Principal Preparation Overview
School Principal Preparation PDF
Donley, J., Detrich, R., States, J., & Keyworth, (2020). Principal Preparation. Oakland, CA: The Wing Institute. https://www.winginstitute.org/quality-leadership-pre-service
An ability to shape the organizational school features essential for high-quality teaching and learning gives principals a strong but indirect influence on student learning and achievement (Hallinger & Heck, 2010; Hitt & Tucker, 2016; Leithwood, Harris, & Hopkins, 2020; Leithwood, Harris, & Strauss, 2010; Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008; Supovitz, Sirinides, & May, 2010). In fact, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires that every school be staffed with an effective leader (Fuller, Hollingsworth, & Pendola, 2017).
Where and how principals are prepared matters in whether schools have the educational leaders needed for effective leadership in the often demanding school contexts of the 21st century (Darling-Hammond, LaPointe, Meyerson, Orr, & Cohen, 2007; Orr, 2011; Orphanos & Orr, 2013). Programs may not adequately prepare principals for their roles (Mendels, 2016), prompting discussions of who has domain over providing leadership preparation pathways and the emergence of alternatives to university preparation, including alternative programs offered by for-profit entities (Ni, Rorrer, Pounder, Young, & Korach, 2019).
Research on the evaluation of principal preparation programs and the effectiveness of various pathways to the principalship is limited (Grissom, Mitani, & Woo, 2019; Orr & Barber, 2009; Perrone & Tucker, 2019). A good deal of primarily descriptive research has addressed the program elements, content, and structures that are characteristic of exemplary programs and considered essential for effective principal preparation (e.g., Crow & Whiteman, 2016; Darling-Hammond et al., 2007; Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012; Orr & Orphanos, 2011). The available research on characteristics of effective principal preparation programs and their impact is highlighted in the remainder of this report, following a brief discussion of the status of principal preparation.
Status of Principal Preparation in the United States
Candidates intending to become school principals progress through several stages. Attaining the administrative credential, or license, signals entry-level educator competence in leadership, and most often requires teaching experience and a minimum of a master’s degree (Scott, 2017), and, in some cases, passing a licensure exam (Hackman, 2016). Graduates earning licenses typically then apply for and move into administrative positions to become assistant principals and eventually principals; however, many complete these degrees for other reasons (e.g., to earn higher salaries) without intending to pursue administrative roles (DeAngelis & O’Connor, 2012).
Licensure represents entry-level skills and knowledge, and most states further require early career mentoring and continuous professional development for renewal (Hackman, 2016). While university-based programs are considered traditional pathways to the principalship, alternative preparation pathways such as receiving training through a non-university provider or passing an administrator exam without completing training are increasingly accepted by states (Perrone & Tucker, 2019). Little is known about the relative effectiveness of alternative and traditional university-based preparation programs (Hackman, 2016; Murphy, Moorman, & McCarthy, 2008).
The projected shortage of principals at the beginning of the 21st century failed to materialize (Browne-Ferrigno & Muth, 2008), and most recent estimates suggest a small but steady demand for principals nationwide based on the numbers of principals leaving the profession or retiring (Goldring & Taie, 2018). However, the demand for principals varies significantly by location, and economically disadvantaged schools and areas frequently have more difficulty filling positions with highly qualified candidates than their low-poverty peers do (Béteille, Kalogrides, & Loeb, 2012).
Recent research suggests sharp increases in both the availability and degree production of principal preparation programs. One national study found a 72% increase in the number of institutions awarding degrees (postbaccalaureate, master’s, specialist, and doctoral) in educational administration since the start of the century, and a 102% increase in the number of degrees granted during the same time period, far exceeding the annual number of job vacancies (Perrone & Tucker, 2019). Degree production for postbaccalaureate, master’s, and specialist degrees peaked around 2010 and has leveled off since; researchers have speculated that the conditions created by the recession of 2008 (i.e., budget cuts resulting in lower teacher tuition subsidies, less career or financial stability, and fewer available positions due to the elimination of many assistant principal jobs) led to larger numbers of educators seeking these credentials (Perrone & Tucker, 2019).
The growth in programs offered and degrees conferred was not uniform across all types of institutions; most of the increase stemmed from less resourced and less selective institutions (e.g., masters I/II institutions as opposed to doctoral, research-intensive institutions). Perrone and Tucker (2019) acknowledged that institutional selectivity might not be a strong proxy for preparation program quality but questioned the degree to which these institutions had adequate resources to provide exemplary program features and/or attract high-quality candidates to the field. They and others have called for more research to examine program quality for university-based programs, as well as studies to address the quality and effectiveness of alternative preparation pathways that are now producing large numbers of principal candidates (Hackman, 2016).
