In 2013, as I was grappling with yet another high school calculus lecture, a school administrator knocked on the classroom door, quietly made eye contact, and signaled “follow me” with her hands. Nervously, I packed up my things and we walked down the hallway toward the administrative wing, with my mind desperately trying to explain this sudden summoning. As it turned out, my anxieties were unwarranted — our superintendent wanted to personally invite me to serve as a student representative on the hiring panel for our school’s upcoming principal selection.

While everything about the process seemed normal at the time, looking back, I am amazed at the makeup of the interview team. It was a racially diverse panel consisting of a dozen teachers, students, administrators, support faculty, and community members. Since entering the education policy space, I reflect on this experience often. I now know that principal hiring is one of the many necessary elements to build an equitable and culturally responsive principal pipeline that many districts still lack.

Researchers and educators have known for decades that principals are integral for teacher retention and improved student outcomes. Recent studies show that principals of color are associated with higher math achievement, greater access to gifted programs, and lower suspension rates for students of color. Furthermore, some districts are more effective at hiring teachers of color and have built healthier partnerships with their communities when led by Black or Latino principals. However, national data still indicates that students of color are far less likely to encounter a school leader who matches their race or ethnicity — over 54% of students are students of color, whereas nearly 80% of principals are White.

As part of the growing desire to build equitable principal pipelines and close the student-principal racial gap, the Wallace Foundation published “A Culturally Responsive School Leadership Approach to Developing Equity-Centered Principals: Considerations for Principle Pipelines.” This report takes the Culturally Responsive School Leadership (CRSL) framework and applies it to the seven domains of comprehensive, aligned principal pipelines as developed by a decade-long research initiative funded by the Wallace Foundation.

As I previously blogged in Developing a High-Quality and Diverse Principal Pipeline, principals have tremendous influence over their schools. This Wallace report builds on that, clarifying that the key to creating diverse, sustainable principal pipelines involves embedding equity into every component of the principalship — from leadership standards and hiring, all the way to professional development opportunities for acting principals. District, state, and program leaders can build more equitable leader pipelines by starting with the following:

Centering Principal Standards Around Equity

In addition to adopting high-quality, community-driven principal standards into law, policymakers should ensure that all leader standards include equity-centered examples that boldly embrace aspects of identity such as race and ethnicity. Since formalized standards outline the core on-the-job competencies for principals, they have the power to influence scholars and practitioners focused on leadership, which may then trickle down to underlying principal supports — like preparation programs and professional development opportunities.

The CRSL framework suggests molding some leadership standards around each of its four strands of behavior that define equity-centered leadership: critical consciousness, inclusive school environments, culturally responsive instructional leadership, and culturally responsive community engagement.

Adopting New Recruitment and Retention Strategies

The hiring phase serves as a crucial opportunity to assess the commitment to equity in prospective principals and ensure a diverse set of stakeholders can weigh in on their new community leader. The CRSL framework encourages school leaders to incorporate interview questions that focus on candidates’ capacities to address unjust practices and acknowledge their own biases, create review processes led by diverse and culturally inclusive groups of educators and community members, and deliberately evaluate a candidate’s professional experiences confronting equity issues.

While high principal turnover received significant news coverage because of the pandemic, it has been an ongoing and formidable problem for many school districts. Every year, nearly one-fifth of all principals leave their school, with over half of that group leaving the profession entirely. Additionally, turnover is often worse at schools with fewer resources and more students of color. To combat increasing turnover of educational leaders, especially leaders of color, school administrators should ensure that principals are not forced into disciplinarian roles, as is often called the “invisible tax.” It is also important that principals of color have robust affinity groups that provide space to problem-solve in safe environments.

Investing in Principal Preparation Access and Reform

Unfortunately, high-quality principal preparation programs are not equitably distributed across the U.S.  — leaders at wealthier schools are more likely to attend preparation programs that provide important job-based learning opportunities like internships, problem-based or cohort-based preparation, and on-the-job mentorship. As highlighted in EdTrust’s brief, “5 Things State and District Leaders Can Do to Advance Strong and Diverse School Leadership,” state leaders have the capacity to address these inequalities by guaranteeing affordable principal licensure pathways statewide and purposefully steering principal preparation programs, via principal standards or guidance, to produce aspiring principals who are ready to meet the needs of all students.

Leaders at institutions of higher education and educator preparation programs also have an important role in the diversification of the principalship and the advancement of equity-based practices. For example, the CRSL framework encourages program leaders to eliminate the weight of admission requirements that screen out candidates of color but have little impact on success, like GRE scores, and use equity-focused instructional practices and culturally relevant curricula.

In reflecting upon my experience with the principal selection panel to my current understanding of the principalship, it is evident that building equitable and culturally sustainable principal pipelines is essential for the health of America’s education system. District, state, and program leaders must consciously work together to ensure that every possible facet of the principal pipeline, from preparation to retirement, is flush with equitable policies and practices. The CRSL framework, combined with an understanding of comprehensive and aligned principal pipelines, offers policymakers a powerful starting point for this work.