How High-Quality Leadership Pipeline Promotes Home-Grown Talent in California

Baker & Rafal-Baer: 16 professional programs create a diverse candidate pool and give Long Beach education leaders skills & support needed to succeed.

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Well-prepared, well-supported school and district leaders can make incredible differences in student success. Schools and districts need capable administrators for both the challenges they face today and what lies ahead tomorrow. 

High-quality leadership pipeline programs can supply exactly these kinds of professionals. 

In California’s Long Beach Unified School District, that fact is being proven every day. 

What started as a single program to support new principals has grown over 17 years into a comprehensive talent identification and development system. It now features 16 certified programs, each with their own curricula, series of hands-on learning experiences and coaching. Interested personnel apply to be part of annual cohorts of 20 to 25 participants, according to their career aspirations. For example, the Future Administrators Program is designed for proven teacher-leaders who wish to prepare themselves for a job as an assistant principal or similar leadership position. The Exploring District Leadership Program develops sitting principals who are interested in working in the central office.

More than 200 district employees are on these pathways, rising from teacher leaders to aspiring central office administrators. Another 100 nonteaching personnel are pursuing teacher certifications, providing the district with a new and diverse candidate pool. 

Fully 100% of principal and assistant principal vacancies are filled from the pool of program participants, on average about seven to 10 positions a year.  On the district level, 88% of current certified directors went through the Exploring Leadership pipeline. 

To further improve leadership capacity in the central office, the district has more than 30 directors who report to the chief academic officer, chief business and financial officers, and deputy and assistant superintendents. What started as a way to hear how these top managers experience the system and its leadership has evolved into an ongoing forum where programs and priorities are discussed in detail and these leaders are given new management responsibilities. Providing these “stretch” assignments helps them grow professionally and more effectively delegates the workload of Long Beach’s chiefs and assistant superintendents. As a result, the district has aspiring leaders who are now better prepared for their next steps and top officials who are more resilient, less burned out and better able to focus on the biggest priorities. 

This pipeline has created stability and growth in the administrative ranks, increased the percentage of leaders of color and bolstered the presence of women among the district’s highest positions. That would not have been possible without taking a close look at historical bias within the district’s hiring and promotion policies, as well as in talent identification and promotion. After all, even the best developed and supported aspiring leaders cannot ascend a career ladder filled with intentionally broken rungs that hold back women and educators of color.  

In an era of generational challenges to student success, public schools, districts and state agencies are experiencing a leadership brain drain. Too many of the best leaders are exiting the schoolhouse and central office doors. More than 1 in 5 superintendents left their jobs in the nation’s 500 largest school districts last school year, according to the ILO Group’s Superintendent Research Project. Between 2019 and 2023, the superintendent turnover rate in these districts grew by a stunning 50%. It’s a widely shared problem, as both rural and urban districts face similar challenges with leadership turnover.  

Making a bad trend worse is the underrepresentation of women in district leadership. Though women comprise nearly 80% of public school teachers and more than half of school leaders, just 30% of district superintendents are female, and even fewer are women of color. Bias in hiring and promotion policies and procedures thwart the rise of talented and qualified women to the superintendency at a moment when their expertise is most needed.

The past five years have seen unprecedented challenges for schools and students. From interrupted learning to behavioral health needs, education leaders are being tested mightily. Research shows that principals are the second largest in-school influence on student learning. Similarly, stability in leadership and school district success are positively correlated, according to peer-reviewed research. Continuity in school and district leadership is vital even in the best of circumstances; in times of crisis — or crises, like today — great leadership is the difference between success and failure. 

Long Beach’s experience shows that taking on the leadership challenge is possible, but it means creating systems that identify, prepare and support current and future leaders. Building such pipelines also means creating and promoting systems to identify and prepare aspiring leaders — especially women and educators of color. These pipelines can take the form of traditional leadership programs but are most effective when coupled with coaching, sponsorship and networking experiences that are focused on advancing the professional practice of those in the programs. 

When initiatives like this exist, school and district leaders have the skills and support to succeed and stay in their positions. They feel that their district has invested in them as professionals and, in turn, feel more invested in the district’s long-term success. The result: less turnover, more growth and, ultimately, better outcomes for students.

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