Faculty in principal preparation programs play a key role in determining program quality and candidate outcomes. While the majority of faculty members during most of the 20th century were white males in their 50s, increasingly they are female and, to a lesser extent, non-white (Hackman & McCarthy, 2011; McCarthy, Hackmann, & Malin, 2017). More program faculty have had prior school or district administrative experience, and there has been dramatic growth in the percentage who are working in clinical, non-tenure-track positions, many of which are part-time (Hackman & McCarthy, 2011). These faculty are more likely than their tenure-track counterparts to teach, advise students, and conduct field-based activities (McCarthy et al., 2017). Faculty are increasingly teaching online courses; in fact, many leadership preparation programs are using distance learning structures to deliver courses (Hackmann & McCarthy, 2011; Sherman & Beaty, 2007). Little is known about the relative effectiveness of these distance learning preparation courses in comparison with on-campus coursework (Brooks, 2010). In addition, research on professional development of program faculty is almost nonexistent and of some concern given the rapid changes to educational organizations and reform trends (Crow & Whiteman, 2016).
A recent report highlighted concerns with many principal preparation programs. The Wallace Foundation (Mendels, 2016) synthesized results from four reports prepared by major principal preparation organizations including the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA); it sought to assess the quality of approximately 700 university preparation programs in the United States through surveys of district and university leaders. Results indicated that many of these programs lacked effectiveness in many key quality areas. Five themes emerged: (1) District leaders were frequently dissatisfied with program quality, and universities acknowledged the need to improve; (2) strong partnerships between districts and universities were essential but rare; (3) courses of study often did not reflect the real jobs of principals and lacked adequate clinical experience; (4) university policies and practices often served to hinder improvement; and, (5) states largely failed to use their authority to improve programs, for example, by requiring university-district collaboration for accreditation.
Research shows that high-quality programs tend to have program features that address many of these concerns. An overview of research-based, high-quality principal preparation follows.
Characteristics of Effective Principal Preparation Programs
Contemporary principal preparation programs focus on developing three levels of knowledge: (1) declarative (the ability to describe effective leadership), (2) procedural (actual implementation of leadership skills), and (3) contextual (matching appropriate actions to a specific context or situation) (Cunningham, VanGronigen, Tucker, & Young, 2018). Arming principal candidates with these levels of knowledge and skills is thought to offer the best chance that learning in programs will transfer and help principals lead effectively in any school context (Ni, Hollingworth, Rorrer, & Pounder, 2016). Because of the increasing complexity of school leadership (Fuller, Young, Richardson, Pendola, & Winn, 2018), school leaders must engage in transformational learning that equips them with the capacity to “analyze the situations they face to understand how to approach various situations and decisions and to articulate the why that undergirds their actions and decision making” (Cunningham et al., 2018, p. 2).
Much of the research on characteristics of effective preparation programs focuses on case studies of innovative and exemplary leadership program models and surveys of the efficacy of program features. This research has revealed several features of effective principal preparation programs, including targeted and selective recruitment (Darling-Hammond, Meyerson, LaPointe, & Orr, 2010); program rigor and relevance with an emphasis on standards-based, instructional leadership (e.g., Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012; Davis, Darling-Hammond, LaPointe, & Meyerson, 2005; Orr & Orphanos, 2011); high-quality clinical experiences through active instructional coursework and internships (e.g., Borden, Preskill, & DeMoss, 2012); and cohort models, in which candidates enter and progress through coursework together (Darling-Hammond et al., 2007; Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012; McCarthy, 2015). In essence, effective preparation programs actively recruit and hire the right candidates for the right school context, and are consistent with principles of how adults learn best (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005) by providing learning approaches that are experiential, problem based, and authentic (Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012).
An overview of the research that addresses these and other features of effective principal preparation programs and the available literature on program outcomes follows.
Rigorous recruitment and selection of program candidates. Rigorous recruitment and selection processes in principal preparation programs are important components of program effectiveness (Darling-Hammond et al., 2007; Orr, 2011), and these practices have been found in exemplary preparation programs (Darling-Hammond et al., 2010). Recruitment and selection are complementary processes; recruitment strategies impact the candidate pool in terms of characteristics such as diversity and degree of leadership potential, while selection strategies emphasize the intentional or unintentional ways that candidates are invited into preparation programs (Fuller, Reynolds, & O’Doherty, 2017).
Traditional indicators that are often used to select candidates in graduate leadership programs (e.g., Graduate Record Exam, or GRE) may be ineffective in identifying those capable of leading in many school contexts (McCarthy, 2015). Selection processes should factor in characteristics associated with effective leadership practice in particular school contexts rather than relying solely on test scores that purport to show the potential for academic success in graduate school (Hess & Kelly, 2005) but may not predict program acceptance or completion (Young, 2008). Multiple measures that assess the skills and knowledge associated with effective school leadership offer a way to get an authentic picture of a candidate’s potential for success (Sutcher, Podolsky, & Espinoza, 2017; Young, 2015a). For example, performance assessments may include measures such as a candidate’s capability to analyze data and plan strategically, evaluate instruction through written and oral feedback, and address inequities based on case studies (Cosner, Tozer, Zavitkovsky, & Whalen, 2015).
