Building on Experience

By Bess Keller — May 03, 2000 13 min read

Maverick principal Dennis Littky decided not long ago to tackle the biggest educational problem he could find.

A risk-taking reformer from way back, with a near-firing in his days as a New Hampshire school leader to prove it, Littky wondered why the formal preparation of principals is notoriously inadequate for the job they face.

As he sees it, if principals are the key to a school’s success, why is the preparation so unsatisfactory—about as wrong-headed as expecting someone to whip up a meal for a hungry crowd on the basis of some courses in economics and chemistry?

So the irrepressible educator, who is now a co-director of an experimental alternative high school in Providence, R.I., took a stab at a new way of preparing principals, one that uses an apprenticeship model and gives almost no quarter to the universities that control entrance into the profession.

He explains his approach simply: “You get the best people in the field, and the students get trained by them. It just makes sense.”

Though more radical than other programs, Littky’s is far from the only recent attempt to move the training of principals in new directions. Quietly, under cover of educational lingo and university requirements, reformers around the country have established beachheads of clinical education for principals.

The programs view schools—not university lecture halls—as the proper training ground for future leaders, and they put student learning as job one for principals.

While traditional courses still characterize most programs, 20 years of unrelenting criticism about the dismal state of administrator preparation have made some inroads. Here and there, programs have sharpened their sense of mission, forged close ties with school districts, and overhauled classroom instruction. Many have beefed up their internships to add more actual school experience.

“These things are happening,” says Nancy Protheroe, a researcher with the Educational Research Service in Arlington, Va., who has just completed a study for the two national associations representing elementary and secondary school principals. “But they are not happening fast enough.”

Districts around the country are reporting that pools of principal candidates are drying up, while the pressures on schools to do a better job of educating their students continue to build. As new accountability measures take effect, a broad consensus has emerged in education policy circles that raising the quality of school leadership is essential. Part of the reason that principal training is not evolving fast enough, according to Protheroe and others, is that there is no central information bank for the programs. Nor has a national movement to reform principal preparation taken hold.

“Realistic and responsive” programs exist, but unfortunately news of their success hasn’t traveled very far, says Michael D. Usdan, the executive director of the Institute for Educational Leadership, a Washington think tank that brings together business people, policymakers, and educators. “These heroes and heroines who made the programs need to become more visible in the quarters that move the agenda,” he said. “Otherwise, a lot of the information further reinforces the stereotype” of only time-wasting programs.

Anne C. Lewis, an independent education researcher and writer, recalls visiting principal-preparation programs a decade ago. For the most part, she recalls, “the classes were very theoretical, very textbook- based, and it was easy to sleep through them.” Little screening of new students occurred, nor were groups sent through a program together.

As new accountability measures take effect, a broad consensus has emerged in education policy circles that raising the quality of school leadership is essential.

Despite another 10 years of criticism, many efforts still fit that description, experts say.

But more than a few do not, thanks to some persistent reformers, including Littky and others.

About three years ago, professors at Ohio University abandoned their traditional training program in favor of an experimental one they were then trying out. Research suggested that “you can’t do worse than you’re doing” with a conventional program, says Aimee A. Howley, who is the coordinator of the new Rural Principals Program and a professor of educational leadership at the university in Athens, Ohio.

Following the new plan, part-time students—most of them teachers—enter the program in groups of about 20, taking courses and an internship seminar together. At the heart of the program is a structured internship that runs for two school years, most often in the school where a student is still teaching.

An evaluation of the pilot found that students “loved” the alternative, with its cohort of students, “while they were lukewarm about or didn’t like the traditional program,” Howley says. District superintendents said they were pleased with the graduates from the experimental program, and many have since become firm supporters now that the university has adopted it on a larger scale, the professor adds.

Typical of revamped programs, many courses at Ohio require students to use their own schools and districts for assignments. Would-be principals are required, for instance, to get to know and report on their experiences with a marginalized group of students, and they must conduct an audit of the social and educational resources in the school’s community.

One result is that students no longer spend much time merely listening to lectures from their professors, a change that parallels the switch to a more hands-on approach many classroom teachers have been asked to make.

