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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

December 2017


What does the research say about effective strategies for recruiting and retaining principals in high-poverty, high-minority, and rural areas?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies, and literature reviews on effective strategies for recruiting and retaining principals. In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to high-poverty, high-minority, and rural areas. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. We have not evaluated the quality of references and resources provided in this response but offer this list to you for your information only.

Research References

Black, W. R., Martin, G., & Danzig, A. (2014). Pathways for performance: Recruitment and selection, university preparation, licensure, and professional development for school principals. Education Leadership Review, 15(2), 1–13. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The need to recruit, prepare, and develop the next generation of educational leaders challenges states and localities everywhere. The complex demands of current educational reform initiatives have been articulated in national and state reports detailing the changing conditions of schools and provide compelling evidence for the necessity of new abilities and sensibilities at all levels of the profession. This article reports on research which examined four locations along the career continuum of school principals in Minnesota: 1) recruitment and selection, 2) university preparation programs, 3) licensing and certification, and 4) continuing professional development. We also include 18 specific policy recommendations.”

Brown, K. M. (2016). “Racing to the Top” to prepare turnaround principals in North Carolina: Homegrown Regional Leadership Academies. Educational Leadership and Administration, 27, 101–144. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “North Carolina’s Race to the Top (RttT) grant earmarked approximately $17.5 million to ‘increase the number of principals qualified to lead transformational change in low-performing schools in both rural and urban areas’ (NCDPI, 2010, p. 10). To accomplish this, the state established three Regional Leadership Academies (RLAs) ‘approved for certifying principals [and] designed to… provide a new model for the preparation, early career support, and continuous professional development of school leaders’ (NCDPI, 2010, p. 10). This article describes the independent evaluation of this initiative including the recruitment, selection, training, placement, and expenditure processes associated with each RLA.”

Cheney, G. R., & Davis, J. (2011). Gateways to the principalship: State power to improve the quality of school leaders. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Successful schools that provide positive, productive, and vibrant teaching and learning environments do not occur by accident. Instead, the most effective schools are led by principals who are equipped with the skills and possess the attitudes required to be exceptional school leaders. The good news is there is a growing research base that clearly defines the dispositions, skills, and knowledge needed for effective school leadership today. The disheartening news is that few educators are being measured against these criteria prior to becoming principals. States play a critical role in determining who leads the country’s schools. Individual states control the two most important levers to ensure the quality of principals—principal preparation program approval and principal licensure oversight. Yet few states are exerting their authority and efficiently using these two levers to improve educational outcomes for children. Recognizing that states act as key gatekeepers to improve educational outcomes for children, it is imperative that states take immediate action to guarantee that each and every school is led by a high-quality principal. In this report, the authors analyze state policies and requirements for principal preparation approval and certification in a sample of 16 states—eight of which are ‘lagging,’ and eight that are ‘leading’ in their efforts to act as gatekeepers to ensure that schools are led by effective leaders. An effort was made to select a large pool of states to reflect a range of practices and policies, as well as to provide variation in the context, for example, geographic representation, student demographics, and population size. State websites for sources to the three tables in this report are appended.”

Dolan, K. K. (2014). Promising leadership for school turnarounds. The school leadership pipeline series. Part 2. Denver, CO: Donnell-Kay Foundation. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In the fall of 2012, the Donnell-Kay Foundation conducted a survey of Colorado’s superintendents and charter management organization (CMO) leaders to understand the pipeline challenges faced by district and charter leaders in the state. The results of the survey found particular challenges with recruiting, supporting, and retaining qualified leaders for school turnarounds. In light of these responses, this paper examines the promising research and national trends specific to school turnarounds.”

George W. Bush Institute. (2016). Principal talent management according to the evidence: A review of the literature. Dallas, TX: Author. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This literature review aims to provide district leaders with an understanding of the research and best evidence regarding the components of effective PTM [principal talent management] systems. Based on the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) standards as the criteria for identifying studies with rigorous research designs and evidence of causal relationships, our review focuses on two key outcomes of PTM systems and components: the extent to which certain policies and practices lead to improved student achievement and principal retention.

Our review also highlights gaps in the existing research and offers recommendations for district leaders, policymakers, education-focused researchers, and funders of education leadership research, policy, and practice.

Key Findings

  • While there is clear evidence that principals play a critical role in improving student achievement, PTM research is still emerging. Thus, there is a need for more rigorous studies of PTM systems especially given the importance of principal effectiveness to student achievement. There is also a need for more rigorous studies of the individual PTM components—preparation, recruitment and selection, professional learning, performance evaluation, compensation and incentives, and working environment—to inform PTM systems building efforts.
  • Only four dimensions of PTM—working environment, preparation, professional learning, and compensation and incentives—featured at least one study eligible for review.
  • Six studies of PTM components met WWC criteria with or without reservations. Of these six studies, two (one in the area of professional learning and one in the area of compensation) showed a positive impact on student achievement.”