Rather than rely primarily on self-selection into administrator certification programs (Farley-Ripple, Raffel, & Welch, 2012; Murphy, Young, Crow, & Ogawa, 2009), many districts must recruit both internally through grow-your-own programs, and externally by targeted recruitment that identifies leaders with the potential to be effective in particular school contexts. Leadership pipeline research demonstrates the value of strategically focusing on a pool of potential candidates who truly want to work as principals rather than broadly recruiting a larger pool of individuals (Fuller, Reynolds, & O’Doherty, 2017; Korach & Cosner, 2017). Many times, however, potential school leaders are identified informally through “tapping” processes, in which someone, often the principal, identifies and urges a teacher to enter a school leader preparation program (Fuller et al., 2017). Research suggests that while principals tap those whom they believe have more school-level leadership experience, they also disproportionally identify male teachers and those with whom they share the same ethnicity (Myung, Loeb, & Horng, 2011).
Program-district partnerships, in which universities and districts collaborate to recruit the right individuals into leadership roles, can serve to develop a candidate pool that reflects the diversity of the school community and reduce reliance on self-selection (Hitt, Tucker, & Young, 2012). State policymakers are increasingly supporting these partnerships; for example, Illinois enacted legislation that requires these partnerships and provides supporting documents and policy language to encourage successful implementation (Fuller et al., 2017) (see later discussion on program-district partnerships). Mission-focused preparation programs align their recruitment and selection processes to identify candidates both committed to these missions and with the aptitude to lead in various contexts, such as rural (Sanzo, Myran, & Normore, 2012), urban (Cosner et al., 2015), and turnaround schools (Davis, Leon, & Fultz, 2012).
Research-based and standards-aligned curriculum. McCarthy (2015) described a historic shift from a curricular focus on school management, finance, and budgeting to instructional leadership and leadership for student learning (Hackman & McCarthy, 2011; Hallinger & Heck, 2010); however, McCarthy cited research suggesting that courses offered in many programs had remained largely the same, and continued to emphasize discrete disciplines such as school law and school finance rather than the integrated and coherent programs of study thought to characterize exemplary programs (Hackmann & McCarthy, 2011). While the notion of standards-based programs emerged through the development of national standards for administrative licensure for leadership preparation programs (e.g., National Policy Board for Educational Administration [NPBEA], 2018), preparation programs in many cases have chosen to tweak course offerings by plugging standards into existing courses rather than making substantive changes to re-create programs around these standards (Murphy et al., 2008).
Research shows that exemplary preparation programs align with research-based standards and coherently link program goals, learning activities, and assessments with the program’s shared values, beliefs, and knowledge about what constitutes organizational effectiveness (Darling-Hammond et al., 2010; Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012; Orr & Orphanos, 2011). Learning and instruction represent the technical core of schooling (Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstrom, & Anderson, 2010), and principals are charged with creating structures and programs to support teaching and learning (Marks & Printy, 2003; Sebastian & Allensworth, 2012). Instructional leadership capacity building focuses on “the knowledge, skills, and commitments a leader needs to diagnose, develop, implement, and evaluate coherent systems of curriculum, instruction, data systems, supports, and assessment” (NPBEA, 2018, p. 88). Principals in high-quality programs become effective leaders capable of building teams of teachers who can support the development of students’ academic, social, and emotional skills, as well as differentiate teaching strategies to meet unique students’ needs (Sutcher et al., 2017).
Effective principal preparation programs include curricula that prepare leaders to develop collegial and collaborative staff learning environments, which are associated with improved student achievement (Wei, Darling-Hammond, Andree, Richardson, & Orphanos, 2009) and reductions in teacher turnover (Pogodzinski, Youngs, & Frank, 2013). Principal candidates need coursework and authentic learning experiences to help them develop structures that build teachers’ professional capacity and enable collaboration, such as extended blocks of time for planning and methods of distributed (or shared) leadership (Sutcher et al., 2017). For example, the University of Connecticut’s preparation program involves candidates practicing collaborative leadership tasks, such as encouraging teacher input and active involvement in school decision making (Darling-Hammond et al., 2007).
High-quality preparation programs focus on developing leaders with the capacity to enact continuous school improvement by preparing them with the knowledge and skills needed to establish ambitious goals and plans to accomplish these goals (Jacob, Goddard, Kim, Miller, & Goddard, 2015; Sutcher et al., 2017); to implement, monitor, and adjust improvement plans; and to rally staff, parents, and students to support improvement plans (Billingsley & McLeskey, 2014). These programs also include curricula that prepare educators to use data and collective inquiry(including staff, families, and community organizations) processes to pinpoint educational problems and identify strategies for improvement (Sutcher et al., 2017), arming candidates with quantitative and qualitative data analysis skills, including the observation of classroom instruction. The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Education Leadership program trains candidates to use a cycle of inquiry that includes (1) identifying root causes of problems (instruction, organization, leadership); (2) selecting instructional improvement strategies and a plan for strategy enactment; (3) setting process and outcome goals and a plan for goal assessment; (4) enacting a strategy action plan; and (5) diagnosing process and outcome progress and adjusting as needed (Cosner et al., 2015).
