Why a School Leadership Policy Toolkit?

How to Use the School Leadership Policy Toolkit


Much of the education policy advocacy in recent years has focused on improving teacher quality. But too often, the ‘human-capital’ reform strategy has missed a key element—strengthening school leadership. Whether we’re trying to raise the bar for instruction or expand school options for parents, there’s little that can be done to successfully improve schools without strong school leaders. Yet not only have advocates tended to focus too little on this area, but state leaders have neglected it as well. Most states lack a coherent strategy for school leadership, even though it’s clearly a fundamental piece of the puzzle.

Luckily, this mindset is slowly shifting as advocacy leaders and policymakers begin to focus on what makes a great principal and how to get more of them in the schools that need them most. This school leadership policy toolkit is designed to support those reform efforts.

A review of the research and literature around school leadership policies reveals five key policy areas, around which this toolkit is built:

Pathways & Pipelines – How do principals become principals? What do preparation programs look like? What does it take to become a principal? How do districts and schools grow and recruit school leaders?
Distributed Leadership – How can teachers lead from within their schools? How can principals delegate some of their authority to teachers?
Autonomy & Empowerment – What authority do principals have to make decisions regarding personnel and budget? Are principals empowered to move quickly and flexibly to meet the needs of their students, educators, and families?
Principal Evaluation – How are principals evaluated by district leaders? Is their performance measured by multiple indicators of school success, including progress of students and staff growth and satisfaction?
Retention & Compensation – How are states and districts incentivizing the best principals to continue to lead? Do districts have the flexibility and tools to make school leadership an attractive long-term career prospect?

The school leadership policy toolkit is intended to assist advocacy groups in sifting through leadership research to develop a strategy for making improvements in their own states. We identify clear components that states should have in place, and models and experts in the field from which advocates can learn.

That’s not to say there is a defined approach that every state should take. Improving school leadership demands a multi-faceted, state-specific strategy that considers a combination of state policy, state leadership, and district practice. In some instances, a change in state policy can work well to move the needle, for example by removing statutory barriers that prevent non-traditional candidates from entering the principal pipeline. In other instances, policy reform isn’t the solution; rather, the state can provide guidance to districts and schools to help them address their long-term staffing, capacity, and programmatic needs.

What’s included in the School Leadership Policy Toolkit?

An overview of the importance of principals and how their roles and time should be structured.

The five policy sections, which include:

  • A brief review of the available research and findings you’ll need to understand the policy more fully, as well as potential barriers to reform.
  • An advocacy piece designed to communicate to policymakers and stakeholders why they should take action.
  • Model policy, if appropriate.
  • A list of available resources and experts for more information.

An illustration of how each of the five policy areas work together and interact with other state-level policy reforms.

A matrix detailing proposed state actions and policy recommendations for each policy area.

Getting Started

The lack of a coherent strategy for school leadership in most states presents an opportunity to develop a comprehensive plan that both reflects the best research and aligns to other reforms being implemented (like new teacher evaluations and turning around low-performing schools). Ideally, the state department of education leads the way on the strategy development. But in some states, the department may lack the capacity, bandwidth, or the will to take the lead. In this situation, advocacy groups and stakeholders can play a more prominent role.

Every state needs an overall strategy (or combination of strategies) for school leadership. Questions to consider include:

  • Does the strategy articulate a clear vision for school leadership in the state?
  • Does the strategy identify existing strengths of the state policy environment on which to build, and challenges to address?
  • Is the strategy data-driven and informed by research?
  • Are there clearly defined goals and metrics to measure success of the strategy?
  • Are the roles of the state and districts clearly delineated?
  • Are there timelines associated with achieving those goals?
Be Coordinated & Comprehensive:

Improving school leadership should not be viewed as something that can be solved piecemeal. These materials provide an array of options that can be tailored to fit the best path forward for your particular state.

But keep in mind that policies and actions are interdependent. That is, the impact of strengthening the talent pipeline will be minimal if new principals aren’t supported and the best principals aren’t retained over the long run. In order for a state to develop and deploy a strong corps of effective principals, its reforms must be coordinated and comprehensive in scope.

The Evolving Role of the Principal

Over time, the role of the principal has expanded and evolved to encompass a wide array of expectations. Second only to teachers, principal effectiveness is the most important in-school factor that influences student achievement. Today, a principal’s role is to;

Foster an environment in which students learn and grow and educators share responsibility for providing high-quality instruction.
Provide overall leadership and strategic vision, manage day-to-day operations, and ensure the school has the necessary resources and supports to meet its goals.

