This was written by Will Miller, president of The Wallace Foundation, an independent, national foundation that works to expand learning and enrichment opportunities for children. The foundation maintains an online library of lessons at

By Will Miller

Behind excellent teaching and excellent schools are excellent principals. A decade of research has shown that school leadership is second in importance only to classroom teaching among school-related factors that contribute to student learning. Indeed, the same research found virtually no documented instances of low-performing schools turning around without effective principals.

Despite this, far too many schools languish under the leadership of principals who lack the training and support they need to carry out their primary responsibility: boosting student achievement.

To help remedy that, The Wallace Foundation is launching a new, $75-million initiative to help six urban school districts – including Prince George’s County Public Schools – take two big steps: develop a much larger corps of school principals who can effectively lead district schools; and determine whether and how this improves student achievement, especially in schools with the greatest needs.

The initiative aims to strengthen what we call “principal pipelines,” or the systems that develop school leaders. Good pipelines can be built, we believe, when districts ensure that four key tasks are accomplished: districts set rigorous job requirements for principals; university and other programs provide high-quality training to aspiring school leaders; districts hire selectively; and principals receive strong on-the-job support, meaning their performance is regularly reviewed according to the right measures and their professional development is focused on strengthening areas where they need to do better.

The six-year initiative will create strong local “principal pipelines” in Prince George’s and the five other participating districts – Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina; Denver; Gwinnett County near Atlanta; Hillsborough County in the Tampa area, and New York City. We selected these districts from 90 candidates we reviewed because they already have serious efforts under way to groom qualified principals.

Importantly for us, training for future principals is central to the school improvement strategies of each of these districts. Prince George’s currently both runs its own training program for aspiring principals and assistant principals and engages a respected national nonprofit training program to prepare additional candidates.

Together, however, the two programs have trained only about half of the principals the district needs. Wallace funding of $3.6 million this year and potentially $12.5 million over five years will enable the district to hire the nonprofit National Institute for School Leadership to develop a better curriculum for principals, work with Bowie State University and the University of Maryland University College to redesign their education leadership training programs, and introduce a special district program for high-quality principal candidates who are not selected for immediate openings but who could fill future ones.

Improving training is not the only target of the initiative, however. Districts will create detailed standards for principals and assistant principals and use them to shape procedures for more selective hiring. In addition, currently in Prince George’s, a principal’s performance review is informal, typically relying on a supervisor’s assessment of materials compiled by each leader to demonstrate his or her work. The grant will help the district introduce validated standardized assessments that measure leader behaviors that research has shown are most closely tied to improving the quality of teaching and learning. Student achievement data also will, for the first time, factor into the evaluation.

Over the course of the initiative, our aim is to enable the six districts to develop the capacity to replace all of their retiring principals and assistant principals with graduates of high-quality training programs. In Prince George’s, the district expects to train and hire 125 high-quality principals by the fifth year of the grant, which is expected by that time to represent 64 percent of its principal seats. Moreover, the initiative will allow districts to evaluate the performance of these novice school leaders and then provide them with mentoring and other forms of professional development.

Equally important: independent researchers will issue a series of public reports on what works and what doesn’t in putting together a district-wide pipeline – including, when enough time has passed to provide good evidence, a public report on whether the improved pipeline and its new principals actually improve students’ achievement.

This effort builds on Wallace’s ten-year investment in strengthening school leadership. Our goal is that these six partnerships, coupled with independent research, will benefit not just the participating districts, but districts nationwide by providing a valid evidence-based answer to a crucial question: Can a strong principal pipeline improve teaching quality and student achievement district-wide? We believe the answer could provide a key missing piece of the school reform puzzle.


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