Many principal preparation programs now include curriculum units on cultural foundations and social justice to better prepare school leaders who are culturally competent and can promote equity, inclusion, and equal access to learning for the nation’s increasingly diverse student population (Barakat, Reames, & Kensler, 2018; Crow & Whiteman, 2016; Khalifa, Gooden, & Davis, 2016). Barakat and colleagues summarized the research on building the cultural competence of school leaders; they noted that a selective admissions process (including a commitment to social justice/equity), the experience of traveling and/or studying abroad, diverse cohort and faculty members, field/internship experiences in diverse settings, and a special diversity or social justice course were program components that correlated with the cultural competence of school leaders.
However, few school leadership programs evaluate participants’ cultural competence as a program outcome (Crow & Whiteman, 2016). While few studies have addressed the impact of these programs, several studies have demonstrated that high-quality programs contributed positively to participants’ cultural knowledge, beliefs, and motivations. For example, a leadership for social justice course resulted in positive developmental shifts in preservice candidates’ dispositions in areas such as appreciating diversity as an asset and providing a safe and supportive learning environment (Allen, Harper, & Koschoreck, 2017). However, most studies fail to measure or detect the impact on candidates’ actual cultural skills (Barakat, Reames, & Kensler, 2012, 2018). Barakat and colleagues suggested that “although having an internship component in diverse settings might be a good start, it would appear that additional program changes are needed for educational leadership students to develop necessary [cultural skills]” (Barakat et al., 2018, p. 18).
Curriculum standards for preparation programs also include community and external leadership, or “developing a leader’s knowledge, skills, and commitments necessary to engage families, community, and school personnel in order to strengthen student learning, support school improvement, and advocate for the needs of their school and community” (NPBEA, 2018, p. 89). Research suggests that meaningful family and community engagement contributes to positive student outcomes, and principals play a key role in creating structures to support this engagement (Louis et al., 2010), including two-way communication processes (Tschannen-Moran, 2001), and parent and family involvement (Sheldon, Epstein, & Galindo, 2010).
Finally, preparation programs address organizational management to develop candidates’ capacity to effectively run schools (NPBEA, 2018). School leaders must be able to develop and monitor school management and operations to support student learning and fulfill the school’s mission and vision, as well as be able to diagnose needs (e.g., fiscal, technology, and physical resources) and develop a resource plan to meet those needs (Robinson et al., 2008). Curricula related to organizational management also include building capacity to interpret and adhere to laws, rights, policies, and regulations related to schools (Grissom & Loeb, 2011; Louis et al., 2010).
Meaningful and authentic learning experiences. Principal preparation programs must provide pedagogies and learning activities consistent with how adults learn most effectively, which includes integrating life experiences with new knowledge and actively engaging with new experiences and information (Cunningham et al., 2018; Knowles et al., 2005). This learning is accomplished through the instructional approaches and program features described below.
Problem-based learning and reflection. Authentic, meaningful, and relevant problem-solving activities through the use of instructional activities such as case studies and simulations have received some research support (Cunningham et al., 2018; DeJong & Grundmeyer, 2018; Sutcher et al., 2017; Young, 2015b, 2015c; Young & Crow, 2017). Principals need to understand, represent, and solve problems encountered in practice, and some evidence suggests that this problem solving can be taught and developed in candidates (Copland, 2000) and offers a way to practice skills in protected and safe settings (Brazer & Bauer, 2013).
Case study analysis, in which candidates analyze problem-based scenarios and develop potential solutions, “provides a forum for self-directed learning with authentic problems of practice that aspiring leaders will encounter in their professional lives” (Byrne-Jiménez, Gooden, & Tucker, 2017, p. 184). Descriptive research has shown that case study analysis aligns with preparation standards, promotes candidate reflection and decision-making skills, and builds communities of practice (Crow & Whiteman, 2016).
Other learning experiences consistent with best practices in adult learning include role-playing, Socratic questioning methods, and technology-assisted simulations (National Institute for School Leadership, 2020; Taylor, Cordeiro, & Chrispeels, 2009). Critical reflection activities, such as journal writing about social justice issues in a relevant course or during clinical experiences, can encourage candidates to examine and question the assumptions that guide their way of thinking and making sense of the world (Boske, 2011; Byrne-Jiménez et al., 2017). Active and authentic problem-based learning experiences, when coupled with frequent opportunities for reflection and analysis of practice, support adult learning and are characteristic of exemplary preparation programs (Darling-Hammond et al., 2010; Orr & Orphanos, 2011; Perez, Uline, Johnson, James-Ward, & Basom, 2011). However, little direct empirical evidence exists regarding the impact of these pedagogical approaches on principal leadership and competencies (Byrne-Jiménez et al., 2017).
Internships and leadership mentoring/coaching. Field-based experiential learning through internships involves principal candidates applying and refining their skills as they serve in varying leadership capacities under the wing of experienced and ideally expert principals; this training is key to high-quality principal preparation and strongly influences the candidates’ learning and capacity to serve as instructional leaders in their schools (Darling-Hammond et al., 2010; Orr, 2011; Orr & Orphanos, 2011; Perez et al., 2011; Sutcher et al., 2017). These internships, also called residencies, constitute the aspect of leadership often referred to as clinical preparation. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) defines clinical preparation as “fully integrating a school-based experience throughout every facet of the program, providing candidates with adequate time and opportunity to engage in authentic adult leadership work and reflective practice experiences” (as cited in Mendels, 2016, p. 11). Internships are intended to help candidates strengthen their leadership and administrative skills while practicing relevant tasks such as communication, evaluation of teaching, and resource management (Reyes-Guerra & Barnett, 2017).
