School & District Management

Analysis Laments State Licensing Rules for Principals

By Jeff Archer — January 10, 2006 3 min read

Few licensing rules for principals reflect the knowledge and skills needed to lead instructional improvement, suggests a nationwide analysis of state requirements for administrator-candidates.

“When Learning Counts: Rethinking Licenses for School Leaders” is available from the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

While today’s school leaders are expected to diagnose, monitor, and plan for raising student achievement, the study released last month reports that most states license principals largely on the basis of such background characteristics as their degrees and work experience.

Co-author Jacob Adams, a senior fellow at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, in Seattle, said the report reveals a troubling disconnect, given that licensing rules determine who can become a principal.

“If we’re serious about improving student performance, then all of the different mechanisms we have at our disposal to do that need to be aligned,” he said. “But in the case of licensing school leaders, we are not pushing in that direction.”

The review of requirements in all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, found only six states where the primary focus of the rules was on skills tied to boosting student learning. One such skill listed in Massachusetts, for example, is the inclusion of staff members in planning professional development to improve instruction.

In 34 states and the District of Columbia, the most prevalent requirements were those dealing with candidates’ backgrounds, such as teaching experience and education levels. Another 10 focused mostly on general organizational skills, like personnel management, that did not specify a link to teaching and learning.

States also varied widely in the number of their expectations for principals. Hawaii had just one: five years of working in schools, including three as a teacher. Arkansas specified 435. The researchers suggest those differences pose major challenges to principals seeking to move from one state to another.

Fix Suggested

In a set of recommendations that it calls “Licensing-Plus,” the report says that states should focus less on backgrounds and more on abilities. What should matter, say the authors, is whether a candidate can pass an assessment of his or her competency as an instructional leader.

“You need to build a test that is a valid and reliable measure of administrative- and learning-focused skills for the principalship,” said Mr. Adams. “And if we use that test to screen for qualified and unqualified candidates, then schools and districts can decide what background they want.”

The report also proposes voluntary, advanced credentials for veteran administrators to work toward. At the urging of several administrator groups, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which offers advanced certification to teachers, has been exploring the possibility of helping launch such an effort for principals.

Financed by the New York City-based Wallace Foundation, which underwrites leadership coverage in Education Week, the new report isn’t the first to weigh in on the topic. The Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation and the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute have called for paring down such requirements to a bachelor’s degree, a police background check, and a test of key school regulations.

Michael A. Copland, an education professor at the University of Washington and the other co-author of the new study, agreed that current licensing rules are lacking, but he said the answer is to refocus them on what it takes to elevate teaching and learning.

“We’re not saying,: ‘Do away with licensing,’ ” he said. “We’re saying,: ‘Do licensing better.’ ”

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