Districts see room for growth in principal hiring practices

Effective school leadership is now considered a necessary part of improving schools, according to a new RAND Corp. survey of 192 district leaders across the country. Ninety percent of the 175 leaders from districts with at least 10,000 students responded that school leadership is tied to school improvement in district goals, strategic plans and other district activities.

But large districts — those with over 50,000 students — are more likely than medium-sized ones to have many principal pipeline activities that have been found to increase student achievement. These include having leader standards, having a process for recruiting aspiring leaders and providing coaching to all first-year principals. 

In addition, the survey showed, less than half of the 175 respondents expressed moderate to high satisfaction with their principal candidate pool.

The darker bars indicate where the differences between large and medium districts were statistically significant.

RAND Corp.



The RAND Corp. survey is intended to get a better understanding of how many districts have implemented pipeline programs and where gaps in developing such programs remain. 

“The report confirms real interest in and attention to pipelines,” said Jody Spiro, the director of education leadership at the Wallace Foundation, which commissioned the study as a follow-up to RAND’s evaluation of the foundation’s five-year Principal Pipeline Initiative. 

The results, however, suggest many districts “don’t have the kind of comprehensive, aligned pipelines that got the student achievement outperformance in the earlier RAND study,” she added.

That research, conducted in six large, urban districts, showed pipeline activities can improve both student achievement outcomes and principal retention.

A desire for more diversity

The survey also shows about half of those interviewed said their districts don’t have enough principals with diverse ethnicities. But they “did not say much about strategies they were using to improve the diversity of their principal workforce,” the report said. 

Just last week, researchers at the University of Delaware and Texas A&M University-Commerce released a study using Texas data showing equally qualified Black assistant principals were 18% less likely to be promoted than white candidates. When they did become principal, it took 5.27 years, compared to 4.67 for white candidates.

The RAND researchers recommended districts learn from existing efforts to diversify the teacher workforce. For example, work released last year by REL Northwest, one of the U.S. Department of Education’s regional research labs, showed posting available positions and hiring early, as well as offering competitive salaries and benefits, were among the practices found in districts that were more effective at hiring teachers of color. 

The authors also suggested “better and more assessments of interpersonal skills and leadership styles” could help districts evaluate administrators in the pipeline.

Anne Wicks — who leads the Education Reform Initiative at the George W. Bush Presidential Center and has been working with four districts on principal recruitment, training, support, compensation and evaluation — stressed that all components of the pipeline are interconnected. 

“If you are just posting and crossing your fingers and hoping for the best, you’ll end up dissatisfied,” she said, adding it’s important for districts to track where they’re getting their principals and to have “an articulated pathway” for teacher leaders and assistant principals who want to become school leaders.

Differences between large, medium districts 

The RAND report also showed wide variation in districts’ principal hiring procedures, ranging from a paper screening, an interview and a reference check to far more extensive steps. One respondent described a process that includes interviews prior to being moved into a candidate pool and then additional interviews involving parents, teachers and district-level staff.

“We are trying to gauge what candidates know about professional learning communities, instruction, data analysis, team building, planning and assessment, dealing with challenging discipline problems, and employees, employee growth and communication,” the district leader said. “We also have a writing sample, with prompts based on real-life scenarios. We are looking at open-ended question and real-world interview responses.” 

Wicks noted it’s also important for districts to make sure they’re not “still using the job description [they’ve] had for the past eight to 10 years” and to look at whether the language might be discouraging to educators considering leadership.

Interviews with district leaders showed they were more satisfied with their principal candidates if they had four of the 10 pipeline activities in place — professional development and support for aspiring school leaders, working with at least one outside principal preparation program, using an evaluation that is standards-based, and providing coaching to all first-year principals.  

The authors suggested all districts could improve the methods they use to communicate which leadership standards they are using, such as national, state or locally developed standards. 

The results also showed significant differences between large and medium-sized districts in the number of components in place. 

Those differences were significantly different in regard to having leader standards, having a process for encouraging educators to pursue leadership, using performance-based hiring metrics, using a standards-aligned evaluation, and having a district-level person in charge of school leadership. 

A small, “exploratory” sample of districts with fewer than 10,000 students showed while they have some of the pipeline elements in place, they are less likely to have a “central office infrastructure” related to leadership development. 

The authors suggested larger districts with more developed pipeline programs might be “tapped to provide guidance and support to medium and small districts.”

Wicks said even in large districts, however, officials often don’t have the time to provide that kind of support. Still, she said, “districts love learning from each other,” and added lessons from the center’s work will begin rolling out this fall. 

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