Developing a High-Quality and Diverse Principal Pipeline
What do you remember about your favorite principal? I, for one, have vivid memories of the fearless leader of Cossitt Elementary in La Grange, Illnois, Principal Tavegia — a permanent fixture of my grade school experience — greeting me in the hallways with a warm smile, always ready to talk about my day. One morning, after noticing I didn’t greet her back, she asked me what was wrong. I proceeded to launch into an long-winded complaint about my older brother, and while I don’t remember the specifics, I can safely assume he was hiding my favorite Legos again. Principal Tavegia patiently listened, offered some advice suitable for a second grader, and ushered me to my homeroom. Later that evening, I approached my brother and said, “Mrs. Tavegia said that now it’s my turn to tell my side of the story,” and to the shock of my parents, we started having a relatively formal debate.
Little did I know back then about the tremendous influence that high-quality principals have over their schools: A good principal raises student outcomes, cultivates accepting communities, closes academic gaps that separate students of color from their peers, and ensures classrooms are staffed with strong teachers from diverse backgrounds. Amid this confusing pandemic recovery and the influx of historic federal funding, it is more important than ever that schools have exceptional leaders at the helm. That’s why state policymakers must focus on expanding and improving principal preparation programs.
In recent years, the Wallace Foundation has invested heavy resources into programs that sharpen local and state policies and practices to better support school leaders. In 2016, they created the ESSA Leadership Learning Community (ELLC), followed by the University Principal Preparation Initiative (UPPI). Both initiatives varied considerably in scope and aim: ELLC brought districts, community groups, and state agencies together to discuss effective school leadership, while UPPI focused on redesigning university-led principal preparation programs.
Both programs successfully brought together relevant stakeholders and strengthened supports for school leaders. A report by Policy Studies Associates found that ELLC teams consistently built and maintained working coalitions with state, district, and community partners that advised state agencies on ESSA, designed new and altered existing programs for principals, and created new resources for the field. Additionally, a RAND Corporation analysis concluded that UPPI teams aligned university principal preparation program curricula to frameworks and standards, made clinical experiences more authentic and personalized, and ultimately facilitated a more collaborative and targeted process for principal recruitment.
To summarize the impact of their two principal preparation programs, the Wallace Foundation published “States as Leaders, Followers, and Partners: Lessons from the ESSA Leadership Learning Community and the University Principal Preparation Initiative.” In it, Paul Manna points out that the success of these initiatives illustrates a simple but foundational fact: No matter what form a principal preparation program takes, state-level policymakers and education agencies have powerful influence over shaping and advancing the principalship.
Manna explains that state policymakers yield potent levers that can ensure current and future principal preparations programs develop a high-quality, diverse cohort of school leaders. This is key. School leaders of color, in particular, provide strong instructional leadership while creating an equity-oriented and welcoming school environment. Attracting, hiring, and retaining teachers of color benefit all students — especially students of color. And when school leaders of color lead teachers and students of color, these positive effects are magnified. Many of the levers Manna includes match those highlighted in two Ed Trust briefs, Increasing School Leadership in Georgia, and 5 Things State and District Leaders Can Do to Advance Strong and Diverse School Leadership, such as:
Adopting principal leadership standards into law
State standards serve as crucial guidance for schools and districts as they build new leadership programs. When grounded in research with input from current principals, standards outline the foundational elements of school leadership that principal preparation programs should follow to produce exceptional leaders. By setting high standards for accrediting school leader preparation programs, state leaders can also ensure that they are preparing leaders from diverse backgrounds who are ready to meet the needs of underserved students.
Implementing policies to recruit, license, and develop principals
In a national survey of over 100 district leaders, only half of them indicated that there is a defined pathway to the principalship. State leaders can address this issue by offering training to local hiring teams, connecting school districts with high-quality preparation programs, emphasizing best practices, funding high-quality programs, and establishing communities of practice and technical assistance for districts looking to audit their recruitment practices. For example, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has funded principal residency programs at four universities to provide financial support to principal candidates as they undergo clinical training.
After being recruited and licensed, principals must receive continued professional development. State leaders can form partnerships with universities, especially HBCUs or nonprofits, to offer opportunities for additional learning, training, and mentoring. Not only is continuous professional development associated with positive student outcomes, but programs intentionally designed with an equity lens can help principals deepen their understanding of the structural racism that students of color face.
Approving and monitoring principal preparation programs
Through approval, states can ensure that active principal preparation programs operate in accordance with state standards and offer affordable and equitable pathways to licensure. To effectively monitor principal preparation programs, states must require the public reporting of candidate demographic data, disaggregated by race and ethnicity, every year. Relevant data opens the floodgates for policy change—without it, district and state policymakers cannot make the evidence-based decisions required for the growth and development of successful principal preparation programs.
While my grade school days are long behind me, I now understand just how remarkable Principal Tavegia was. She forged partnerships with the local Science Center to give students early exposure to STEM, fostered an in-school environment where teachers and school staff felt protected, and made it her utmost priority to involve the community in her decision making. Principals do so much good for their schools yet are so often denied the training and supports necessary to develop into profound leaders. With concerted effort from policymakers to build and monitor principal pipelines and development opportunities, state leaders can ensure all schools have excellent leaders who elevate and address the needs of their teachers and students.