Fixing the Leaky Principal Pipeline

Research on what school leaders and districts can do to help fix and strengthen the pipeline.

August 2016, Volume 39, Issue 12

The average principal now spends only two to three years in each school. In fact, nearly 50 percent of new principals leave by their third year in the profession—while research shows that school leaders may need five years to make lasting changes.

What can school leaders and districts do to help fix and strengthen the pipeline?

The Wallace Foundation has created some promising pilot programs in school districts that may help to provide solutions. And the new main federal education law allows school districts new flexibility in using funds to prepare and support school leaders.

Research shows that inconsistent hiring timelines and inadequate recruiting have limited the pool of principal candidates. Unless these are fixed, districts will continue to struggle to identify strong candidates and to match principals with schools that fit their skills, talents, and experience.


The same way principals are dealing with teacher shortages in specific subjects or geographic areas, principal “churn” is particularly acute in high-poverty districts, where outstanding school leaders are needed most.

This is especially alarming because schools need an even more diverse set of candidates who can connect with today’s students. Demographics are changing: The National Center for Education Statistics says the number of Hispanic students in U.S. public schools has increased by 25 percent in the past decade. White students now represent less than half of the nation’s school enrollment.

And the demand for principals will only increase. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that rising student enrollment will increase demand for elementary, middle, and high school principals by 6 percent nationwide by the year 2022.

The consequences of high principal turnover are costly not only to districts, but they also have a negative impact on school culture, the School Leaders Network has found. Teachers and parents often express frustration with any new curricular and instructional efforts that require a consistent, sustained focus. One principal’s emphasis may be very different from that of the next. Research shows that student test scores often drop in the year after a leadership change.

NAESP recommends that districts and states increase scholarships and merit-based awards to encourage more great teachers, assistant principals, and other prospective school leaders to become a principal. Becoming a school leader often requires a graduate degree, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

In fact, the work at the local level to address this leadership challenge may be what matters most.

Emerging Programs Hold Promise

The Wallace Foundation, which supports some of NAESP’s work on school leadership, is devoting resources to help districts build their own principal pipelines and improve support for principals.

The foundation’s Principal Pipeline effort began in 2011 and provides funding for six school districts across the nation. The pipeline programs in each district focus on setting clear standards about what principals must know and be able to do, strong pre-service training tailored to the district, selective hiring that matches candidates with schools that fit them best, and regular evaluation of principals’ work and continuing professional learning.

What do the results show so far?

“Assistant principals, as the people most likely to step into the top school leadership slot, need development and support, too, and that data systems tracking principals’ training, qualifications and performance in schools can help districts in hiring and … improving pre-service training,” the foundation reports.

Another Wallace Foundation program, the Principal Supervisor Initiative, was launched in 2014 in eight other school districts, and seeks to provide principals with effective supervision that focuses on supporting school leaders and their ability to bolster classroom instruction—rather than the old-school compliance model.

These projects support the foundation’s ideas for a new type of principal pipeline, focusing less on finding a steady stream of candidates and more on having specific candidates with the right skills and experiences that schools need. This includes high-quality internships that provide leadership experience in schools, a collaborative leadership approach, the application of standards for school leaders, and continuing evaluation and support.

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Districts are building their own pipeline programs to address needs that traditionally haven’t been met by university-based preparation programs. District-level leaders have been largely dissatisfied with those programs, The Wallace Foundation has found, citing educator surveys. The course of study in these programs often hasn’t reflected principals’ jobs, yet programs have been too slow to change, the foundation contends.

Getting to Work

Schools and districts now can use more federal funding to support school leadership development at the local level.

The new Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces the No Child Left Behind Act as the main federal law governing preK-12 education, expands opportunities for districts and states to improve the quality of school leaders, a new report from The RAND Corporation shows.

Investment in the ongoing development and support of principals must be “evidence-based” under the new law, and there are specific requirements for such programs. States and districts must take advantage of the opportunities to direct funds to support principals to improve student outcomes, but the strategies must be supported by research or some level of proof. (See the report for more details on what the law specifies.)

The law also stipulates that any comprehensive school reform measures by states and districts must include principal development. Improvements in principal preparation programs can lead to greater levels of student success as an evidence-based practice, RAND argues.

There’s no doubt that school leadership can be a powerful driver for improving student success. It’s now up to districts and states to further this work.

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