Training Programs for Administrators Are Target of Criticism

By Blake Rodman — March 11, 1987 12 min read

Schools of education, which in recent years have been sharply criticized for the way they train teachers, are coming under increasing fire for shortcomings in their programs to prepare school administrators.

Although the debate over teacher education has been conducted publicly and has received widespread media coverage, most of the criticisms aimed at programs to prepare administrators have been leveled by their own graduates and those within the education-school community.

And, these critics argue, if effective schools truly hinge on strong school leadership, as a number of researchers have maintained, then the deficiencies plaguing the programs that prepare administrators must be confronted.

“Bluntly,’' said Willis D. Hawley, dean of education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, “most programs for training school administrators range in quality from embarrassing to disastrous.’'

Critics have charged that there are too many programs to prepare administrators, and that they are outdated and out of touch with the schools, too theoretical and scholarly in their approach, and too easy to enter and complete.

Not all of the more than 500 programs that train school administrators nationwide are flawed by such problems, observers say, noting that some institutions offer sound courses of study.

Nonetheless, many school officials and those in colleges of education say they have been concerned for years about the quality of university programs that prepare principals, superintendents, and other school administrators.

And some observers say that a feeling that the movement for school reform has largely ignored the role of administrators has, in part, prompted a renewed cry for change.

Most recent education reports, while alluding to the importance of strong school leadership in advancing reform and creating effective schools, have not addressed the need for improvements in the way school leaders are trained and certified, said Scott Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

“None of the reports address how we should go about preparing effective leaders and designing an effective leadership role for schools,’' he said.

In the past year, though, concern about the future supply of qualified and competent school administrators has prompted the establishment of two national commissions to examine school leadership, the preparation and certification of administrators, and their continuing education.

One of those panels, the National Commission on Excellence in Educational Administration, is scheduled to release its final report and recommendations on March 18. The commission was created by the University Council for Educational Administration, a consortium of 48 universities working to improve the professional preparation of school administrators.

Its report will be the first national study in recent years to focus on the preparation, certification, and professional development of school administrators.

The other commission, formed by the secondary-school principals’ association, is not expected to finish its work for another 10 months.


Because many school principals and the university professors who train them will be retiring in the next decade, Mr. Thomson noted, the increased attention to the way schools of education prepare administrators is timely.

Roughly one in three of the nation’s school principals is expected to retire in the next five years, he said.

The resulting influx of new people, many argue, offers an opportunity for improving the ranks of school principals. But, they insist, policy changes regarding preparation and licensure must occur quickly if they are to have an impact.

The same is true for professors of educational administration. A recent survey found that roughly half of those who train administrators are 55 or older.

“This will give us a good chance to start with younger people andchange the quality of the programs and their orientation,’' said Michael Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University.

Because more lucrative opportunities are available in other fields, however, many educators note that talented college graduates are largely uninterested in careers in education.

“At a time when we are going to need to bring the best and brightest people into the universities and school systems, we are going to have a hard time attracting them and rewarding them,’' noted Kent D. Peterson, assistant professor of education and director of the principals’ institute at Vanderbilt University.

For the principalship, “the question is not one of quantity, but one of quality,’' said Mr. Thomson, who estimated that there are twice as many practicing teachers in the nation with administration credentials as there are practicing principals.

The nation must have “highly competent, better trained principals in the future’’ to handle the increasingly complex job of school leadership, he said.

Programs ‘Off Base’

There is “near unanimity’’ among school administrators, Mr. Thomson said, “that current preparation programs are off base and do not sufficiently prepare a person to become a principal.’'

Mr. Hawley said there is also “common agreement among deans of education that there are real problems in the training of school administrators.’'

But most professors of school administration apparently disagree.

A 1986 survey of the professoriate in educational administration revealed that an overwhelming majority--85 percent--rated their program “good’’ or “excellent,’' said Martha M. McCarthy, professor and director of the consortium on educational-policy studies at Indiana University.

“Clearly there is a gap between how those in the professoriate and consumers view administrative preparation,’' she said.

The Problems

The major criticism of training programs leveled by graduates and others is that they do not effectively prepare prospective administrators for the job that awaits them.

Programs often place too great an emphasis on “administrative theory,’' and not enough on the “knowledge base about learning’’ and the “practical applications of research,’' said Robert St. Clair, principal of Hopkins West Junior High School in Minnetonka, Minn., and president of NASSP.

“The programs include many hours of instruction on things that aren’t very useful, while things are omitted that would be useful,’' said Mr. St. Clair, a member of the commission established by the council for educational administration.

“We want the training to be demanding and scholarly,’' he continued. “But certain kinds of experiences that administrators will have to cope with on the job must also be tied into the college program.’'

The lack of an agreed-upon base of knowledge and set skills that all educational administrators should possess before they take a leadership position has hampered that effort, many experts contend.

In a paper published in the Spring 1985 issue of The Public Interest, Mr. Peterson and Chester E. Finn Jr., now assistant secretary for educational research and improvement for the U.S. Department of Education, write:

“No set of competencies, experiences, and knowledge is commonly accepted as the core of any well-designed program of graduate study for future administrators, such that imparting these becomes the key criterion for having one’s training program approved and acquiring them becomes the main precondition for getting licensed to run a school.’'

Clinical Experiences Rare

Most training programs are also inadequate, according to practicing administrators and others, because they rarely require, or even encourage, students to undergo a supervised clinical experience, such as an internship or apprenticeship.

