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It is a challenging time to be a school leader—and to hire good ones.

The headlines make it plain: From funding crises (as in Detroit and Kansas) to school violence and discipline reform to the needs of immigrant families to testing and student achievement, the issues that principals must confront are more varied and complex than ever.

Committed, skilled teachers have their hands full in the classroom—where they have chosen to be—with little time or incentive to consider administrative careers, and a front-row seat to see just how challenging a principal’s role can be.

Related: How can master teachers find the time to help their first-year colleagues stay on track?

As a result, many school systems struggle to develop a pipeline of first-rate candidates who want to lead tomorrow’s schools and are prepared to do so.

school leadership
Dr. Stephanie Hull is executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

By now, thanks to organizations like ASCD and the Wallace Foundation, a considerable body of research has demonstrated the invaluable role in student achievement that school principals play. (The Wallace Foundation is a funder of The Hechinger Report).

Some studies indicate that principals account for as much as 25 percent of a school’s total impact on student achievement. Yet the education community still lacks new models to ensure that the right school leadership candidates have the right preparation to improve teaching and learning.

Earlier this summer, the Coalition for Teaching Quality released a new study, Building a Strong and Diverse Teacher and Principal Recruitment Pipeline, which identified several specific recommendations for policymakers on recruiting school leaders. They include modernizing recruitment practices and analytics for matching principals with schools, focusing on diversifying the workforce. Providing assistant principals with increased responsibilities and professional development is also crucial, as is the expansion of grants and loan forgiveness opportunities for prospective assistant principals and principals.

While these steps can certainly enrich the pipeline of school leaders, it is equally important to begin to think differently about how those leaders are prepared.

From nearly a decade of experience with the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has learned a great deal not only about educating outstanding new teachers for high-need schools but also about how principals can lead those teachers and create effective teaching and learning environments for the 21st century.

Related: For stronger schools, train stronger leaders

Its Woodrow Wilson MBA Fellowship in Education Leadership, now operating through district/university partnerships in Indiana, New Mexico, and Wisconsin, combines business-school coursework in organizational change, educational finance reform, and outcomes-based assessment with an education emphasis and a year of experience in an actual school. Local districts identify and nominate those teachers with the greatest potential, who are then invited to apply for the one-year WW MBA Fellowship. Successful candidates continue to work on special projects in their schools during their year as a Fellow, then go back to leadership positions.

“A visionary, well-prepared principal is essential to school and student achievement.”

The work so far in these three states has yielded some valuable insights about developing a pipeline for school leadership talent.

First, to ensure a strong pipeline of highly able principals, integrated clinical and academic instruction is crucial, and is lacking in current school leadership programs.

Second, school districts must collaborate with universities to prepare principals in ways that are relevant to school needs. This is particularly true for high-need districts.

Third, new principals must be equipped to drive sustainable gains in student achievement. Again, high-need districts, in particular, urgently need well-informed, thoughtful, data-driven assessment, and principal candidates must be prepared to approach their work in this way, getting information through formative assessment—not just testing outcomes—and making course corrections as they go.

And finally, as with leaders in other professions, principals need ongoing coaching and mentoring. While there are no shortcuts to effectiveness in this constantly changing field, peers in and beyond education can help principals keep abreast of new approaches and perspectives.

As the Coalition has recommended to policymakers, a strong pipeline needs increased professional development opportunities, and those opportunities need to be of the highest quality and value.

A visionary, well-prepared principal is essential to school and student achievement. For the pipeline of such leaders to succeed as the nation urgently needs it to do, we must ensure that each of those on the path to a principalship has a high-quality preparation experience, one rooted in rigorous academics, big-picture leadership development, and rich clinical experience.

If not, potentially great leaders will continue to lack the skills and understandings they need to close the nation’s domestic achievement gap, improve its international academic competitiveness, and—most of all—help America’s young people.

Stephanie J. Hull is executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.  She previously served as Head of the Brearley School.

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