“The quality of instruction has been exceptional,” says Diane L. Thompson, a former high school English teacher who will graduate from the program this spring and already heads a 550-student middle school in rural St. Clairsville, Ohio.

Through her internship, which in principal-poor eastern Ohio turned out to be a real-life job as an administrator, Thompson was required to keep a professional journal, which the professor who served as her field supervisor “read thoughtfully and commented on profusely.” Now, Thompson calls “the practice of reflection” the most valuable part of her training and one she hopes to continue.

Reflection—and a commitment to transforming schools—is the bedrock of the program for preparing principals at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Compared with the leap to a new program at Ohio University on the other side of the state, Miami’s changes came at a stately pace. A Danforth Foundation grant in the late 1980s started the educational leadership department on an overhaul that reached the principals’ program in the early 1990s.

Reflection—and a commitment to transforming schools—is the bedrock of the program for preparing principals at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Students are admitted only after an interview, and they move through the program—which includes internships that last through two school years—in groups of about 20. The prospective administrators are exposed early on to the 16 “principles” of the department, which make it clear that their future business is to change schools for the better, not to preserve the status quo.

“There’s a strong sense of equity issues and social justice around what we do here,” says Nelda H. Cambron-McCabe, a professor of educational leadership who helped draw up the principles in a two-year-long process. “All kids can learn,” she adds. “It’s a trite and overused phrase, but here it has meaning.”

Also fundamental to the department is its involvement with “partner” schools—public K-12 schools that collaborate with Miami University and receive help from its professors. “The schools put us in touch with what’s going on,” Cambron-McCabe says. “It has tremendous impact on how we prepare principals.”

Despite its strengths, however, she laments the part-time nature of the program, especially when it comes to the internship. Most students in principal-prep programs continue to teach full time during their internships—roughly the equivalent of a nurse trying to fit a medical internship into her off hours at the hospital.

“The reality is that people cannot give up their jobs,” Cambron-McCabe says. “When the ‘ed admin’ faculty get together, we prefer to have the students full time, but we know they have other options nearby.”

Money could go a long way toward solving the problem. But only a few districts or universities pay tuition, let alone offer the support that would allow a student to work full time at an administrative internship. North Carolina provides dozens of scholarships annually to help outstanding candidates study full time for two years. California eases the way with an administrative-intern credential, which allows students to legally function as administrators while attending school.

To address the problem in the absence of state money,

Apprenticeship models forge closer ties with schools, and overhaul the character of classroom instruction.

administrators at the University of New Mexico devised an innovative scheme that draws on district and university resources to give students more time working as interns.

Principal-prep students from Albuquerque and a few other participating districts contribute their teacher salaries to a university-district pool, the money from which is used to hire an aide for each teacher as well as pay the teacher’s tuition and books. Teachers also receive a stipend from the fund to help support them for the course of the program. As the internship year goes on, the teacher spends more time on administrative duties, leaving her class in the hands of the aide.

Donna L. Hauser, a student in the New Mexico program, teaches science at one Albuquerque middle school and interns at another. She says it’s a boon having the same two days there each week. “The principal schedules more meetings then, knowing I’m there to handle discipline and visit teachers.”

The 45-year-old teacher and former dental hygienist adds that the intensive 15-month “co-op” program appealed to her in part because “I didn’t want to spend a lot of years getting this training.” She also was looking for the kinds of hands-on opportunities the program provides.

By the time they graduate, Hauser and her fellow students will have completed three internships—in addition to one served under a principal, they spend shorter times working in a community agency and an educational agency such as a district office—all documented, along with coursework, in the thick binder that has replaced comprehensive exams at the school.

Hauser labors in select company. To be admitted into either the University of New Mexico’s co-op program or its five-year-long alternative, students must successfully undergo a daylong series of interviews and exercises to gauge their leadership potential. That is far more than principal-prep programs typically require. Even interviews are not always mandatory.