George W. Bush Institute, Education Reform Initiative. (2016). What districts know—and need to know—about their principals. Dallas, TX: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Research on school leadership has highlighted the impact principals have on student achievement through their influence on classroom instruction, organizational conditions, community support, and setting the teaching and learning conditions in schools. However, there is limited rigorous quantitative research on the best district policies and practices for principal preparation, the selection and recruitment of effective principal candidates, effective principal career development and management, and the retention of the most effective principals. Despite this gap in clear evidence on best practices, districts are responsible for finding, supporting, and keeping effective principals for their schools. State agencies play a key role in ensuring principals are adequately prepared through their regulation of preparation programs and licensure policies. Many states are undertaking efforts to improve data systems to capture more information about teachers and school leaders, which can help begin to answer outstanding questions about the effectiveness of different policies and practices. Districts should also take steps to ensure that they have the data necessary to answer important questions about how to identify, develop, and retain great principals. This report highlights limitations of district-level data on principals encountered during data collection for a study on principal preparation programs. This report also describes the importance of improving the accuracy and availability of these data to explore questions about how to find, support, and keep the best leaders, and includes highlights from three districts that have developed comprehensive leader tracking systems. Included are guiding questions and a checklist of data elements for districts to consider in addressing key questions to support finding, supporting, and keeping the best leaders.”

Herman, R., Gates, S. M., Arifkhanova, A., Bega, A., Chavez-Herrerias, E. R., Han, E.,… & Wrabel, S. (2017). School leadership interventions under the Every Student Succeeds Act: Evidence review. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This report was updated in January 2017 to include Appendix C and again in December 2017 to include Appendix D. The reauthorization of the U.S. Elementary and Secondary Education Act, referred to as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), emphasizes evidence-based initiatives while providing new flexibilities to states and districts with regard to the use of federal funds, including funds to promote effective school leadership. This report describes the opportunities for supporting school leadership under ESSA, discusses the standards of evidence under ESSA, and synthesizes the research base with respect to those standards. The information can guide federal, state, and district education policymakers on the use of research-based school-leadership interventions; help them identify examples of improvement activities that should be allowable under ESSA; and support the rollout of such interventions. This report updates an earlier version and incorporates non-regulatory guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, analysis of tier IV evidence, and reviews of additional studies.”

Ikemoto, G., Taliaferro, L., Fenton, B., & Davis, J. (2014). Great principals at scale: Creating district conditions that enable all principals to be effective. New York, NY: New Leaders. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “School leaders are critical in the lives of students and to the development of their teachers. Unfortunately, in too many instances, principals are effective in spite of—rather than because of—district conditions. To truly improve student achievement for all students across the country, well-prepared principals need the tools, support, and culture that enable them to be the best. New Leaders and the Bush Institute’s Alliance to Reform Educational Leadership (AREL) launched the Conditions for Effective Leadership Project and partnered with leading researchers and practitioners to generate a comprehensive and research-based framework outlining the conditions necessary for transformational school leaders to succeed. The project used a combination of literature review, empirical data collection, and expert convenings to build consensus and bundle the disparate ideas into a single framework that is accessible to school system leaders. This report describes that set of conditions that effective school systems have in place that enable principals to be successful. The conditions include four strands developed as follows: Strand 1: Alignment among goals, strategies, structures, and resources; Strand 2: Culture of collective responsibility, balanced autonomy, and continuous learning and improvement; Strand 3: Effective management and support for principals; and Strand 4: Systems and policies to effectively manage talent at the school-level.”

Kaufman, J. H., Gates, S. M., Harvey, M., Wang, Y., & Barrett, M. (2017). What it takes to operate and maintain principal pipelines: Costs and other resources. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “States and districts are embarking on efforts to improve school leadership as a lever to promote school improvement. Such efforts have a solid base of research attesting to their effectiveness, and some view them as particularly cost-effective because principals ‘can be powerful multipliers of effective teaching and leadership practices in schools.’ Although the logic of this perspective is sound, in truth, very little is known about the resources required to improve school leadership. This report fills an important gap in the literature on school leadership by presenting an approach for understanding the resources and expenditures associated with efforts to prepare, hire, evaluate, develop, and support school leaders and by presenting estimates of those resources and expenditures. All districts that employ more than a few school leaders devote at least some resources to these activities and might find some value to our approach. RAND Corporation analysts applied an approach to develop estimates of the resources required to put in place and operate ‘principal pipelines’—pipelines for preparing, hiring, supporting, and managing school leaders—based on data they collected from six urban districts that participated in The Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline Initiative.”

