Research News

Study reveals how school districts can create principal pipelines to strengthen school leadership

by Jenna Somers

woman wearing glasses
Ellen Goldring

Effective principals have been shown to improve teacher and student outcomes as well as the culture and climate of schools. Now a new study provides insights on how school districts can develop principal pipelines to ensure schools are staffed with effective leaders.

Led by Ellen Goldring and Mollie Rubin, professors at Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development, the study examined 84 school districts across the country that participated in the Principal Pipeline Learning Community, sponsored by the Wallace Foundation. The districts received guidance and resources to plan and develop principal pipelines within their districts along seven reinforcing domains—or actions districts could take—to support the effective leadership of principals.

“Although principal pipelines are effective in developing school leaders, we have less understanding about central office structures and supports needed to develop and implement them. Our research describes how a group of school districts built principal pipelines, addressing factors that both facilitated and inhibited meeting the goals for their pipelines. The findings highlight the importance of considering how the work of principal pipelines is coordinated across central office departments and is aligned with district goals and priorities,” said Goldring, vice dean and Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy.

“Given strong evidence of the benefits of comprehensive, aligned principal pipelines—a systematic approach to developing and supporting school leaders—this report is a welcomed addition to the growing body of evidence about how to strengthen the principalship,” said Rotunda Floyd-Cooper, vice president for education leadership at The Wallace Foundation. “District leaders may find especially helpful learning about the enablers and barriers to making progress on building pipelines.”

Through a survey of PPLC participants and interviews with district central office leaders, the researchers discovered several key findings, including that districts prioritize equity and diversity in their pipelines. Ninety-two percent of survey respondents reported that “building leaders’ skills to improve equity of student experiences and outcomes” was either a “high” or “medium priority,” and 90 percent reported the same priority levels for “increasing diversity of school leaders (e.g., by race, ethnicity, gender).” While equity and diversity are priorities, 75 percent of district leaders reported that their districts were in the beginning stages of implementing efforts to achieve their goals.

The researchers also found that districts viewed pipelines as cohesive systems, and district leaders tailored pipeline activities to localized leadership development needs. Districts reviewed and redefined leadership standards to ensure consistency across positions within districts, and they expanded pathways to the principalship to include teacher leaders and assistant principals.

In various ways, district processes and leaders greatly benefitted pipeline development. A core team of central office staffers responsible for overseeing the pipeline was helpful, as was the support of stable superintendent leadership. Additionally, districts that intentionally created cross-departmental collaborations strengthened the cohesion of the pipeline. Notably, the PPLC occurred amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, which some districts seized as an opportunity to refine the necessary training and skills of principals to lead during unexpected and tumultuous periods.

Districts also encountered several obstacles to developing principal pipelines. Politically charged climates and a lack of clarity on goals made addressing equity and diversity difficult. Some central office leaders found little time to focus on pipeline activities. Superintendent and central office staff turnover, as well as a lack of communication between central office departments, created challenges for designing and implementing pipelines.

The research team recommends several actions of districts interested in developing principal pipelines, including that they consider pipelines for multiple leadership roles as part of a whole-system approach, connect pipelines to specific leadership needs and goals of the district, create a core central office team with dedicated leadership, and focus on diversifying school leadership and building principals’ skills in equity and inclusion.