Internship designs may be (1) full-time and job embedded, in which a candidate works in concentrated blocks of time as a quasi-administrator; (2) detached, in which a candidate takes a single course and engages in leadership tasks during off-duty teaching hours (before/after school, evenings, summer), documenting completion of activities in a journal or portfolio; or (3) course embedded, in which field-based experiences are integrated into a variety of courses to allow a candidate to connect learning to experiences in authentic settings (Barnett, Shoho, & Copland, 2010). Detached internships are most common (Reyes-Guerra & Barnett, 2017), although full-time, job-embedded internships, which are more intensive and in-depth and often involve university-district partnerships, are gaining appeal (Crow & Whiteman, 2016). High-quality internships have been shown to help candidates acquire standards-based skills (Ringler, Rouse, & St. Clair, 2012), increase their confidence in assuming leadership roles (Reyes-Guerra & Barnett, 2017), and see their work in increased layers of complexity, better preparing them to lead (Orr, 2011; Perez et al., 2011). However, some concerns have been raised about the tendency of many candidates to intern in the school where they already teach, thus limiting exposure to other school contexts; a lack of well-prepared mentors; and assignment of more procedural tasks (e.g., attendance, bus duty) than tasks that require engagement with meaningful problems of practice (Clayton, 2012; Reyes-Guerra & Barnett, 2017).
Exemplary internship programs possess several characteristics in common. These internships establish clear expectations for a candidate’s responsibilities and roles (Clayton & Myran, 2013), provide the candidate with authentic leadership responsibilities (Havard, Morgan, & Patrick, 2010), and include highly effective mentoring and coaching that include modeling of leadership skills (Duncan, Range, & Scherz, 2011; Sutcher et al., 2017).
Coaching and mentoring are consistent with all aspects of supporting adult learning, and are essential to facilitate transfer of new learning to the school setting (Southern Regional Education Board, 2007; Zepeda, 2013). Effective mentors share their expertise and help candidates reflect on their practice (Mendels, 2016), and can “help candidates link their internship experiences to the theories and problem-based activities they learn in their coursework” (Sutcher et al., 2017, p. 10). Preparation programs often seek to identify mentors who have proven experience with enhancing instruction in their schools (Bartee, 2012), but also make selections based on professional reputation, years of administrative experience, and willingness to spend sufficient time with interns as well as to participate in mentor training (Brooks, Havard, Tatum, & Patrick, 2010; Havard et al., 2010). The mentor-intern relationship can flourish when respect, openness, and trust are established mutually, when reflection is encouraged and conversations are thought provoking and nonjudgmental, and when the mentoring relationship is given priority through frequent opportunities for face-to-face contact (Schechter, 2014).
Some exemplary preparation programs offer intensive internship experiences; for example, the New Leaders alternative preparation program includes a yearlong residency in which candidates typically serve as assistant principals while being mentored by an expert principal (Gates et al., 2014). Other programs involve program-district collaborative efforts to pair candidates with expert principals (Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012). The University of Illinois at Chicago’s doctorate in urban education provides a fully paid, yearlong principal residency that is district funded, and includes site-based leadership coaching during the principal residency and continuing as a candidate transitions to assistant principal or principal (Cosner et al., 2015).
While highly effective, these programs are expensive and can present barriers to institutions and candidates if districts do not cover the costs (Mendels, 2016). High-quality programs provide financial support to candidates to complete their internships; for example, the Principal Fellows Program offered in North Carolina uses state funding to support yearlong principal internships (University of North Carolina General Administration, 2020).
Supportive program structures for candidate learning. Research has identified several features of high-quality principal preparation programs that relate to how they are designed, organized, and delivered to optimize candidate learning.
Cohort models. A limited research base has shown that having small groups of aspiring principals progress through multiyear programs together collaboratively as peers promotes several positive leadership-related outcomes (Crow & Whiteman, 2016), and is generally considered a key element in high-quality or exemplary preparation programs (Cosner et al., 2015; Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012; Greenlee & Karanxha, 2010; McCarthy, 2015; Sutcher et al., 2017). Cohort models have been shown to increase the likelihood of program completion (Nimer, 2009); build candidates’ capacity to develop peer relationships and networks, and help them develop a sense of trust and community in their programs (Greenlee & Karanxha, 2010; Salazar, Pazey, & Zembik, 2013); improve leadership learning and development (Ni et al., 2019; Salazar et al., 2013); and increase the likelihood that candidates feel well prepared for the principal role (Huang, Beachum, White, Kaimal, Fitzgerald, & Reed, 2012). In addition, evidence suggests that cohort models in exemplary programs create lasting networks of graduates who can share ideas and resources, and engage in problem solving and critical reflection with peers well into their careers (Darling-Hammond et al., 2007).