Manna, P. (2015). Developing excellent school principals to advance teaching and learning: Considerations for state policy. New York, NY: The Wallace Foundation. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Principals who are strong, effective, responsive leaders help to inspire and enhance the abilities of their teachers and other school staff to do excellent work. Such principals also tend to retain great teachers and create opportunities for them to take on new leadership roles. This leads to the following key question: What can state policymakers do to help ensure that schools have excellent principals who advance teaching and learning for all students? The answer: Quite a bit, actually. The research informing this report identifies three crucial areas leaders across all states can usefully consider as they seek answers to this key question: (1) State policy agendas that address school principals along with other priorities; (2) State policy levers available to state leaders as they attempt to identify and train aspiring principals and support those already on the job; and (3) the contextual factors within states and local communities that affect how state policies or initiatives for principals are likely to unfold in practice. The report emphasizes that every state faces a unique blend of educational, political and financial circumstances and that, therefore, each state’s approach should fit its needs and particularities.”

Mendels, P. (2017). Building principal pipelines: A job that urban districts can do. Perspective. Updated edition. New York, NY: The Wallace Foundation. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “School district officials have faced the urgent task in recent years of ensuring that all schools, not just a lucky few, benefit from sure-footed leadership by professionals who know how to focus on instruction and improve it. The question boils down to this: How can districts develop a pipeline of great school principals? Research about a Wallace Foundation school leadership initiative in six large school districts provides insights that may offer districts a way forward. Most important, the research finds that it is possible for districts to put in place the four key parts of a strong principal pipeline: apt standards for principals, high-quality pre-service training, rigorous hiring procedures, and tightly aligned on-the-job performance evaluation and support. Moreover, building a pipeline can produce several swift benefits for districts and principals alike. These include principal job standards that foster a districtwide understanding of what constitutes effective leadership for local schools, a possible greater compatibility between principals and the schools to which they are assigned, and performance evaluations designed not only to measure what’s important but also to help principals succeed at their very tough jobs. At the same time, the research makes clear that some elements of the pipeline are particularly complex undertakings. For example, it’s simpler for districts to upgrade their own training programs for aspiring principals than it is to work with universities to improve the university-based programs from which many aspiring school leaders graduate. In addition, fixing what many see as the weakest link in principal training—providing candidates with meaningful, practical experience in the form of internships or residencies—can be expensive and involved. This ‘Perspective’ also provides estimates of what it cost the initiative districts to build and operate the various pipeline components. Overall, the pipelines proved affordable, costing the districts on average about $5.6 million yearly, or less than 0.5 percent of their annual expenditures. This publication, which offers a set of considerations for districts interested in building principal pipelines, as well as for states that want to help localities in this work, draws from a number of sources. One of the chief ones is an independent evaluation of the implementation of the Wallace six-district effort, the Principal Pipeline Initiative, an $85-million venture launched by the foundation in 2011. Another important source is a RAND examination of the costs of pipeline construction and operation in the pipeline initiative districts. A separate RAND study, expected to be published in 2018, is exploring the pipelines’ impact on schools and student performance.”

New Leaders. (2014). Prioritizing leadership: New Leaders’ federal policy platform. New York, NY: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Principals are critical to the success of any school improvement effort—from increasing academic rigor toward college- and career-ready standards to teacher evaluation and support. They ensure this success by building a strong, shared vision and leading effective implementation for staff, students, and families. The federal government has an important role to play in supporting the development of leaders who are preparing students for success in college, careers, and citizenship. Investments in principals are the best long-term investment in effective implementation of other federal policy priorities. Smart federal policies champion the importance of principals, set the conditions for strong state and district policies, support innovative models and promising practices, promote accountability for results, and build on-the-ground capacity to support effective leadership. All smart principal policies—including those at the federal level—should be grounded in the actions of effective leaders. Principals are expected to meet an increasingly complex set of expectations. And the best principals do so by playing three critical roles: (1) Instructional Leader; (2) Talent Manager; and (3) Culture Builder. These crucial roles are supported by operations and systems that support learning and are enhance[d] by a principal’s personal leadership characteristics. In this five-part series, policymakers are encouraged to consider how various policies—as part of a comprehensive school leadership reform agenda—will impact a principal throughout her career.”

Riley, D., & Meredith, J. (2017). State efforts to strengthen school leadership: Insights from CCSSO action groups. Washington, DC: Policy Studies Associates. Retrieved from

From the introduction: Many states across the nation are working to improve school leadership, some on a substantial scale. Several factors encourage state-level work focused on principals, including: research evidence of principal effects on student learning, flexibility in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), new national professional standards for principals, lessons learned from teacher evaluation and development, and available support from organizations with a focus on school leadership.

