The U.S. Department of Labor recently approved school principals as an occupation eligible for federal apprenticeship programs, clearing the way for “grow-your-own” programs that could expand the pipeline to the profession.
The approval could help expand the pool of principals and provide them with more extensive preparation than they might receive through a traditional degree program, increasing their ability to weather the difficulties of the job, advocates said.
The July 10 approval came at the request of education leaders in North Dakota. Now that the principal occupation has been deemed eligible for apprenticeships, the Labor Department will consider a pending application for a North Dakota program that would pair a university in the state with a cluster of school districts to provide on-the-job training and coursework to future school leaders.
“The teacher shortage is at a crisis stage,” said Laurie Matzke, assistant superintendent at the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. “We are trying to prevent that from happening with principals.”
The new designation comes after a rapid rise in federally registered teacher apprenticeship programs, which have expanded to at least 18 states since that occupation first received federal apprenticeship approval in 2022.
Federal apprenticeship status opens up new streams of funding for tuition, materials, and supportive services like child care. Advocates hope that will knock down some of the barriers for potential school leaders, which include the cost of graduate school tuition and the expense of forgoing paid work to gain needed practicum hours.
The Labor Department currently offers about $100 million in grants for apprenticeship programs that include traditional trades and occupations as well as the emerging K-12 education apprenticeships. The federal designation may also clear the way for principal apprenticeships to qualify for various streams of state funding.
“I think this has the opportunity to establish the Holy Grail of principal preparation,” said David Donaldson, the founder and managing partner of the National Center for Grow Your Own, who helped North Dakota leaders draft an application for the designation.
Donaldson expects other states to follow with their own programs.
A ‘Holy Grail’ for principal preparation?
Under a traditional model, a teacher who wants to become a principal attends graduate school while continuing to teach. To become certified, that would-be principal might need to take unpaid leave to complete necessary practicum hours, Donaldson said, which includes observing other principals and completing projects like parental outreach plans to demonstrate key competencies.
In some states, principal candidates may complete that on-the-job training during the summer, providing less hands-on preparation for the work of instructional leadership, he said.
Under the apprenticeship model, a qualified teacher would complete 2,000 hours of on-site training, working for at least a year as an assistant principal or similar schoolwide leader while completing coursework in school leadership. That’s more robust preparation and, using state and federal dollars, it will come at a lower cost to the prospective principal.
Apprenticeships may make it more feasible for educators with deep classroom experience to move into leadership, Donaldson added. “Ask superintendents who they want to be principals and they say, ‘I want the 3rd grade teacher who has been here for 15 years, who has the respect of her peers,’” he said.
Donaldson, who helped launch teacher apprenticeships in Tennessee before expanding his work nationwide, said such leadership preparation would have been a vast improvement over the transplant shock he experienced when he became principal of a Detroit school without enough hands-on experience.
“There are a lot of places where people are entering the principalship and they are not prepared,” he said. “I was not prepared. I was hired as an assistant principal, and then over the summer the principal left and I was slotted in.”
Concerns about principal retention, morale
State education leaders are concerned about staffing at all levels, from classroom aides to superintendents, especially as the stresses of COVID-19 recovery and a tense political environment add new urgency to the work.
About half of school leaders responding to an August 2022 survey by the National Association of Secondary School Principals said their stress level is so high that they are considering a career change or retirement.
North Dakota’s apprenticeship application was supported by organizations including the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
In the state’s rural districts, superintendents sometimes step in to do double duty as a principal when a vacancy can’t be filled, State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said. In some cases, a principal supervises two buildings.
“That leaves very little time for the portion of a principal’s job that I believe is the most important,” Baesler said. “They have very little time to be an instructional leader. That is the role that gets dropped first.”
Baesler declined to name the university or the five school districts that plan to launch the state’s principal apprenticeship program until the application has been approved. But leaders have used federal Title II dollars targeted at school leaders to put the groundwork in place so that, if approved, the program could start training future school leaders in the 2023-24 school year.
The state sees potential for apprenticeships all along the educator career pathway. North Dakota is also active in teacher apprenticeships, and leaders there are exploring ways to train high school students to work as paraprofessionals through career and technical education programs.
“This is a strategy, not just an action,” Baesler said.