Principals also lead implementation of many school-based education reforms such as new teacher evaluations or rollout of new curriculum aligned with Common Core standards, and they may be responsible for establishing new schools or turning around low-performing schools. Community and parent engagement is also an integral part of the job.

Not surprisingly, there is no single mold for a great principal, nor a single list of characteristics. Being a strong school leader is all about what the principal does to impact both the school environment and the classroom to influence student outcomes.

The right focus on instruction

Principals have more impact when they foster a college-going school culture and a safe, orderly climate. Involvement in daily classroom instruction only marginally impacts student achievement and can negatively impact teacher morale.

Success relies on a delicate balance of leadership (setting a high bar, focusing on meaningful data, clearing obstacles) and coaching (including leadership development among master teachers and trainers).

Building and maintaining a strong instructional team

Some principal-led activities, like teacher coaching, evaluation, leadership development, and developing the school’s academic program, directly relate to student achievement gains.

Strong principals also impact teacher retention. Teachers take their cues from the culture established by the leader; effective teachers are less likely to leave if they have faith in leadership.

Managing the school to meet its goals

Principal management and school success are linked; principals with stronger organizational management skills (e.g., personnel, budgeting) that are successful operating within the confines of the system tend to lead schools that demonstrate greater student achievement gains. Every principal should feel empowered to make the best decisions for their school and their students.

Learn more

  • Pamela Mendels, Senior Writer, The Wallace Foundation
  • Christine Campbell, Policy Director and Senior Research Analyst, Center on Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington Bothell
  • Susanna Loeb, Professor and Faculty Director, Center for Education Policy Analysis, Stanford University
  • Gina Ikemoto, Ph.D., Executive Director of Research and Policy Development, New Leaders

Determining Needs & Strategies

Specific needs will vary by state, but generally fall into three areas: not enough principals to meet demand, principal quality needs improvement, or districts and schools struggle with retaining their best principals.

Not enough principals to meet demand: Districts should be planning ahead, not only for recruitment needs, but also for succession. Strategic planning recognizes not just the number of projected vacancies, but also the different needs among them (e.g., chronically low-performing schools need stronger leadership).

States need to know whether existing pipelines are providing the requisite number and quality of leaders needed, yet principal supply should not outpace demand. Program diversity should reflect the diversity of district needs across the state, and states should utilize alternative certification routes to expand and enhance the candidate pool.

Principal quality needs improvement: Principal effectiveness is a good indicator of whether a school can be successful in meeting the needs of students and educators. All principals, regardless of their level of experience or performance, deserve regular reviews and feedback on performance. Development and coaching options should be tailored to meet the needs of each principal. States can expand the reach of resource investments by tracking how they’re used, creating flexibility to blend different funding streams, and linking outcomes to expenditures.
Districts and schools struggle with retaining their best principals: Successful retention efforts maintain stability in school leadership and keep the best people in place longer. States should identify and provide support to districts that struggle with retention, as well as think strategically about improving retention statewide. States should also be concerned with whether effective principals are in the places most needed and whether they are distributed equitably.

Collecting the Right Data

By collecting the right data and aligning it to the right objectives, states can take action to address these needs.

Unfortunately, collection and use of good data is more of an ideal than a practice in most states. Using the basic data categories below, you can take stock of which questions your state is equipped to answer. Solving data deficits where identified should be a high priority.

Number of current and projected vacancies by district and school type. (Are states and districts planning ahead?)
Principal administrative data that shows for each principal: years on the job, years in current school placement, name and type of school, diversity characteristics, name of preparation program and year of completion, evaluation data, and movement pattern among schools and districts. (Are districts able to hire the right principals for the right jobs?)
School performance data that can be disaggregated by type, region, and student demographics, and linked to principal and teacher assignment and evaluation data. (Are principals making an impact?)
Preparation program data including information on candidate recruitment, where graduates are hired, graduate performance in the first few years in a leadership position, and the percentage of programs that serve non-traditional candidates. (Are preparation programs meeting demand and preparing high-quality principals?)
Leadership development and support expenditures at the state and district level, including the percentage of federal Title II dollars spent in these areas. (Are resources for development and retention being spent strategically to meet the needs of schools and districts?)