“Many a new principal is ‘handed the keys’ and given full responsibility for a building, even a cluster of buildings, without ever having engaged in the practice of school administration under the watchful eye and with the supporting hand of a seasoned professional,’' Mr. Peterson and Mr. Finn state.

Such a condition is, in part, the result of a historic lack of cooperation between the training programs and the schools where their graduates will work, several educators who have studied the field say.

Practicing administrators, they explain, rarely participate in training prospective administrators. And those who do--the professors of educational administration--appear to be out of touch with the schools, according to Ms. McCarthy, who also is a member of the commission created by the council for educational administration.

Two out of three professors responding to her survey “did not come to their current professorial positions from a practitioner’s role,’' she states in a report on the findings.

“Thus,’' she writes, “administrative experience is in the distant past for many educational-administration professors, and some have never been practicing administrators.’'

Training programs are “isolated from the public schools,’' said Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

“They have lost touch,’' he added.

‘Easy To Enter’

Critics also argue that the programs have weak entrance requirements and ill-defined criteria for evaluating student performance. Programs in educational administration, Mr. Peterson and Mr. Finn state, “are easy to enter, hard to flunk out of, and not very difficult to complete so long as one has stamina.’'

They note, for example, that 29 out of 30 program applicants in California gain admission, and that more than 80 percent of those admitted eventually get their administrative credentials.

“We know of no state where the pattern is markedly different,’' the researchers state.

Another problem with the preparation of administrators, a number of observers argue, is that there are too many institutions trying to do it.

Many do not have the resources to hire a core of faculty to operate an effective program, said Richard L. Andrews, professor of policy, governance, and administration in the college of education at the University of Washington.

“There are administrator-preparation programs with one full-time faculty member,’' Mr. Andrews said. “If an institution is not willing to invest in a quality program, then it ought not to offer one.’'

Most states, many educators argue, need to thoroughly overhaul their licensure and certification requirements for administrators.

Those trained and certified to teach can, in many states, obtain administrative credentials by simply completing a set of appropriately titled courses, they say. The completion of a professional-degree program in educational administration is not required.

For example, in New Jersey--where the state board of education is currently reviewing the way administrators are prepared and certified in that state--roughly 250 people last year received principals’ certificates based on their completion of a “coherent’’ degree program, while more than 600 were certified “through a collection of discrete courses,’' according to a report by the state department of education on the principalship.

New Jersey’s preparation requirements for the principalship are fairly typical of those in other states. They include three years of teaching experience; completion of coursework required for a state teaching certificate; a master’s degree in any field; one course each in school administration, educational supervision, and curriculum development; and 15 additional graduate credits “in fields related to school administration.’'

“The requirements have been based on seat time more than an individual’s capacity to do the work,’' asserted Robert T. Stout, professor of education in the division of education leadership and policy studies at Arizona State University.

And because most certification candidates acquire their required credits over a long period of time, argued Mr. Kirst of Stanford, the preparation program “doesn’t interlock.’'

“It stretches out for so long that you end up with a collection of courses that are not often linked to a strong structural program,’' he said.

Mr. Peterson and Mr. Finn argue that “the primary responsibility for changing professional entry norms rests with the states, which need radically to revise their requirements for licensure.’'

State Activity

While the work of the two national commissions represents the first national attempt in recent years to examine and improve the way administrators are trained and licensed, states are increasingly addressing issues surrounding school administration.

Approximately a dozen states have task forces examining the training and certification of administrators, according to Mr. Thomson.

For example, Florida, one state that has taken the lead in upgrading the way school principals are trained and certified, in July began requiring the use of a core curriculum that all prospective school administrators must study. Among other changes, the state now also requires administration candidates to pass an examination on the curriculum before they can receive initial certification.

But practicing, not prospective, school administrators were the focus of much of last year’s state-reform activity in the area of educational leadership.

According to a recent study, for example, six states mandated some form of continuing education for administrators, bringing the total number of states with such a requirement to 25.

Moreover, educators report, states, school systems, universities, and professional associations have organized, and in some cases are supporting, principal-assessment centers and principals’ academies in increasing numbers.

NASSP, for instance, now operates 50 principal-assessment centers in roughly 35 states, according to association officials. The centers are designed to identify promising prospective principals by assessing their level of skill in such areas as problem analysis, written and verbal communications, decisionmaking, and interpersonal relations, Mr. Thomson said.

The association also has an “experimental’’ training program designed to teach those skills and others, he said.

Last year, the elementary-school principals’ association launched its “national principals’ academy,’' which also is designed to assess the potential of prospective elementary- and middle-school principals and to provide inservice training for practicing principals, Mr. Sava said.

In addition, the American Association of School Administrators is working with the University of Texas at Austin to establish an assessment and development program, according to Gary Marx, the organization’s associate director.

“We are trying to stimulate greater attention on those skills that administrators feel they need,’' Mr. Marx said. “A starting point is to identify those essential skills.’'

“There has been a fragmented approach to the improvement of school administration,’' Mr. Stout of Arizona State University noted.

“Most of the groups have gone their own way,’' he said. “And right now there doesn’t seem to be a shared arena where ideas can be crystallized and agreements made.’'

The commission established by the council for educational administration, he added, “is attempting to provide a link between the previous [reform] reports and school leadership.’'

Mr. Stout, who is director of studies for the national commission, argued that previous reports have been “less useful than they might have been’’ had they focused more on “questions of school leadership.’'

“Without effective leadership, a lot of the ideas in the early reports are not going to get very far,’' he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 1987 edition of Education Week as Training Programs for Administrators Are Target of Criticism