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Professionalizing the Principalship

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The question of whether or not educational administration is a profession comes up periodically, and is on the table again now. Issues that are fueling this current discussion include new expectations for the principal arising from site-based management, initiatives to eliminate teaching as a licensure requirement for the principalship, and proposals for alternative credentialing based on generic management training or business experience. Once again, assumptions by principals and other school administrators about their own professionalism are being examined.

Some citizens view the professional preparation of principals as unnecessary or unrelated to job performance, or, to state it starkly, the public must not be convinced that principals are professionals if they view the preparation of principals as insignificant or discretionary. Professions are not insignificant or discretionary; they require substantial preparation in a cohesive body of knowledge and lead to the application of specialized skills in the workplace. There are no alternative curricula for preparing architects or attorneys or accountants or nurses. Why should the principalship, if it is a profession, be different?

Roger Soder, the associate director of the Center for Educational Renewal, pointed out several years ago in a trenchant Phi Delta Kappan article on the education of educators that those in many occupations, including teachers and principals, aspire to become members of a "first-rank, legitimate profession.'' He listed 15 features of professional training found in the "established professions,'' many of which are marginal or missing in the preparation of educational administrators. Candidates for the principalship, for example, are generally self-selected, rather than being recruited against certain abilities and traits; standards for the licensure of principals vary widely state by state; the influence of licensure on the preparation of principals and other administrators is limited when compared with other professions, and no common framework of knowledge and skills is taught in graduate schools.

Early this century, John Dewey urged educators to recognize the need for professionalism. Invoking the comers among professions, including medicine and law, he argued, as Mr. Soder has noted, that "teachers should try to find what they may learn from the more extensive and matured experience of other callings.'' That road has proved a rough one for principals and other educators to travel as they fall into the potholes of state indifference about standards, fear by universities of losing academic independence, and benign neglect by professional associations which rightfully should be the chief advocates of rigorous standards.

Today, admission to the principalship reflects a smorgasbord of state requirements, despite a growing consensus on the knowledge and skill base required for practice. In their 1992 paper, "The Licensure of School Administrators: Policy and Practice,'' Carl R. Ashbaugh and Katherine L. Kasten report that 41 states require some type of licensure for the principalship. Only 26 of these states, however, have a specific license designed for the principalship; the balance stipulate an endorsement to the general administrative license or require a generic license.

This lack of a consistent framework for licensure as a principal is complicated by a veritable rainbow of degree and program expectations. To qualify for the initial license to practice, principals are required in 36 states to have a master's degree or a master's degree plus additional graduate hours. In the other states, some graduate credit is required. Most states, however, fail to stipulate a major for the master's degree. Thirty states only specify a certain number of graduate credit hours in the field of educational administration, and fewer than half of the states, 23, designate the content of graduate studies. Only 17 states require a clinical component for licensure, usually an internship. Small wonder that the public and state legislators became confused about the professional standards and status of the principalship.

Furthermore, no agreement exists on professional expectations prior to or following licensure. Five states do not require teaching experience as a condition of licensure, and provisions for maintaining licensure after admission to practice include a broad spectrum of graduate studies and professional-development activities and professional experiences, few consistent state by state. Providers may be universities, professional associations, state departments of education, regional or intermediate educational agencies, or entrepreneurs. Clearly, the licensure and continuing education of principals is in disarray, eroding admission standards to practice and damaging the quality of preparation of the candidates. To actually achieve mature professional status, some changes are obviously necessary, beginning with agreement on the core knowledge and skills required for practice.

Licensure should continue to rest with the states because of the compelling state interest in the quality of principals and other school administrators, and the clear state responsibility to protect its citizens from malpractice through licensing procedures. A lack of common requirements for licensure is difficult to defend when considering the commonalities in knowledge and skills developed by other professions licensed by the separate states, ranging from architecture and accounting to medicine and law. Furthermore, little support for the requirements of some states can be found in management and leadership literature, or in current practice. Some state specifications are viewed as unnecessary or tangential to successful performance as a principal. And, according to Mr. Ashbaugh and Ms. Kasten, these specifications "often appear to respond to supply-and-demand cycles in the workplace, rather than to requirements that insure a competent, well-qualified, professional workforce.''

Professionalism stands on two "legs'': the quality of standards required for licensure and the relevancy of content and skills taught in preparation programs. With the licensure leg weak, can professional standing be salvaged with rigorous preparation programs?

