Principals’ Commission Urges Reforms To Align Their Preparation and Practice

By Lynn Olson — December 12, 1990 4 min read

Arguing that preparation for school leaders is out of tune with practice, the National Commission for the Principalship last week released a publication that calls for a major overhaul of such programs. According to the report, “Principals for Our Changing Schools,” most preparation programs are based on theory--and not on the knowledge, skills, and attributes that real-life principals employ in day-to-day situations.

“Traditional curricula have become largely obsolescent, overcome by the flood of change engulfing schools and new approaches for managing institutions,” Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said in releasing the report. “Most preparation programs are stuck in neutral gear rather than moving forward.”

Mr. Sava’s organization and the National Association of Secondary School Principals sponsored the work of the commission, which was funded by the Danforth and Geraldine R. Dodge foundations.

Although its immediate aim is to influence state licensing and accreditation practices, the commision’s long-term goal is to devise a national certification system for school principals, similar to that now being planned for teachers.

The report asserts that principals have the dominant responsibility for determining the quality of the learning environment in schools.

Thus, it argues, they must be prepared to exercise broad leadership in a number of areas, including the development of instructional programs, the cultivation of strong interpersonal relationships, and the management of large organizations.

During the past decade, the report notes, the expectations for principals have mounted. For example, it says, American students are now expected to match international achievement standards. In addition, principals nationwide are being encouraged to decentralize the way schools are managed.

“Many principals,” the report Lnotes, “were unprepared for these new circumstances.” Although some met the challenges, it says, “the knowledge and skills required for suc cess were largely learned the old-faH shioned way, on the job and day by day.”

To develop a new framework for preparing principals “based upon the realities of the workplace,” the commission conducted a task analy sis of the principalship.

It then convened focus groups of principals, assistant principals, and assistant superintendents who iden tified the knowledge and skills necessary to perform such tasks.

In addition, the commission relied on a conceptual model of the principalship developed with the Principals’ Center at Texas A&M University.

Integrating the two approaches, it came up with 21 “performance” do mains that describe the skills, knowledge, and attributes required of effective principals and around which successful preparation programs should be built.

In addition, the commission arL gues that clinical experiences should be interwoven with content throughout preparation programs.

Currently, many programs either do not require any clinical practice or schedule it after the completion of coursework.

The 21 performance domains range from the ability to exercise leadership and engage in curricu lum design to the ability to motivate and communicate well with others.

The commission is now contract ing with specialists to define the core concepts and proficiencies re quired of individuals within each do main.

A ‘New Knowledge Base'-(

When completed, the commission predicts, these materials will identi fy a “new knowledge base for the principalship” that will be published in a related document, sched uled for release next May.0

The document will also describe recommended delivery systems for acquiring such knowledge and skills, such as particular clinical or field experiences.


In addition, the commission plans to begin defining performance stan dards for the knowledge and skills identified in each domain. Such standards could be used by state cer tification boards and, eventually, by the National Policy Board for Edu cational Administration, to develop a national assessment system.

Scott D. Thomson, executive sec retary of the national policy board, also served as director for the com mission.

For now, the commission has ex pressed its willingness to work with colleges or state agencies interested in applying the domains to strength en their preparation and licensing programs.

According to the commission, ap proximately one-third of the revised programs would have to be based on new material; another third might consist of modifications in the cur rent curriculum.

“We envision a lean and mean, wholly modern preparation proram,’' Mr. Thomson said. “We are pursuing clear purpose, clear defini tions, and clear outcomes.” Copies of “Principals for Our hanging Schools” are available for $6.95 each from the National Com mission for the Principalship, 440 University Drive, Fairfax, Va. More information can be obtained from Mr. Thomson at (703) 323-3287 or (703) 764-6516.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 1990 edition of Education Week as Principals’ Commission Urges Reforms To Align Their Preparation and Practice