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Districts Can Build a Stronger Bench of Principals for Relatively Low Costs

How much would it cost a school district to intensely focus on developing and maintaining a robust principal pipeline?

Just over $31,000 a year per principal, or about $42 per student. That's according to a new report from the RAND Corporation that examined how much six school districts spent on activities to beef up their bench of school leaders as part of the Wallace Foundation's principal pipeline initiative. 

The six districts spent about $5.6 million a year, on average, on activities related to the principal pipeline. 

A key takeaway from the report was that focusing on developing strong school leaders was not a monumental expense: The school systems spent less than 1 percent of their annual budgets, on average, on the pipeline programs.

Some caveats:  The districts in the principal pipeline initiative are large urban or countywide school systems, so what worked there may not necessarily work in smaller settings. The districts did not implement the same principal-related activities or do so at the same time, which resulted in annual fluctuations in costs. There were also substantial variations in how much the districts allocated to specific programs on a yearly basis.

Still, the report, "What it Takes to Operate and Maintain Principal Pipelines: Costs and Other Resources," is a first-of-its-kind to break down the activities that districts can focus on to improve principal hiring, evaluation, recruitment, and support, along with an associated price tag, RAND said.

The activities included revising or developing standards for school leaders; improving screening of principal and assistant principal candidates; reviewing the quality of pre-service programs; revising how districts hire and recruit principals and assistant principals; and designing new evaluation and support systems for principals and APs.

"This study is significant because it provides district leaders with clear and useful information that they haven't had before on the costs of building a principal pipeline," said Elizabeth Ty Wilde, a senior research and evaluation officer at the Wallace Foundation. "Its findings show that districts can make progress on key aspects of building principal pipelines aimed at developing effective leaders, and can cover a large percentage of those costs with existing funds."

That can help other districts that are contemplating principal development to select individual activities that may work for them, identify their most critical areas of need, and consider whether they have the personnel to carry out the tasks, said Julia Kaufman, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

"I hope [districts] would start with the activity list, think about what activities are feasible in their context, and then dig into the particular activities to think about how they could be strategic about approaching them and maybe reconfiguring personnel time to address them," she said.

Nearly half of the costs identified in the report were related to time that district staff spent on the activities—nearly $13,045 per principal per year.

Some activities were relatively inexpensive to set up. 

For example, districts spent an average of $292 per principal (or $0.41 per student) to revise the job standards and $2,894 per principal ($3.57 per student) for retooling principal selection and placement.   

Pre-service preparation (such as setting up partnerships with universities) and job evaluation and support were more expensive. Combined, the two categories made up three-quarters of the districts' spending on principal pipeline initiatives cost—an average of about $24,000 per principal annually, according to the report.

Research has shown that principals are only second to teachers among the in-school factors that affect student learning.

Since the $75 million principal pipeline initiative launched in 2011, the Wallace Foundation has released periodic reports.  A final report looking at whether the activities around developing a stronger group of principals improved academic outcomes in the six districts is due next year. 

The districts initially received grants ranging from $7.5 million to $12.5 million to hire, train, and develop support programs for principals and APs.

The districts in the program are New York City; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Denver; Gwinnett County, Ga., Hillsborough County, Fla.; and Prince George's County, Md. 

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