Unfortunately, most preparation programs are inadequate. The full chorus of criticisms will not be repeated here, but it is extensive and well documented. For example, in a broad study of preparation programs, Laurie Churchill-Witters and Dave Erlandson report in The Principalship in the 90's and Beyond that "practicing school administrators judge their university training to have been easy, boring, and only intermittently useful to them.''

This dreary testimony is rarely disputed by practicing principals. Some attentive universities, including many affiliated with the Danforth Principal Preparation Network, have begun major program revisions in response to customer complaints. Few, however, weave together theoretical knowledge, applied knowledge and skills, and clinical practice.

Occupations that have grown to be recognized as mature professions usually have taken two clear steps: (1) A consistent body of knowledge and skills has been defined by members of the profession; (2) these knowledge and skills have been translated into a common examination system to be administered by state licensing bodies. In the legal profession, a variety of state-specific content supplements national materials. All of the professions, however, agree on a common core of knowledge and use common evaluation material developed by test-development corporations under the guidance of professional boards or societies. For example, an accountant must pass a national examination in which content is determined by the National Association of State Boards of Accounting and which is administered by separate state licensing boards. An architect must pass an evaluation in which the content is determined by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards and the administration is handled by separate state boards.

Examination systems for the established, mature professions began as separate state operations but eventually became essentially national in scope. Furthermore, these systems started as assessments of subject-matter knowledge but have moved toward assessing competencies used on the job. Meanwhile, licensure for principals and other school administrators has remained state-specific, with a focus on completing course content rather than on assessing job-related performance.

States must begin to take their licensing responsibilities for the principalship seriously. The formulation of licensure standards should involve all the central stakeholders, coordinated by a state licensing board or the state superintendent's office. School districts, professional associations, universities, and other appropriate agencies, such as LEAD centers, should be included along with state officials in determining requirements for entry to practice as well as setting expectations for continuing professional development. Excellent guidelines for such action may be found in the monograph Developing School Leaders: A Call for Collaboration, recently published by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Failure to include all stakeholders in a common effort to define standards for admission to practice can result in serious mistakes, however well intentioned. For example, West Virginia's "Taco Bell'' legislation allows any person with management experience and a degree to become a school superintendent. Hence, the local manager of a small eating establishment could become a superintendent responsible for the education--and thus the life chances--of thousands of students. Tony J. Marchio, a former principal and currently the superintendent of the Randolph County, W.Va., schools, recently replaced a Taco Bell superintendent who was released after one year. Mr. Marchio found the district, in his words, "grossly mismanaged and in disarray.'' In this instance, the state clearly failed to protect its citizens against poorly prepared and incompetent practitioners.

A cavalier approach by some states to their licensing responsibilities for school administrators is likely to continue until a common body of knowledge and skills is defined by stakeholders and translated into licensure standards. Its absence invites cowboy solutions to serious matters of licensure and causes lapses in the crucial state function of protecting consumers from malpractice by inadequately prepared practitioners.

The recent publication of "Principals for Our Changing Schools: The Knowledge and Skill by the National Policy Board for Educational Administration provides an opportunity to gain general agreement on licensing standards for the principalship. (See Education Week, Feb. 3, 1993.) This document defines the core requirements of the principalship. As an organizing structure for the contemporary principalship, it affords a substantial platform from which to gain common agreement on the essentials of practice. This agreement affords the essential first step to professionalizing the principalship for the purpose of improving school outcomes.

State agencies and commissions should approach the development of common professional standards for principals as an opportunity to define the core knowledge and skills required for practice nationally, while also maintaining the privilege of defining unique requirements applicable to the separate states. Moreover, the development of a high-quality evaluation system that includes paper-and-pencil examinations, portfolio reviews, and performance measures is only possible by the collective involvement of several states and professional bodies.

Given the important role principals play in generating a school culture for learning, in improving student outcomes, in creating a common effort, and in causing the resources of the school site to be used effectively, the professionalization of the principalship no longer is an option. Without this step, the public and the students will continue to be shortchanged and policy decisions affecting licensure misguided.

Scott D. Thomson is the executive secretary of the National Policy Board for Educational Administration. This essay was adapted from an article to be published this summer in the International Journal of Educational Reform.

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