Mike M. Milstein, a professor emeritus in the educational administration department at the University of New Mexico, who studied innovative principal-prep programs for the Danforth Foundation, believes that universities have too often missed an important boat by hoarding control of their programs. “We talk partnership with the school district,” he says, “but the reality is we don’t like to let go.”

Now, though, principal shortages are pushing districts to do more to grow their own administrators. The 19,000-student Millard district in suburban Omaha, Neb., for instance, is paying tuition for a first round of courses toward principal certification. The courses are taught both by University of Nebraska at Omaha faculty members and by district administrators. Local districts encourage promising principal candidates to apply.

In New York City’s Community School District 2, known nationally for using teacher training to raise student achievement, leaders shopped for a university that would offer a complete principal-certification program tailored to the needs of the district.

District 2 found a match in the school of public affairs of City University of New York’s Baruch College. Professors from the school team-teach almost all the classes with administrators from the district, which pays the tuition for teachers interested in leading schools and helps support them through internships.

The yearlong program is designed both to lure outstanding teachers into administration and to enhance collegial spirit in a district that already prides itself on that.

Rhonda Perry wasn’t aiming for the principalship when she was recruited for the launch of the program last year. A veteran teacher with a master’s degree and eight years’ experience, she didn’t fancy earning administrator certification by “going to a completely different site and learning all this stuff, and then explaining to people the reality of the school and the district I’m in.”

Instead, she went to classes at schools in the 22,000-student district, one of 32 subdistricts of the huge New York City system, with colleagues, taught by colleagues, focused on district issues.

“To handpick a bunch of teachers is a recipe for a really good program,” Perry says. By design and by desire, “there was a lot of sharing.”

The newly minted administrator suggests that the experience would have been close to perfect except for two things: the pace, and having to crowd an internship in around teaching.

“The internships are really hard,” commiserates Tanya Kaufman, the coordinator of the program for the district. “I spend a lot of time with these interns, and they have anxiety about how they are going to complete 300 hours while teaching full time.”

If district and university leaders believe they have found ways to ground principal preparation in the real life of schools, Littky and others working on the Rhode Island-based Aspiring Principals Program think they can go a step further. Not only can every student be assured of spending meaningful time doing the work of a principal, each one also has the opportunity to learn from a master.

If some leaders believe they have found ways to ground principal preparation in the real life of schools, Littky and others working on the Rhode Island-based Aspiring Principals Program think they can go a step further.

Littky began by gathering 10 “distinguished principals” for his program, which focuses on preparing principals for small schools. The 10 include Deborah Meier, who won national acclaim in the 1980s for creating the innovative Central Park East Secondary School in New York.

He asked the principals to find promising candidates in their schools, and then designed a program that revolves around projects and demonstrations of mastery, including “exhibitions” at thrice- yearly gatherings of the aspiring principals and their mentors.

To win certification for participants, Littky’s Big Picture Co. cooperates with Johnson and Wales University in Providence and with Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore. But Littky makes sure that the university participation comes at no cost to the vision.

Roland S. Barth, the founder and former head of the Principals Center at Harvard University’s graduate school of education and the chairman of the board of the Aspiring Principals Program, believes universities should not be allowed to run the show. “Basically, they are aloof from the business they are supposed to be teaching,” he says.

There is no substitute for administrative experience under an inspired and skillful leader, Barth and many others say.

Charles W. Plant, a teacher and an aspiring principal at the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, the Providence school Littky co-directs with Elliot Washor, answers quickly when asked what part of the program has been most valuable: “It’s the constant exposure to Dennis and Elliot.”

But how many truly distinguished principals are there? Enough, says Littky, who hopes to have pilot Aspiring Principals programs running in three cities next year. That step is part of a plan to open a national office that will help find and vet master school leaders as well as provide materials and network coordination. The goal is to groom as many high-quality principals as possible.

Whether Littky’s dream takes off from its Providence launching pad or not, the existence of it and other innovative attempts at changing the preparation of principals is both a sign of the times and a warning.

“Finally,” Usdan of the Institute for Educational Leadership says, “concern about the leadership issue is catching up with the reform movement.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2000 edition of Education Week as Building on Experience