School Leadership Briefs

Ashley Idrees 1/27/2020

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The preparation, retention, and support of effective school leaders is vital to the success of students, educators, and districts. The following briefs explore principal pipelines, the effect of school leaders on students, and a state example.

Taking the Lead on Preparing Principals

Leading Principals

Principal and studentNo longer just a managerial position, school principals today also serve as instructional leaders. In this evolving role, principals must support and evaluate educators while cultivating a thriving school culture and climate that promote student learning. Research has shown that effective principals rank second only to teachers among school-related factors that affect student learning. The role of a school leader has a direct impact on every teacher and student in the building. The most effective principals are responsible for creating and maintaining a schoolwide vision of commitment to high expectations for staff and the success of all students. These expectations shape the ways in which all goals—at the student level through the educator level—are developed, implemented and revised.

Despite the shifting responsibilities and complexities of the role, many of the university programs that train aspiring principals have yet to incorporate these changes into their curricula. Principals already in leadership roles are quite critical of their preparation—about half rating their programs as poor to fair. Another 89% of principals surveyed said their program did not prepare graduates to cope with classroom realities. Further, more than one-third reported their programs did not prepare graduates well.

But changes are afoot. Policymakers and educators are recognizing that strong leadership in schools is a necessity for student and educator growth—it matters.

Leadership Standards and Preparation

The Council of Chief State School Officers and The National Policy Board for Educational Administration—through a review of empirical research, a multitude of researchers’ contributions, and input from over 1,000 school and district leaders—developed the Professional Standards for Education Leaders (PSEL). Leadership standards establish minimum expectations for what school leaders should know and be able to do. All 50 states and the District of Columbia participated and continue to work on implementing these standards. The 10 standards are:

  • Mission, Vision and Core Values
  • Ethics and Professional Norms
  • Equity and Cultural Responsiveness
  • Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment
  • Community Care and Support for Students
  • Professional Capacity for School Personnel
  • Professional Community for Teachers and Staff
  • Meaningful Engagement of Families and Community
  • Operations and Management
  • School Improvement

Using the PSEL standards, universities are able to build curricula to purposely equip aspiring leaders with skills to meet and exceed the standards expected of them.

Because preparing school leaders for the complexity and associated responsibilities of their emerging role is vital to recruiting and retaining principals, The Wallace Foundation embarked on a research project to understand how to better coordinate school leaders’ preparation with the requirements of the job. The Wallace Foundation is a nonprofit organization working nationally to answer important questions that, if solved, could help strengthen practices and policies within a field. Its mission is to “foster improvements in learning and enrichment for disadvantaged children and the vitality of arts for everyone.”

The foundation’s research led to the development of its University Principal Preparation Initiative (UPPI). The initiative delved into the role of universities in preparing effective school principals, with three goals:

  • Develop and implement high-quality courses of study and supportive organization conditions in universities’ principal preparation programs.
  • Strengthen university and school-district collaborations.
  • Identify and support redesigns of program accreditation and principal licensure to promote higher-quality training statewide.

The UPPI supports seven universities and their district or consortium partners: Albany State University, Florida Atlantic University, North Carolina State University, San Diego State University, University of Connecticut, Virginia State University and Western Kentucky University.

Research from the UPPI implementation describes varying elements that aided or inhibited their success. Florida Atlantic University principal preparation programs and licensure, for example, are required to meet both state regulations and standards. Their implementation was reflective of true collaboration between the university, school districts and the state education agency. Approved principal preparation programs require an alignment with Florida’s Principal Leadership Standards, Florida Professional Development Protocol Standards and standards determined by Learning Forward, the only professional association dedicated to educator professional development. Despite the required licensure and standards, universities continue to have autonomy to determine how they will implement and measure those requirements.

Graphic on collaboration models

UPPI researchers reported the following:

  • State partner engagement in the UPPI led to some concrete policy reforms.
  • Some states have adopted or considered rule or process changes because of their participation in the initiative.
  • The UPPI stimulated other state measures related to educational leadership.
  • The UPPI encouraged some states to consider starting elements of the initiative throughout the state.
  • The state partners provided strategic advice to the university programs.
  • The lack of alignment between university principal preparation programs posed challenges for state engagement in the initiative.

States and School Leader Standards

People carrying boxesResearch has demonstrated that by setting clear and obtainable standards, leaders are more likely to build pipelines that will be continuous and prosperous. The PSEL, alongside the UPPI, can provide guidance and resources to states to help ensure schools have effective leaders. States can review current leadership standards in conjunction with the PSEL. State legislators can build, or maintain if already in place, a pipeline of effective school principals. Doing so would require states to create or align their standards, employ principal preparation programs that are state-approved, revamp their licensure process, incorporate evaluation training, and provide professional development for continuous support and growth.