The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), with funding from The Wallace Foundation, supported states through two principal-focused ‘action groups’ during the 2016–17 school year. Each action group convened teams of state staff for a series of facilitated in-person meetings and webinars through which each state could develop and carry out action plans that identified a problem of practice and strategies for rapid implementation. Teams included state education agency (SEA) division directors, program managers, and line staff…. This brief is intended to inform state leaders and others in the field about the participating states’ efforts to strengthen the recruitment, preparation, support, and supervision of school leaders. It summarizes the state teams’ priorities, accomplishments, and perspectives related to school leadership. These states are not representative of the nation, but their priorities and activities in school leadership reveal trends in approaches and needs, along with examples of state initiatives underway or planned. One-page state snapshots appear in the Appendix.”

Snodgrass Rangel, V. (2017). A review of the literature on principal turnover. Review of Educational Research. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Among the many challenges facing public schools are high levels of principal turnover. Given the important role that principals play and are expected to play in the improvement process, concerns about principal turnover have resulted in a growing body of research on its causes and consequences. The purpose of this review is to take stock of what we have learned about the sources and consequences of principal turnover and to identify what gaps remain. The final review included 36 empirical studies. It discusses and categorizes findings relating to the determinants and consequences of principal turnover. The review concludes with a discussion about the implications of those findings and the areas and kinds of research still needed.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Turnbull, B. J., Riley, D. L., & MacFarlane, J. R. (2013). Cultivating talent through a principal pipeline. Building a stronger principalship: Volume 2. Washington DC: Policy Studies Associates, Inc. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: This second report of an ongoing evaluation of ‘The Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline Initiative’ describes the six participating school districts’ activities in school leader preparation and support and analyzes their progress over two years. The evaluation, conducted by ‘Policy Studies Associates’ and the ‘RAND Corporation,’ is intended to inform policy makers and practitioners about the process of implementing policies and practices for school leadership and about the results of investments in the Principal Pipeline Initiative. This report is based on collection and analysis of qualitative data, including semi-structured interviews in spring 2013 with 113 administrators in districts and partner institutions, and surveys of novice principals and assistant principals. Districts are following grant requirements. For leader preparation, all are initiating or strengthening partnerships with external programs, and five of the six have also bolstered district-run programs. The district programs and varying numbers of external preparation programs are showing the desired features: selective admissions, standards-based content, problem-based learning, cohort models, and clinical experience. To support novice leaders, all districts have coaching arrangements of varying duration, and all have brought in assistance to build the capacity of coaches, mentors, and supervisors.”

Wood, J. N., Finch, K., & Mirecki, R. M. (2013). If we get you, how can we keep you? Problems with recruiting and retaining rural administrators. The Rural Educator, 34(2). Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The focus on instructional leadership has reached a crescendo with the waivers for No Child Left Behind (2002). The leadership of the principal is known to be a key factor in supporting student achievement; however, recruitment and retention of administrators in rural areas of the Midwest is very difficult. This survey research study explored the recruitment and retention strategies, as well as factors influencing the loss or retention of quality administrators reported by Midwest superintendents. The themes that emerged as successful recruitment strategies included ‘growing your own’ as the number one method of recruiting and retaining rural school administrators, salaries/benefits depending on location, emphasizing positive working conditions and climate/culture, and providing quality professional development. Retention strategies that worked well for rural schools were an emphasis on a positive school culture and climate, investment in professional development, and use of technology for mentoring along with increased benefits.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

Center on Great Teachers and Leaders –

From the website: “The Center on Great Teachers and Leaders (GTL Center) is dedicated to supporting state education leaders in their efforts to grow, respect, and retain great teachers and leaders for all students. The GTL Center continues the work of the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality (TQ Center) and expands its focus to provide technical assistance and online resources designed to build systems that:

  • Support the implementation of college and career standards.
  • Ensure the equitable access of effective teachers and leaders.
  • Recruit, retain, reward, and support effective educators.
  • Develop coherent human capital management systems.
  • Create safe academic environments that increase student learning through positive behavior management and appropriate discipline.
  • Use data to guide professional development and improve instruction.”

The Wallace Foundation, Principal Pipeline Initiative –

From the website: “In 2011, The Wallace Foundation launched the Principal Pipeline Initiative, an effort to help six urban school districts improve their ‘principal pipelines,’ systems to train, hire, and evaluate and support school principals. This five-report series examines the steps the districts took to put strong pipelines in place, the challenges they faced and lessons other districts could draw from their work. The last report in the series, which looks over the sweep of the initiative, concludes that the districts were able to carry out the kinds of policies and practices called for by the effort ‘to a striking extent.’”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Principal recruitment

  • Principal retention

  • Principal recruitment minority

  • Principal pipeline initiative

  • School leader pipeline

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). In addition, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were include in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Region) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.