Principals are widely recognized as important for the success of schools, but there has been little research on how to effectively train them. However, a new report has identified the common elements of outstanding programs that prepare principals to lead instruction and improve schools. The study examined eight programs that were chosen based on expert recommendations and represented different approaches to pre-service and in-service training. These programs had evidence of their effectiveness through the quality of their graduates. The report was prepared by researchers at Stanford University in collaboration with the Finance Project, a policy research group based in Washington.
According to Linda Darling-Hammond, the lead author of the report and an education professor at Stanford, the findings show that high-performing principals can be developed, not just born. However, she also highlighted the lack of infrastructure in most states to support such programs. The programs identified in the study had several characteristics, including actively recruiting candidates, guidance from experienced practitioners, a combination of theory and practice, and well-designed internships that were closely supervised.
To understand the functioning and funding of these programs, the researchers conducted interviews, observed classes and meetings, and surveyed program participants and graduates. They compared these responses with those of a national random sample of 661 elementary and secondary school principals. Additionally, the researchers followed a small group of program graduates in their jobs, interviewed and surveyed their collaborating teachers, and analyzed data on their schools’ practices and academic performance.
The study found that principals who went through these exemplary programs were more likely to engage in practices associated with effective instructional leadership compared to other principals. The pre-service programs chosen for the study were sponsored by four universities: Bank Street College, Delta State University, the University of Connecticut, and the University of San Diego working with the San Diego Unified School District. Ms. Darling-Hammond mentioned that the researchers had intended to include nontraditional programs, such as those offered by New Leaders for New Schools, but they did not have sufficient track records at the time.
The in-service programs highlighted in the study were sponsored by four school districts: Hartford, Jefferson County, Region 1 in the New York City system, and San Diego Unified. The study was funded by the Wallace Foundation, a New York City-based organization that also supports coverage of leadership issues in Education Week. This study follows a critical report on traditional administrator-preparation programs by Arthur E. Levine, the former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, released in 2005.
The study found that exemplary programs actively recruited candidates rather than waiting for enrollment. They worked with local districts to identify excellent teachers with strong leadership potential who reflected the diversity of the local population. As a result, graduates of these programs were more likely to be female and members of racial or ethnic minorities compared to the comparison group. They were also more likely to have experience working in urban schools and had relevant teaching experience, such as serving as coaches or department chairs.
The principals-in-training completed their programs in groups, receiving guidance and mentoring from experienced principals. The programs had comprehensive and coherent curricula aligned with state and professional standards, with a focus on instructional leadership and school improvement. The programs integrated theory and practice through well-designed and supervised internships. Two programs, Delta State and San Diego’s Educational Leadership Development Academy, offered full-year paid administrative internships with expert principals.
A significant proportion of the graduates from the exemplary programs became principals or assistant principals within a few years of completing their programs. This is in contrast to most studies that found a lower percentage of graduates entering administrative positions.
In conclusion, the report identified key elements of exemplary programs for training principals that focus on effective instructional leadership and school improvement. These programs actively recruit candidates and provide a comprehensive curriculum, mentoring, and well-designed internships. However, there is a need for increased infrastructure to support these programs in most states.
The researchers also analysed policies that aid in the promotion of such programs in the states represented by these programs, as well as in three additional states – Delaware, Georgia, and North Carolina. Among the eight states examined, seven have implemented national standards for principal preparation as part of the program-approval procedure. Additionally, six out of the eight states provide support for at least one state leadership academy which assists in organizing, facilitating, and delivering continuous professional development for principals.
Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, argued that investing in leadership development is beneficial for states and highlights that it is an area in education that has been neglected. However, he did warn that legislators should anticipate resistance from individuals currently profiting from the current system, or rather, lack of system, of professional development and training.