Taking Informed Action

The tables below bring the elements of the statewide strategy together—targeting needs and then identifying strategies that states can take, the data and measures that need to be tracked, and expected outcomes.



Issue: Not enough principals to meet demand

Micro Issue Action / Activities Measures / Data Needed Outcomes
Too few principals entering and completing the pipeline

Work with districts to collect robust data and project vacancies more accurately and strategically

Make the principalship more attractive by strengthening compensation, autonomy, and training

Vacancies collected and projected by region and school type (urban, rural, suburban, high-performing, turnaround)

Number of leadership preparation program graduates by region and school type

Stronger data system and planning processes that help district leaders to address not only their recruitment needs, but also prepare for succession

More principal candidates apply for positions from local preparation programs, are matched to specific schools based on need, and are retained at higher rates

Pipeline too narrow / barriers to entry

Create additional flexibility in licensing requirements

Establish additional pathways through alternative routes

Percentage of leadership preparation programs that allow non-traditional candidates to apply

Percentage of candidates who have applied and been hired by the state/district, disaggregated by race and ethnicity

Alternative certification routes that expand and enhance the candidate pool

Program diversity reflects the diversity of district needs across the state

Hiring and training are not strategic

Eliminate burdensome state hiring procedures

Create clearinghouse for best practices in talent hiring

Percentage of vacancies not filled within 60 days of start of school year

Percentage of schools led by effective principals (as defined by evaluation system) by performance level and student demographics (high-performing, low-performing, race, SES, ELL, etc.)

Principals are in place at their schools in advance of school year

Effective principals are distributed equitably across districts and the state



Issue: Principal quality needs improvement

Micro Issue Action / Activities Measures / Data Needed Outcomes
Principal prep programs are not high quality

Develop accountability system for prep programs

Percentage of leadership preparation program graduates employed in the position of school leader within 2 years of program completion

Percentage of principals in their 1st or 2nd year who have been evaluated as effective or better

Leadership preparation programs whose graduates are evaluated as effective or better in years 1, 2, & 3

Fewer leadership graduates are unemployable

Principals are prepared to succeed upon appointment to their post

State and districts lack effectiveness data

Ensure state data systems are collecting the information needed to track effectiveness over time

Require performance evaluations at district level that have a growth measure

Establish state-level guidelines, training, and default evaluation system

Percentage of schools led by a principal who was evaluated in the past year

Percentage of principals evaluated as below effective

Percentage of students and teachers satisfied with their school principal, by school and district

All principals, regardless of effectiveness or years on the job, receive feedback to help them improve

Improvement in principal effectiveness can be correlated with growth in school performance, as well as student and teacher satisfaction

Principals lack support

Require districts to link professional development to areas identified as needing improvement in the performance evaluation

Establish state information warehouse for development and coaching best practices

Principals in need of particular supports by region and school type, as identified by performance evaluations

Percentage of principals who improve on their evaluations over a 3-year period

Principals receive professional development relative to the challenges identified in their evaluation, and demonstrate growth in those same areas within 2 years

Struggling principals receive greater support, and demonstrate growth within 1 year.

Turnaround principals receive targeted supports and resources, and demonstrate significant school improvement within 2 years.



Issue: Districts and schools are losing their best principals

Micro Issue Action / Activities Measures / Data Needed Outcomes
Principal retention is a problem

Make the principalship more attractive by strengthening compensation, autonomy, and training

Assist districts in creating growth opportunities that span the course of career

Retention rates by district, school type, region, and performance levels

Percentage of effective principals who have been in their current school assignment for more than 3 years

Percentage of effective principals who leave their district, by district

Districts demonstrate relative stability in principal tenure, and effective principals remain in place longer

Districts retain at least 75% of their effective principals each year

Principals lack authority and autonomy

Eliminate mandates related to personnel rules

Reform outdated and overly burdensome procurement systems

Remove barriers to spending flexibility at school level

Retention rates for non-traditional principals

Percentage of effective principals who leave the profession, by district

The vast majority of principals report that they have the authority and tools to be successful

Schools lack distributed leadership

Create state-level standards and certifications for school leadership roles at multiple levels

Percentage of schools and districts that offer effective teachers with over 5 years of experience at least 2 teacher leadership roles or opportunities

Principals report that they rely on teacher leadership to assist with key responsibilities

More teachers gain new leadership certifications

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