Improving Principal Quality to Increase Teacher Retention

Molly Gold 5/25/2022

Teacher meeting image

The Importance of School Leadership in Shaping Teacher Working Conditions

High levels of teacher attrition historically have contributed to the teacher shortages occurring throughout the country. Teachers indicate a multitude of factors result in their leaving the profession, key among them being pay and working conditions. Working conditions have become an even bigger factor in their decisions as we emerge from the pandemic.

States recently have responded with legislation to increase teacher pay. However, similar attention has not been paid to working conditions. Teacher working conditions broadly refer to school-related factors that contribute to a teacher’s professional experience, including administrative support, shared decision-making, opportunities for professional collaboration and provision of resources for teaching and learning.

Principals can establish collaborative and trusting environments for teachers. This can be accomplished by engaging in instructionally-focused interactions with teachers, building a productive school climate, facilitating collaboration among teachers, and managing personnel and resources strategically. Recent research shows that principals engaging in these practices are able to positively impact school working conditions, leading to better retention of teachers, particularly effective teachers.

Policy Options to Improve School Leadership

Principal pipelines—the systems used to train, hire and support principals—have been shown to prepare and retain highly effective school leaders, which in turn positively influences teacher retention. The Wallace Foundation, a foundation supporting research around school leadership, among other focus areas, identified seven interconnected domains of principal pipelines: leader standards, high-quality preservice preparation, selective hiring and placement, evaluation and support, principal supervisors, leader tracking systems and systems of support.

The Principal Pipeline infographic.


The holistic approach of a principal pipeline initiative provides a feasible, affordable and effective way to improve principal quality. Successful local principal pipelines:

  • Adopt leader standards and use those standards to drive the other components of the pipeline, including a standards-based evaluation system
  • Create databases with information about current and aspiring school leaders and use the data to engage in strategic hiring and placement of principals
  • Require enhanced practical demonstrations of competencies as part of the hiring process
  • Establish district-run principal preparation programs for high-potential assistant principals and have a partnership with one or more external preparation programs
  • Work to enhance clinical experiences in both in-house and external principal preparation programs

Although principal pipelines are developed at the local level, states can establish the conditions necessary for pipeline initiatives to succeed.

In a publication supported by The Wallace Foundation, Paul Manna, a public policy professor at William & Mary, describes how state policy levers can be used to support and encourage the development of local principal pipelines. A common thread among these levers is the importance of providing sufficient guidance and support while allowing for flexibility in adaptation at the local level.

The following table provides state legislators with key considerations for the development of effective local principal pipelines. 

Principal Pipeline Domain

Key Considerations

Setting principal standards

Adoption: Has the state adopted standards for school leaders that communicate expectations for school leaders’ practices?

Differentiating: Are the standards differentiated for each leadership role?

Cross-cutting: Are the state standards informing policies on preparation program approval, licensure and professional development requirements, and evaluation systems?

Specificity and flexibility: Do state policies enable local adaptation?

Floor not ceiling: Can local districts augment the state standards?

High-quality principal preparation

Standards and oversight: Do state standards enable oversight?

Degree requirements: Are degrees relevant to the actual work of principals?

District prep-program partnerships: Do state policies incentivize cooperation between preparation programs and local districts?

Specificity and flexibility: Do state policies enable a variety of providers?

Selective hiring and placement

District authority: Does state policy empower to strategically manage principal hiring processes?

Standards and licensing: Are state policies informed by differentiated standards for educational leaders?

Licenses supporting practice: Do state licensure policies encourage practice-based experiences?

Placement and evaluation: Do state principal evaluation systems encourage principals to lead in difficult schools when there is a good fit?

Evaluation and support

Standards for evaluation: Are state principal evaluation policies guided by differentiated standards?

Local adaptation: Do state evaluation policies allow for local adaptation?

Development on the job: Does state policy provide support for mentoring, coaching and other forms of professional development?

License renewals that encourage expertise: For veteran principals, do renewal processes encourage productive development?

Principal supervisors

Standards clarity: Do state standards for education leaders distinguish between different leadership roles?

Relevance: Do state standards, licensing requirements and professional development encourage productive supervisor-principal work?

Evaluation processes: Do state policies for principal evaluation consider both formative and summative functions?

Leader tracking systems

Relevance of state standards: Is data collection linked to what state standards suggest is important?

Preparation program and degree attainment: Do systems offer state leaders a window into the productivity of degree pathways?

Evaluation and career trajectories: Do state re-licensure and professional development processes identify gaps in skills that could be met?

Leveraging existing expertise: Do state systems identify veteran or retired principals who could be resources for local pipeline efforts?

Systems of support

Political support: Have state leaders cultivated political environments that help stakeholders understand and accept difficult policy choices?

Fiscal support: Does the state provide flexibility or startup and transition support to enhance development of local pipeline initiatives?

Network support: Are there state efforts to foster cross-district network partnerships and shared learning to support implementation?

Adapted from How Can State Policy Support Local School Districts as They Develop Principal Pipelines?

As legislators look for solutions to teacher turnover, they’ll want to keep in mind that poor school working conditions result in higher levels of teacher attrition. Developing and retaining high-quality principals, who can establish and maintain positive working conditions, can reduce the turnover. Because pre-retirement attrition accounts for around two-thirds of the demand for teachers, addressing this challenge has the potential to substantially diminish the extent of teacher shortages.

Local principal pipelines are a high-impact strategy to improve principal quality and retention. State policymakers can facilitate local principal pipeline development by providing a balance of structures, supports and flexibility.

Molly Gold is a senior policy specialist with NCSL's education program, focusing on educator quality and school governance.

Additional Resources