Building principal pipelines is worth the price – and might cost less than you think

Over the last few weeks in Lexington, South Carolina, NYC Leadership Academy facilitators have been working with district staff and aspiring principals to talk about leadership standards. District leaders have been analyzing school data to establish goals for improving their schools and to understand how school culture affects student learning. Likewise, in Yonkers, New York, 15 aspiring principals have begun their leadership journeys by identifying the values that motivate them to lead for equity while codifying those ideas into personal vision narratives. We’re doing this work in Washington, D.C., Maricopa County, Arizona, and Rochester, New York, too.

This is how principal pipelines get built. But, in our 14 years of developing school leaders directly and helping districts build their capacity to do that work, we have seen a lot of districts shy away from the hard work and, more to the point, the expense of creating systems that will develop and support school leaders. Meanwhile, principal pipelines have sprouted leaks in state after state: Principals tend to leave their schools after three or four years. Some private and parochial school systems report the average tenure of a school principal is 2.8 years. That is hardly long enough to effect any positive change in a school. In fact, student achievement tends to fall when a principal leaves. It is only after a principal has been at a school for at least five years, research has found, that student test scores rise, and student absences and suspensions and teacher turnover fall. Meanwhile, nationwide, districts struggle to fill open principal jobs with strong candidates, particularly in urban districts.

School systems need strong leadership pipelines. Last week, we got some potentially promising news. 

The RAND Corporation released a fascinating analysis of just how much it costs to develop and maintain a principal pipeline. The researchers analyzed the work of six urban school districts that, with support from The Wallace Foundation over the last several years, have developed and/or improved their principal pipelines.

The NYC Leadership Academy’s work developing aspiring principals and supporting sitting principals in New York City was a part of the Wallace initiative and a subject of RAND’s research, along with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Denver Public Schools, Gwinnett County Public Schools, Hillsborough County Public Schools, and Prince George’s County Public Schools.

The study found that for all principal pipeline activities, across the five years of the initiative, participating districts spent about 0.4% of their budgets on the pipeline. That came to a total of $5.6 million per district per year, or $31,000 per principal and $42 per student annually.

To put that in perspective, districts typically spend between 5 and 10 percent of their budgets on teacher professional development, according to TNTP, or up to $26,000 per teacher annually. It shouldn’t be either/or. Both are important and sorely needed. To ensure a coherent strategy for achieving a district’s vision, leadership needs to be nurtured at all levels of a system.

So what does a principal pipeline look like? How did these districts use their precious resources to create effective pipelines? Researchers identified a few particularly promising practices put in place by each of the districts, and analyzed the cost of each stream of work:

Agreed upon set of leadership standards that guides the pipeline work

  • This is the least expensive part of the pipeline, costing about $292 per principal per year, $0.41 per student, or $90,300 per district.
  • More than 80% of this work went to personnel time to develop and improve standards.

Pre-service preparation

  • $9,386 per principal, $13.42 per student
  • More than 75% of costs were devoted to delivery of training; in districts that offer stipends for residencies, those also represented a chunk of the costs.

Selective hiring and placement

  • $2,895 per principal, or $3.57 per student
  • Half of these costs were devoted to investments in revising hiring systems.

On-the-job support and evaluation

  • Represented 47% of pipeline expenditures
  • $13,956 per principal, or $18.53 per student
  • Most resources ($11,000/principal) devoted to on-the-job support for principals and assistant principals, such as coaching, mentoring, principal supervision and materials for ongoing professional development.

My hope is that these findings grab the attention of districts and states. Creating a principal pipeline is a sound, and potentially affordable investment. I have no doubt that most districts know all too well the importance of this work. Now, as they look at their budgets, they can ask, given the negative impact the lack of a strong school leader has on student learning, “Can we afford NOT to spend a mere .4% of our budget to develop a pipeline of great principals?”

About the Author — Marlene Filewich

Marlene Filewich is Vice President for School Leadership Programs at the NYC Leadership Academy and a former district superintendent in the Bronx, NY.

Given the negative impact the lack of a strong school leader has on student learning, can district leaders afford not to spend a mere .4% of their budgets to develop a pipeline of great principals?

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