Strengthening Leadership Capacity: Investing in the Future

By Carol Riley
February 2015, Volume 38, Issue 6

Cynthia Roberts, a fifth-year principal, is a confident, assured and skilled leader who contributes to not only the growth of her school but to the strength of the district leadership. She was supported in her position by a school district with a strong vision for the most important position in the public school organization: the school principal. The district invested in her development from aspiring principal to experienced school leader. Her transition from classroom teacher of 25 students to leading a school of 600 students was well orchestrated, planned and implemented.

How can other districts achieve the same outcomes with their school-based leaders?

The Wallace Foundation, which has invested in a multi-year Principal Pipeline Initiative to improve school leadership, provides significant direction. It has emphasized the examination of the systemic process that supports the path from identifying aspiring principals, to creating hiring standards, to examining evaluation procedures to supporting novice principals through professional development in their early years. This process includes an attentive eye on the development of leadership tracking systems for continuous feedback and to ensure evidence-based practices are in place.


The third in a series of reports, Building a Stronger Principalship: Districts Taking Charge of the Principal Pipeline, was recently released by The Wallace Foundation. It provides insight into how a district can create an environment in which school leadership is approached with a strong vision and investment within the structure of the system. The initiative’s progress analysis was conducted by Policy Studies Associates, Inc. and RAND.

The Principal Pipeline Initiative began with a grant award in 2011 to six urban school districts which had been working towards building a stronger caliber of leaders but were experiencing the need to examine the preparation and career progression of their leaders. The five districts are:

  • Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, North Carolina
  • Denver Public Schools, Colorado
  • Gwinnett County Public Schools, Georgia
  • Hillsborough County Public Schools, Florida
  • New York City Department of Education, New York
  • Prince George’s County Public Schools, Maryland

Many lessons are to be learned through the experiences of these districts. Their strategy for strengthening school leadership encompassed four domains for policy and practice:

  1. Leadership standards that provide the framework for preparation, selection, evaluation, and support.
  2. Preservice preparation that includes selective admissions to high-quality programs.
  3. Selective hiring, and placement based on the needs of the school aligned with the leader’s strengths.
  4. On-the-job evaluation and support addressing the capacity to improve teaching and learning.

The six districts continuously made decisions based on data and increased their capacity to move towards results efficiently and quickly. The long term outcomes will result in new policies and practices building that leadership pipeline. The report analyzes progress over a three year period by each district through interviews, focus groups, surveys, documents, and observations.

Cultivating leadership in a systemic way has returns for a school district that far outlast the current reality in organizations. With focused goals and outcomes, leadership is supported in ways that ensure the best conditions for school growth and student achievement. The Wallace Foundation, with over 70 years of research reports, has identified five effective practices that principals perform with efficacy that will make a difference in improving learning for all students. The five practices are:

  1. Shaping a vision of academic success;
  2. Creating a climate hospitable to education;
  3. Cultivating leadership in others;
  4. Improving instruction;
  5. Managing people, data and processes to foster school improvement.

The National Association of Elementary School Principals provides webinars, focused dialogue seminars, collegial sessions, and leadership training to support an environment where the five key practices are equally put into practice. Delivering supports such as mentoring and coaching have positive results by the school districts to individualize professional development. Leadership evaluation provided by knowledgeable supervisors was implemented by districts using a variety of tools with standards-based criteria.

Recognizing talent, cultivating leadership, and implementing capacity building policies and procedures to create an environment in which leaders can engage in a continuous growth model based on evidence-based practices is the ideal environment to improve school leadership. Cynthia Roberts, the fifth-year principal mentioned in the opening of this article, was fortunate to be in a system that had the necessary elements to allow her to perform her job with passion, skill, and talent.

The National Association of Elementary School Principals will continue to report on The Wallace Foundation research and projects. The Principal Pipeline Reports can be accessed through

Carol Riley is NAESP’s Associate Executive Director, Professional Learning and Outreach.

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