Newswise — States often tread lightly when it comes to assuming a full role in improving principal quality. They are concerned, among other things, about overreach into an area—public education—where local authority is prized. But that doesn’t mean states have to be bystanders as interest in cultivating effective school leadership grows. Indeed, according to a RAND report published by Wallace last fall, states have seven key policy levers to consider pulling:

  • Setting principal standards
  • Recruiting promising candidates into the profession
  • Licensing new and veteran principals
  • Approving and overseeing principal preparation programs
  • Supporting principals’ growth with professional development
  • Evaluating principals
  • Supporting “leader tracking systems,” online systems to collect and analyze data on aspiring and established school leaders.

The report,Using State-level Policy Levers to Promote Principal Quality, examines how seven states have pulled these levers, or not, as well as what helps and hinders effective use of the levers.  A new infographic​ also details what pulling the levers can entail as well as the degree to which the seven states have used each one. The states—California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia—are part of Wallace’s University Principal Preparation Initiative, an effort bringing together university-based preservice school leadership programs, school districts and states to improve principal training. 

We spoke via email with Susan Gates, a senior researcher at RAND and the lead author of the report, to find out more about using state policy levers for better school leadership. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the main lesson of your study for states that may be eyeing the principalship and considering what steps to take to improve it?

When setting policy priorities related to the principalship, states need to consider the mix of policy levers they are currently using compared with the full range of options we outline in the report. What are you doing that is working well? What is not working so well? Think about how your successes could be leveraged to improve upon the gap areas. For example, all of the University Principal Preparation Initiative states have leader standards and are using them to promote principal quality to some degree, but not consistently across all levers. Extending the use of leader standards to levers where they are not currently used—such as evaluation—to create coherence across the entire pathway is a good option for states to consider.

Another key insight is that the pathway to the principalship is more complicated than most people think, and it differs state to state. The seven levers our report highlights typically target specific stages of the pathway. The best levers for one state to focus on may be different from those for another because the two states may have dissimilar pathways.   

What else did you find out about the varying routes to becoming a principal among the states you examined? 

When people think about the pathway to the principalship, they often have something simple in mind. A teacher attends a graduate program, gets a license and becomes a principal. We found that the pathway to the principalship is much more complex than that. It is common for there to be multiple stages in the licensure process. In addition, some states have alternative pathways that allow candidates to bypass state-approved preparation programs. This was true in three of the seven initiative states—California, Kentucky and Virginia. These alternative pathways are really interesting. If used with restraint, they can allow states to increase the stringency of program regulation and oversight without unduly burdening specific districts—because there is a work-around districts can pursue when they want to hire a compelling candidate who did not attend a state-approved program. But if used excessively, these alternative pathways can render state-approved programs irrelevant. These alternative pathways have potentially important implications for the use of other levers, and states should gather and examine data about the prevalence and implications of their use.

You emphasize that a change in one area of state principal policy can trigger changes in others. Why does that matter?

Our study highlights that the seven policy levers are highly interconnected. By reinforcing the ties between and among levers, states can amplify their effectiveness. We saw numerous examples of this. For example, program approval requirements in most states include that programs engage in effective candidate recruitment practices such as getting input from districts. Another example is that principal licensure, as I suggested earlier, typically requires completion of a state-approved principal preparation program. As a result, licensure requirements drive aspiring principals into programs that are in turn shaped by state policy. This interconnectedness means that when new policies are implemented that target one lever, they can have downstream or upstream implications for other levers. For example, when states change the assessment they use for state licensure, state-approved principal preparation programs modify their programs to support the success of their students on these assessments—even when the state’s program approval requirements do not explicitly change. 

Of the various key levers states can pull to improve school leadership, one stands out for having received nearly universal agreement in the seven states that it was effective in promoting principal quality: leader standards. Why are standards so powerful?

Leader standards are important because they provide a way of communicating priorities and objectives about the principalship that is relevant to all stakeholder groups (aspiring and current leaders, principal preparation programs and districts) and across all stages of the pathway to the principalship. Standards help states reinforce the ties between and among levers. For example, stakeholders we interviewed reported that program approval and licensure requirements were viewed as more effective when clearly aligned with standards.

On the other hand, few of the people you interviewed for the report thought the recruitment lever was being used effectively. What do you think might be keeping states from pressing this lever more forcefully?

Recruitment is a particularly complex one for states because using it effectively involves influencing the behavior of all three groups of policy targets: aspiring leaders, programs and districts. Aspiring leaders must be encouraged to enroll in a state-approved principal preparation program, programs must be encouraged to accept high-potential candidates and districts must encourage those with potential to pursue the pathway to the principalship. The decision to enroll in a particular program requires the aspiring leader to make a financial commitment to the principal pathway in general and to a particular program. That can be a dealbreaker even in situations where all three groups agree that a particular candidate would be a good leader and that a particular institution is a good fit for that candidate.

All of the states in our study establish pre-requisites for admission to state-approved principal preparation programs and most encourage these programs to collaborate with districts in the candidate admission process. But only one of the states has a state-funded effort that provides financial resources to promising candidates to attend designated preparation programs. I think this approach is not used more widely because of the costs associated with it and the political difficulty associated with allocating state funds to support an aspiring principal’s pre-service preparation at some but not all state-approved programs.   

The report describes a number of ways to encourage change—coupling mandates with support, for example, or engaging early on with the variety of people and institutions that have a stake in the policy at hand. But you note that “among the most significant” policy changes you saw were those that emerged from efforts that had piggybacked on earlier K-12 education reforms. What’s an example? Why does this approach work?

There’s a lot going on at the state level when it comes to education policy, and the principalship is often what is called a “low agenda status” topic in this space. It’s just not on the radar of a lot of people. This can make it difficult for principal quality to bubble up to the top of the priority list for policy change. One way to get principal quality initiatives on the agenda and successfully implemented is to link them clearly to a broader state education priority. Even better is to craft principal quality initiatives that piggyback on prior initiatives targeting teachers. For example, if the state revamps the teacher evaluation system or assessment for aspiring teachers, it can leverage that work and advance related efforts to revise principal evaluation systems or assessments for aspiring leaders. By leveraging the prior efforts, the costs of developing the system or assessment itself may be lower and some of the political legwork needed to achieve buy-in will have already been done.

State policymakers—like their counterparts on the federal, local and school-district level—find themselves in an unprecedented moment. They are facing not only the pandemic’s dire effects on education but also the nation’s long overdue reckoning with racial justice. Is there a way in which state school leadership policy can help provide a beneficial response to these developments?

The challenges facing our nation’s schools and school districts as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and reckoning with racial justice pose deep questions for state policymakers that go well beyond school leadership policy. Within the school leadership space, the base of evidence about how to effectively address these challenges is relatively thin. Our study found that policy lever use is perceived as effective when it is grounded in evidenced-based, rigorous requirements. We also found that stakeholder engagement allows states to leverage expertise from across the state and expand and or supplement state capacity in order to push forward on a change agenda.

So as a first step, states could support knowledge-building about equity-centered and crisis-oriented school leadership, tapping a wide range of stakeholders to inform next steps.  This could take the form of support for learning communities, or the development of templates for districts or preparation programs to use as they engage with community groups on these complex issues.

Another idea would be for states to orient their support for principal professional development toward these issues. Our study found that PD was being used ​by all states, but stakeholders in only three states felt that it was being  used effectively to promote principal quality. Professional development was a real focus of new state activity during the study time frame, with most states launching efforts to expand PD support. Orienting these efforts toward these pressing concerns is something states could consider.​