In “Developing Excellent School Principals to Advance Teaching and Learning: Considerations for State Policy,” author Paul Manna described three sets of considerations for states to act on:

The first is an appraisal of the principal’s current status on the list of state priorities and the rationale for placing the principal higher on the agenda, such as the fact that principals can have a powerful effect on the classroom.

The second is an examination of six policy levers that states can pull:

  1. Adopting principal leadership standards into state law and regulation.
  2. Recruiting aspiring principals into the profession.
  3. Approving and overseeing principal preparation programs.
  4. Licensing new and veteran principals.
  5. Supporting principals’ growth with professional development.
  6. Evaluating principals.

The third is an assessment of four important contextual matters for the state:

  1. The web of institutions responsible for education governance and the interaction among them.
  2. The diversity of urban, suburban and rural locales.
  3. The capacity of the state and local communities to carry out new policies.
  4. The mandates already affecting principals.

The culmination of each state’s political, educational and financial circumstances enables growth and state needs being met at any and all levels.

All 50 states have adopted school leadership standards in some capacity. These standards provide a framework for understanding the role of a school leader and how best to support his or her growth and development. Below are state examples:

  • New York has fully adopted the PSEL, and the UPPI aims to strengthen New York school leaders.
  • California has fully adopted the PSEL.
  • Arkansas has adopted both the PSEL and the Standards for School Administrators.
  • Mississippi has adopted the Missouri Leader Standards.
  • The District of Columbia has adopted the Model DC School Leadership Standards.

School Leadership: A Key to Student Success


Bring in an effective school leader and teachers will stay and students will learn. The positive effect of a successful school leader has now been proven to aid in the growth of student learning. The cyclical nature of school leadership intersects with all facets of a school—from the budget to the newest literacy strategies. “Principals are multipliers of effective teaching,” says author Paul Manna in his report, “Developing Excellent School Principals to Advance Teaching and Learning.” Investing in the preparation of quality leaders will have a return that will not only help stem teacher turnover, but also provide students with a platform to learn, prosper and grow. There is no indication that a school can be turned around without the guidance and leadership of an outstanding school leader.

Keeping Good Teachers and Principals

Teachers stay for good principals. In fact, 24 out of 25 teachers say the No. 1 factor in their choice to stay at a school is the leader. The quality of school leaders matters because it affects the entire school. These leaders attract and retain the most effective teachers. Not only is teacher turnover considerably lower in schools that are led by high-quality principals, when principals leave, that turnover negatively affects both teachers and students. 

The school leader’s vision and positive relationship with educators are what make them so effective. In research studies throughout the United States, teachers valued working with an effective school leader over salary increases. One study revealed that improving the quality of school leadership in a district was related to decreases in teacher turnover. Though school leaders cannot be in every classroom every day, their presence through their positive relationships with the educators they lead ultimately increases retention and eventual success of the students. 

Retaining school leaders is just as imperative as teacher retention when examining employee turnover in education. Principal turnover is unsettling for the school, community and district because it causes disruption within a school. It is estimated that principal turnover costs school districts approximately $75,000 per resignation. This is a heavy cost to bear in a system that is already strapped and one that can be avoided through purposeful preparation and continuous support once a leader is placed in the school.

Graphic of principal pipeline

Using “principal pipelines” is one approach showing promise to create effective school leaders. A principal pipeline enables school districts to prepare, recruit and place leaders. The Wallace Foundation, a philanthropy working on the issue, describes a principal pipeline as a districtwide strategy to develop a large, ongoing supply of effective school leaders through a partnership with a local university. With Wallace Foundation support, six large school districts built pipelines with four aligned components: leader standards, preservice preparation, hiring, and on-the-job support and evaluation.

The Principal Pipeline Initiative, which started in 2011, has created an influx of highly prepared principals that received training to ensure educators, students, staff and their respective communities are supported in a variety of ways. Pipelines within school districts across the U.S. provide a greater pool of effective candidates because of the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (PSEL), intentional preparation, and their relationship with surrounding universities. They allow districts to be selective in their hiring practices. They also provide ongoing support through Leader Tracking Systems, which provide data to hire and place effective leaders in specific schools, and Principal Supervisors, who provide continuous support to current school leaders—all with the intention to provide continuous student achievement.

The Principal Pipeline Effect

high school principalIn Principal Pipelines, The Wallace Foundation, in partnership with the RAND Corporation, put into place systematic processes for school leaders in six school districts in Colorado, Georgia, Florida, Maryland, New York and North Carolina. Researchers looking at the initiative “found no other comprehensive district-wide initiatives with demonstrated positive effects of this magnitude on [student] achievement.” To be even more specific, students in the six school districts outperformed their peers in other school districts in math in elementary, middle and high school. These effects were not only positive but also statistically significant for schools in the lowest quartile of student achievement.

