who served as superintendent of the district from 2014-2017, wrote in an email.
"CMS was fortunate to have four superintendents who all believed the principal was the key lever for change and transformation," she wrote. "There was an acknowledgement that a mediocre principal could hire a great teacher, but only a highly effective principal can keep a fantastic teacher."
All the districts still have struggling and low-performing schools in their respective state's accountability systems, but the positive achievement outcomes reported in the study will likely motivate the PPI districts — and inspire others — to continue focusing on principal preparation.
"A mediocre principal could hire a great teacher, but only a highly effective principal can keep a fantastic teacher."
Consultant and former superintendent, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Districts, however, really “have to want to do this work,” Tooley said. She added that sustaining a strong pipeline of future school leaders includes “grow your own” strategies as well as continually “asking what principals’ roles and responsibilities should be, and figuring out how to change school leadership models to move them closer to that goal.” Last year, New America hosted a discussion on some of the new models emerging to allow principals to focus more on instruction, such as school managers in Iowa and directors of school operations in the District of Columbia Public Schools.
Going forward, she said, leaders will also need to make sure any future superintendents are aware of the history of the initiative and “will need to convince their internal and external constituents that retaining a focus on the principal pipeline is still a worthwhile effort.”
Follow Linda Jacobson on Twitter