Shoring Up the Pipeline

How to ensure the continued success of school leaders from recruitment to retirement.

This article is part of a series focusing on The Principal Pipeline, brought to you with support from The Wallace Foundation.

November, 2016, Volume 40, Issue 3

An effective school principal is one of the most important factors for student and school success. But with high turnover and looming shortages of principals nationally, education researchers are pointing to cracks in the pipelines for school leaders as one of the biggest challenges for public education in the next decade.

Previously, most principals stayed at the same school for 10 or more years, but principals’ tenures at their schools now average just over three years, says Gail Connelly, executive director of NAESP. Furthermore, principals are being tapped to take on higher-level district administration jobs, and assistant principals and teacher leaders are being recruited much earlier in their careers—before they have had time to master their current jobs—to take on leadership roles because of the need. And hiring teachers for school leadership roles leaves a void in the teaching field, which also is seeing critical shortages.

“Now we see a level of newness to the profession,” says Connelly. “This means that preparation is now more vitally important than in years past, when there would have been a more extended pathway to the career and more time to learn.”

NAESP is working with The Wallace Foundation to determine not only how to recruit better applicants but ensure that those leaders are able to handle the fast-paced and multi-faceted job. In a recent report on the principal pipeline, The Wallace Foundation noted that school leadership is an important factor impacting student learning: “Principals strongly shape the conditions for high-quality teaching and are the prime factor in determining whether teachers stay in high-needs schools. High-quality principals, therefore, are vital to the effectiveness of our nation’s public schools, especially those serving the children with the fewest advantages in life.”

The Principal Pipeline Initiative

In 2011, The Wallace Foundation launched the Principal Pipeline Initiative to help six school districts develop well-trained candidates. The initiative is examining four components that they believe will ultimately improve student learning:

  1. Clear standards that detail what principals must know and do;
  2. High-quality pre-service training programs that recruit high-potential candidates and provide them with training suitable for district schools;
  3. Selective hiring procedures that match well-trained principals with the right schools; and
  4. Regular evaluation of principals along with the provision of professional development and other support that helps them build on strengths and overcome weaknesses.

The Principal Pipeline Initiative already has led to several innovative programs and partnerships that the foundation believes will ultimately produce better principal candidates. These include partnerships between school districts and local universities to make their curriculum more relevant to the school district’s needs; apprenticeships to give more hands-on experience; programs that seek to match principal candidates with schools that have a need for their specific expertise; databases that help district leaders recruit and give feedback to candidates; and, once on the job, performance evaluations that focus on curricular and instructional skills and give meaningful feedback to help principals improve.

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One of the project’s preliminary findings is that assistant principals need ongoing professional development to help them become principals. These six school districts now have added supports specifically for the assistant principals.

The preliminary findings also led to the conclusion that “a dramatic change in the principal’s job is unlikely to stick unless principals get adequate support… if principals are to focus on instruction in classrooms, the principal’s bosses in the central office must help them do so.”

The Principal Supervisor Initiative

With that in mind, two years ago The Wallace Foundation launched the Principal Supervisor Initiative, which works in eight additional districts and seeks to strengthen school principals’ work by ensuring that they are effectively managed, allowing them to focus on classroom instruction over compliance matters. The Principal Supervisors are given training and support and a manageable number of principals; the school districts also build in supports to ensure a steady stream of new supervisors as current supervisors leave. The efforts will be studied in an independent evaluation that will help answer whether and how boosting the supervisor post leads to more effective principals.

The Wallace Foundation research also has found that the most significant administrator shortages have occurred in high-poverty and rural school districts.

Mary Ann Jobe, director of leadership development at AASA, the School Superintendents Association, routinely hears from rural superintendents who are having great difficulties recruiting principals and other administrators. Some have plenty of job applicants, she says, but find that those are not well-trained and lack basic skills for school leadership, improving instruction and the day-to-day duties of the job.

The quality of the higher education curriculum and ongoing training matter, some experts say. Many candidates are ill-prepared to become instructional leaders, having instead focused on “buildings, boilers and buses” in their coursework.

Opportunities for Support

Professional learning should not be limited to early career principals. School leaders “need a continuum of professional development beginning when they first enter as teachers all the way through the pipeline,” says Connelly.

To provide that continuum, NAESP offers essential support for principals in any stage of their career:

  • The National Panel of New Principals, which gathers and shares the experiences of new principals in their first and second year of the principalship.
  • Online learning opportunities including live and archived webinars, and regularly hosted Twitter chats (#NAESPChat) on topics important to principals.
  • An annual conference bringing together principals and educational thought leaders from around the country to learn, grow, and network.
  • The National Mentor Training and Certification Program, which provides a highly structured program that trains and certifies experienced principals to become mentors for new hires.

“These professional learning experiences emphasize systematic solutions for not just fixing pipeline ‘leaks,’ but ensuring solid pipelines that provide a continuum of leadership support for generations of principals,” Connelly says.

Copyright © 2016. National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP’s reprint policy.