As mentioned previously, principal turnover is extremely costly for school districts when leaders leave. However, when states and districts implement principal pipelines, the cost and return on investment considerably outweigh the cost of principal turnover. For the six principal pipeline initiative school districts, it cost approximately $42 per pupil per year, or less than 0.5% of the district’s annual budget per-school year. Additionally, it must be noted that school districts that used the pipeline model replaced between 6% and 8% fewer principals per year than nonpipeline comparison schools.

State actions graphicState Options and Recommendations

One policy option state legislators might consider is to adopt national standards at the state or local levels to ensure that all principals meet the minimum criteria. Forty-eight states have adopted or in some way adapted the National Leader Standards, which provide specifications regarding performance expectations for school and district leaders. Of those 48 states, 12 states have adopted the 2015 PSEL. In 2018, 36 states introduced or passed legislation related to school leadership and 22 states have enacted legislation.

Another policy option for state legislators is to create a space in which universities and school districts can come together to ensure that leaders are being prepared with the skills necessary to lead students currently in school. Strategically aligning university preparation with the needs of school districts within each state will yield results for principals, teachers and most importantly, the students.

New Mexico's School Leadership Action

This document is intended to help answer questions and guide conversations about school leadership in New Mexico. During technical assistance on the topic, provided by Andy Cole, a senior consultant from The Wallace Foundation, and Ashley Idrees, an education policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, state legislators and representatives were able to ask a multitude of questions that are answered below.

How Many Students Does New Mexico Serve?

Teacher at the chalkboardNew Mexico serves over 338,000 students in public, private and charter schools.

It is important to understand the context in which school leadership is applied to every state. In New Mexico, having a contextual approach to school leadership will lend itself to understanding how best leaders can support students of all abilities, students who live in poverty and students who live in rural areas.

What Is New Mexico’s Approach to School Leadership?

The New Mexico Public Education Department approves traditional school leader preparation programs. State policy requires school leader preparation programs to align with the adopted standards by addressing the department’s approved functional areas and related competencies. Though specific responsibilities may differ between districts, school districts must meet the New Mexico Administrator Competencies.  

Knowing the approach to school leadership—whether it be traditional or non-traditional—is vital to revising and enhancing current state policy. Legislators are encouraged to discover their own state’s approach to school leadership. Having this knowledge will aid in targeted measures that school districts can take to improve practice throughout states across the nation.

How Does One Become a Licensed School Administrator in New Mexico?

To become a licensed school administrator for an initial license, a candidate must complete each of the following:

  • Pay a $150 fee with a cashier’s check or money order.
  • Complete an initial application.
  • Provide official sealed transcripts reflecting completion of bachelor’s and master’s degrees from a regionally accredited college or university, which must include:
    • 18 graduate hurs in an educational administration program and apprenticeship or internship that consists of a minimum of 180 clock hours, or
    • 18 graduate hurs in an educational administration Master of Business Administration (Woodrow Wilson Fellowship approved program from New Mexico State University or the University of New Mexico); and apprenticeship or internship that consists of a minimum of 180 clock hours, or
    • Carlsbad Alternative Educatinal Administration Program certificate of completion (Principal Leadership Development) and apprenticeship or internship that consists of a minimum of 180 clock hours. 
  • Hold a current level 2 or level 3A teacher’s license, or a current level 2 or level 3 instructional support provider license.
  • Pass the following New Mexico Teacher Assessments (NMTA)

○   Content Knowledge Assessment in Education Administration

What Makes New Mexico Unique in How It Prepares School Leaders?

New Mexico is unique because of the emphasis placed on prior teacher’s license and an apprenticeship or internship that consists of a minimum of 180 hours. Research on adult learning emphasizes the importance of providing strong content and field experiences during leadership preparation because of the intellectual challenge it creates. Providing future school leaders with an opportunity to cultivate their skills through real-life experiences will enable their growth outside of the classroom.

Providing school principal candidates with an apprenticeship or internship enables their psychological safety in that they are able to try new techniques and learn without the fear of failure through an internship.

How Can Universities Prepare Future School Principals?

The Wallace Foundation created and implemented the University Principal Preparation Initiative (UPPI). This initiative focuses on evidence-based policies and practices in three areas:

  • Developing and implementing high-quality courses of study with practical, on-the-job experiences.
  • Putting in place strong university-district partnerships.
  • Developing state policies on program accreditation, principal licensure or certification, and other matters (funded internships, for example) to promote more effective training statewide.

How Are Leaders Supported When They Are Serving as School Principals?

Once school principals are leading, often their own support dissipates as they are viewed as the source of support. Through a principal supervisor role, school leaders are provided with support and guidance from their district to enhance their continuous growth. Even more, research shows that when principals are supported in this way, retention increases.

Because of increasing rates of principal turnover, and the multi-faceted disruption that occurs once a principal has left, support while in the role is vital. Implementing purposeful support and mentorship can aid in principal retention and enable growth for everyone.

Where Can I Find More Information About School Leadership?

For more information and research on education leadership, visit The Wallace Foundation’s Knowledge Center at