Program-district partnerships. Partnerships between university or alternative principal preparation programs and districts are increasingly used in establishing program structure, content, and delivery (McCarthy, 2015), and are considered a feature of exemplary programs (Mendels, 2016). The program and the district often jointly carry out candidate recruitment and selection, and university faculty, district personnel, and exemplary practitioners engage in team teaching (Sutcher et al., 2017). Effective collaboration between programs and districts enables candidates to experience coherently linked clinical training and coursework and helps them bridge theory into practice (Sanzo, Myran, & Clayton, 2011).
However, as noted earlier, these program-district collaborations continue to be relatively rare (Mendels, 2016). Research has identified several challenges, including inconsistency in ownership and participation by all stakeholders, high rates of leader turnover in districts, difficulties in placing interns, and institutional barriers and poor economic conditions (Brooks et al., 2010; Browne-Ferrigno, 2011). Nonetheless, there are calls in the literature for state policy changes to encourage these partnerships, such as making program-district collaboration a qualification for program accreditation (Mendels, 2016).
In some cases, districts play a key role in designing preparation programs (Merchant & Garza, 2016), and effective partnerships often consist of district funding of leadership candidates’ programs (Cosner et al., 2015). The Urban School Leaders Collaborative, for example, was designed by district and university leaders to build social justice–focused leadership capacity in an urban district that educates large numbers of Latino students (Merchant & Garza, 2016). In addition to contributing to the program design, the district participates actively in the selection of candidates, and district leaders frequently serve as adjunct faculty to teach program coursework; these components have strengthened personal relationships and trust among students, district personnel, and faculty (Merchant & Garza, 2016).
Online/distance learning models. While not explicitly noted in the literature as a key component of high-quality principal preparation programs, online learning models are a growing trend in delivery mode for educational leadership preparation programs (Anderson et al., 2018; Hackman & McCarthy, 2011), and thus their discussion is warranted. Some programs are fully online while others offer hybrid models, which include both in-person and distance coursework (Perrone, Rice, Anderson, & Budhwani, 2020). One recent study found that 43% of programs nationally offered a fully online pathway to principal licensure (Perrone et al., 2020), and another revealed that 84% of programs offered at UCEA institutions included at least a few hybrid learning opportunities (Anderson et al., 2018).
The perceived benefits of online learning options include increased access to courses in rural areas, which often struggle with higher principal turnover rates and a lack of a sufficient pool of qualified replacements (Pendola & Fuller, 2018), increased flexibility for candidates already working full-time in school systems or elsewhere (Anderson et al., 2018), and the potential for minimizing gender, race, and disability disadvantages that may occur in face-to-face programs (Preis, Grogan, Sherman, & Beaty, 2007). Although research is only just emerging on the effectiveness of online versus face-to-face delivery, some early evidence suggests few if any differences in learning outcomes (Korach & Agans, 2011; Mullen, 2020), which may have implications when weighing the costs of providing face-to-face instruction versus virtual instruction.
Authentic and meaningful student assessment. High-quality principal preparation programs use standards-based assessments to elicit feedback for both the candidate and the program generally; these assessments are tied to program vision and goals and are used for continuous program improvement (Davis et al., 2005; Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012; Sutcher et al., 2017; Young & Crow, 2017). In a review of five exemplary programs, Davis and Darling-Hammond (2012) found that all five assessed candidate competence both throughout and at the completion of programs using multiple performance measures. Examples included structured portfolios containing critical work products, problem-based learning projects, professional platform statements, monthly site visits, and formal evaluations.
Portfolios have received the most research attention in the literature, with some descriptive studies documenting the connection between standards-aligned portfolios and reflective practice, and the capacity of portfolios to represent positive trends in candidates’ understanding and application of standards as they progress through a preparation program (Crow & Whiteman, 2016). Other measures of candidate learning may include end-of course reflections and quality of action research projects (Buskey & Karvonen, 2012), as well as capstone thesis projects that engage students with documentation and analysis of cycle and inquiry leadership work conducted through a residency program (Cosner et al., 2015).
Formative assessment measures used throughout the program to gauge candidate progress and adjust programming as needed, and summative measures used at the end of programs to determine candidate outcomes are both needed for continuous improvement of preparation programs (Korach & Agans, 2011).
Rigorous program evaluation. While there is a good deal of implementation evidence that identifies components common to exemplary school leader preparation programs, much less rigorous evidence is available on how these programs promote candidate learning, on-the-job leadership performance, and school performance, and on how they influence career outcomes (Black & Murtadha, 2007; Crow & Whiteman, 2016; Herman, et al., 2017; McCarthy, 2015; Ni, Hollingsworth, Rorrer, & Pounder, 2016; Orr & Barber, 2009), despite the increasing state and national emphasis on program evaluation (Crow & Whiteman, 2016). However, several researchers have documented preparation program impact on self-reported learning outcomes, leadership confidence and efficacy, and satisfaction of graduates (Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012; Ni et al., 2019; Orr, 2011). In a review of exemplary programs. Davis and Darling-Hammond (2012) found that the programs produced high levels of satisfaction and high levels of confidence and efficacy with administrative and instructional leadership tasks. Orr (2011) found positive associations between program features (e.g., program content, delivery strategies, supports, internship) and self-reported graduate learning outcomes.
