Policy brief

The Development and Distribution of School Leadership in California

Jason A. Grissom
Vanderbilt University
Leib Sutcher
Los Angeles Unified School District


There is a common theme around California education, and leadership development is no exception. The state used to have nationally recognized model programs of professional development for principals and superintendents, but many were defunded and dismantled during the recession, when California schools also cut their administrative staffs by 19%. Since then, the number of administrators has rebounded; but in 2016, the latest year data are available, California still ranked 47th out of all states in the number of pupils per administrator. On top of that, California principals, on average, have less experience and higher turnover rates than leaders in many other states.

Principals are central to successfully putting education reforms into action. California has taken formidable steps to improve teaching and learning for all students through the Common Core State Standards, the Next Generation Science Standards, a new accountability dashboard, and the Local Control Funding Formula. Yet, California has not made concurrent investments in professional development to ensure that leaders have the capacity to be successful in their jobs and in undertaking these statewide reforms. Numerous studies have found that students do better in schools led by experienced, high-quality principals. However, there aren’t enough high-quality leaders to fill those positions and turnover is high, especially in schools with high concentrations of students in poverty, which tend to be led by less experienced principals.

Using new surveys and focus groups, and numerous data sets, these two reports provide an uncompromising look at the type of support and training educational leaders say they need to be successful in their jobs—and what they actually get. The studies examine research on the distribution of leaders across schools with different concentrations of traditionally marginalized students, consider the reasons for the high turnover rates, and discuss what the state, county offices of education, and districts can do to improve leadership preparation and professional development.


  • The quality of school leaders affects student learning.
  • Principals in high-poverty, low-achieving schools tend to be less experienced and have higher turnover rates than principals in wealthier, higher-achieving schools.
  • School leaders are experiencing a variety of preparation and professional development opportunities, but these experiences are piecemeal and often do not include the most valuable elements of high-quality professional learning.
  • The vast majority of principals report wanting more professional development.
  • Leaders in rural school districts are less likely to receive coaching and professional development.
  • Stronger state standards for administrator education programs show promising results.

Leib Sutcher

Suggested citationGrissom, J. A., & Sutcher, L. (2018, September). Getting down to facts II: The development and distribution of school leadership in California [Policy brief]. Policy Analysis for California Education. https://edpolicyinca.org/publications/development-and-distribution-school-leadership-california