Orr and Orphanos (2011) found that exemplary preparation program graduates reported higher program quality and internship quality than a national sample of conventional program graduates, and that these higher qualities significantly impacted graduates’ learning about organizational and instructional leadership. Additional research is needed to determine whether graduates are able to demonstrate the two key dimensions of learning transfer (Blume, Ford, Baldwin, & Huang, 2010): generalization of learned skills to a variety of leadership tasks and contexts, and maintenance of acquired leadership skills over time (Ni et al., 2019).
The UCEA has responded to the overall lack of evidence on effectiveness of leadership preparation programs by establishing the INSPIRE Institute for the Evaluation of Educational Leadership Preparation, which equips practitioners with systemic, valid, and reliable evaluation tools (Winn et al., 2016). One tool is the INSPIRE-G survey, which is used to collect information on recent graduates’ assessments of their program experiences and perceptions of various program quality elements, and their self-assessed learning about leadership (Ni et al., 2019).
A recent national study found that graduates who reported high-quality program features (program rigor/relevance, faculty quality, peer relationships, cohort structure, and internship experiences) reported higher levels of knowledge and skills related to leadership learning; strongest associations were found for program rigor/relevance and faculty quality, although the faculty quality association was fully explained by a program’s rigor/relevance. (Ni et al., 2019). Furthermore, cohort models, while positively related to learning outcomes, had an indirect impact and were found to be mediated by peer relationships. Findings from this study add confirmation to the research addressing features of exemplary preparation program, such as coherent content emphasizing instructional leadership, high-quality clinical experiences, and cohort models that build teamwork and collaborative learning (Ni et al., 2019).
Currently under debate in the research literature are best practices in the identification of common metrics (outside of self-report data) to assess the effectiveness of principal preparation programs (McCarthy, 2015). Commonly discussed metrics include graduates’ success in increasing student achievement, effectiveness as leaders, job placement rates, and subsequent retention in the position. In an analysis of principal preparation programs in Tennessee, Grissom et al. (2019) found associations between these programs and high and low principal job performance (e.g., ratings received by supervisors and teacher ratings of leadership quality), but program effectiveness rankings varied by the type of outcome (labor market, job performance, licensure scores) measured, and the researchers were unable to discern exemplary programs or those that were failing and required intervention.
The researchers also determined that the school context (e.g., numbers of disadvantaged students in the school or district) into which principals are hired varied considerably across the preparation programs, and that analysis of these factors must be included in any evaluations of these programs. The researchers and others warn that, in some cases, using these metrics exclusively may lead policymakers to make unwarranted conclusions about leadership program quality and effectiveness (Fuller & Hollingsworth, 2018; Grissom et al., 2019).
Several principal preparation programs incorporate many of the exemplary program characteristics previously discussed, and employ rigorous evaluation processes to determine program impact. New Leaders’ Aspiring Principals program (APP), is a national alternative certification program that recruits and trains aspiring principals who then serve in urban high-need schools. The program provides the core elements of selective recruitment and admissions, strong program-district partnerships, alignment to research-based standards, residency-based training, data use for continuous improvement, and early tenure endorsement and support (Gates, Baird, Doss, et al., 2019; Gates et al., 2014). A 5-year evaluation of the impact of this model found that students in schools led by program graduates made small but significantly larger achievement gains in reading and math than students at schools led by non-APP new principals, although the magnitude of effects varied substantially across districts (Burkhauser, Gates, Hamilton, & Ikemoto, 2012; Gates et al., 2014). In addition, almost two thirds of New Leaders alumni were people of color, compared with an average of 20% of principals and teachers nationally. A subsequent follow-up analysis continued to find high levels of APP candidate diversity, higher achievement scores and higher attendance levels at schools led by APP graduates, and higher 2-year (but not 3-year) principal retention and placement rates into principal positions compared with non-APP graduates who were also new principals (Gates, Baird, Doss, et al., 2019).
Another example of more rigorous program evaluation is the research-supported Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline Initiative (PPI). As stated previously, attracting effective principal candidates is most acute for hard-to-staff schools, which often lack applicant pools with sufficient numbers of candidates who have relevant leadership experience, leading to high levels of attrition and ongoing cycles of hiring replacements, particularly in low-income urban settings (Center on School Turnaround, 2017; Goldhaber, Lavery, & Theobald, 2015). In 2011, PPI invested in six large urban districts, engaging these districts and preparation programs in collaborative recruitment and selection efforts aligned with district leadership standards (Turnbull, Riley & MacFarlane, 2015). District-developed standards further guided preparation, hiring, evaluation, and support of principals, and PPI supported districts as they developed tracking systems that documented where leaders were prepared, their career paths, and evaluation data. These tracking systems, in turn, provided data to inform preparation/professional development programs and decisions about hiring and placements, as well as specific principal competency needs in the district (Turnbull, et al., 2015). A longitudinal analysis demonstrated that schools, particularly those in the lowest quartile, with newly placed principals in PPI districts had significantly higher academic performance than comparison schools with newly placed principals, and PPI principals were more likely to be retained after 2 and 3 years on the job (Gates, Baird, Master, & Chavez-Herrerias, 2019).
A cost-effectiveness analysis revealed that PPI did not represent a “big ticket” district expenditure, with participating districts devoting 0.4% of their current expenditures to principal pipeline activities (Kaufman, Gates, Harvey, Wang, & Barrett, 2017). An academic return on investment (ROI) analysis found that the per-student costs ($42) were small relative to student achievement benefits compared with other academic interventions (Gates, Baird, Master, et al., 2019). This finding is consistent with other research that demonstrates the cost effectiveness of successful school leadership initiatives, such as the National Institute for School Leadership’s executive development program (Nunnery, Ross, Chappell, Pribesh, & Hoag-Carhart, 2011; Nunnery, Yen, & Ross, 2011).
Summary and Conclusions
Principals are highly important to schools, as they create school conditions that enable high-quality teaching and learning, and effective preparation programs are needed to equip candidates with the knowledge and skills needed to create these conditions. Aspiring principals have an increasing selection of preparation pathways, including alternative programs outside the traditional university setting. Recent national data on university preparation programs show increases in the number of institutions offering programs, credentials earned, and number of faculty with clinical experience in K–12 settings; however, surveys of faculty and district leaders reveal questions about the quality of many university preparation programs. While little is known about direct principal preparation program outcomes, a larger, though primarily descriptive, research base suggests that exemplary preparation programs provide several high-quality features and components.
Exemplary principal preparation programs carefully recruit, select, and train the right candidates to lead schools rather than relying on self-selection or less formal “tapping” processes that may not result in an appropriately diverse or qualified pool of candidates. Ideally, this careful selection includes multiple measures of a candidate’s potential to be successful as a school leader in the district context. These programs also include curricula that are aligned with quality standards for best practices. Highly effective programs prepare principals to use data and collective inquiry processes to foster continuous school improvement, establish collegiality and collaboration among staff for improved teaching and learning, exert leadership through their work with families and the community, and become effective organizational managers of personnel, resources, etc. Most preparation programs also incorporate curricula that address cultural competence and/or social justice issues; evidence suggests that minor tweaks such as adding a course to cover these issues may not be sufficient and that more comprehensive programming adjustments may be needed.
Effective preparation programs provide authentic and meaningful instruction to arm principal candidates with school leadership knowledge and skills that enable transfer of program learning to authentic educational contexts. This instruction is consistent with how adults learn most effectively and includes plenty of active engagement through coursework and clinical experience that enhance a candidate’s capacity to integrate new learning with prior experience. This active engagement can be fostered through problem-based learning coupled with critical reflection activities. Internships in school settings frequently are shorter term and part-time; however, longer field experiences that include authentic leadership tasks and high-quality mentoring and coaching likely enhance the benefits of these experiences. As these internships are more costly, exemplary programs are often district funded to reduce the financial burden on principal candidates.
Most of the research suggests that cohort models are effective ways to organize candidate learning in principal preparation programs, serving to build collaborative relationships among candidates and establishing networks of peers that can provide lasting sources of support. Program-district partnerships, in which program and district staff work together to recruit and select candidates and provide coherent, tightly aligned coursework and clinical experiences that meet leadership needs in the district context, represent an additional supportive structure of high-quality programs. However, these collaborative relationships are rare, although state policies to require this collaboration may increase their quantity. Increasingly, programs are offering online instructional delivery, which may have certain advantages over face-to-face models in terms of increased access and flexibility; however, much more research is needed to discern the relative effectiveness of online versus face-to-face programming in these programs.
More and more, the literature has called for programs to document their effectiveness in preparing effective school leaders. Exemplary programs use multiple forms of authentic and meaningful student performance assessment to provide both formative and summative data, such as structured portfolios and action research projects that document learning and are tied tightly to program goals. Little is known about how principal preparation programs directly impact candidate learning, career outcomes, and school performance. However, recent research has established a link between graduates’ ratings of high-quality program features and their self-reported learning outcomes; researchers are just beginning to explore how principal preparation programs may influence outcomes such as principal retention, job performance, and licensure scores. Several exemplary programs have used more rigorous program evaluation methods to document positive outcomes—for example, improved student achievement, principal diversity, and retention—as well as demonstrate the program’s cost effectiveness and return-on-investment.
In conclusion, while we know a good deal about what constitutes a high-quality principal preparation program, we know much less about the effectiveness of programs more broadly and which types of delivery models may be most beneficial. This is somewhat problematic given the rapid rise in the numbers of programs and degrees awarded, the trend toward online learning in programs, and the recent increase in alternative certification pathways. There is some evidence to suggest that substantive quality improvements are needed for many leadership preparation programs; however, much more rigorous research is needed to understand the extent and nature of the changes needed.
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