Principal preparation and professional-development programs have improved over the last two decades to more closely reflect research on how the school leaders affect student outcomes.
But principals still report gaps in their training and in their exposure to critical content that can make a big difference for students and teachers, a sweeping new report concludes.
While access to training on instructional leadership, managing change, building positive school culture, and successfully running schools with students from diverse backgrounds has increased over time, mentors and coaches remain unavailable to large numbers of aspiring and new school leaders, says the report by the Learning Policy Institute, with backing from the Wallace Foundation.
And the kinds of clinical experiences that really impact a principal’s ability to lead—the ones that incorporate true leadership opportunities—are still not the norm. While the majority of principals had some kind of field experience, fewer than half of those polled in two national surveys in 2019—46 percent—said their programs had such an intensive clinical component that prepared them for their first year on the job, according to the report.
Yet, changes in preparation and support continue to be noticeable, though uneven. School leaders who entered the profession in the last decade or so were more likely to say they’d had access to programs focused on key areas. And those from California, which overhauled its licensing and program-approval process, were more likely than their peers nationally to have had such opportunities.
“This is a glass full, glass half-empty report,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, the founding president of the Learning Policy Institute and the lead author of “Developing Effective Principals: What Kind of Learning Matters?”
“We did see a lot of changes in principal-preparation over the last 10 or 15 years. That is part of the good news. And nationally, across the states, more principals [have access] to more of the key topics they should be learning about, in terms of how children grow and learn and how to organize a productive school environment.”
She said there has been “some improvement in the number of principals who get some training at all—because some principals don’t get any training. So that’s moving up. The number of principals who are getting internships where they get to practice under the wing of an expert principal, that is moving up. But that piece of it is moving up slowly.”
The new report is the most in-depth examination of school leader preparation and support since Arthur Levine’s 2005 “Educating School Leaders,” which shed a harsh light on university-based programs and criticized lax admission criteria and a mismatch between what principals were taught and what they’re expected to do once on the job, among other things.
It offers a comprehensive look at the types of preparation and professional-development programs that are available to principals and aspiring principals.
It’s based on a literature review of preparation and professional-development programs from 2000 to 2021 and surveys—national surveys from the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, one on California principals, and another of North Carolina principals.
The surveys covered areas such as obstacles to becoming a principal, internship experiences, impediments to professional development, PD topics, access to mentors, and topics covered in their preparation programs.
The report is the third and final in a series on school leadership backed by the Wallace Foundation. The first report examined principals’ impact on students and teachers, while the second looked at assistant principals, an often overlooked but critical position in schools.
(The Wallace Foundation supports Education Week coverage of issues including education leadership.)
The new report paints a picture of a field that’s slowly beginning to respond to the research on preparation and professional development but with results that vary from state to state. Still, it points out serious gaps, including in research. Only 104 of approximately 1,400 articles met the criteria set by the report’s researchers.
Despite a growing number of studies in recent years that have recommended that preparation programs tighten their admission criteria, collaborate with local districts, and offer clinical experiences that more closely mirror the principal’s job, change has been slow.
“What’s important about this new report is that it reminds us that we know a lot more about principal preparation than we are practicing and than our policies support,” said Steve Tozer, a professor emeritus in education policy studies at the University of Illinois Chicago College of Education.
“If the question [is], are policies and practices well aligned with the research? What this report says is no, not so much,” Tozer said. “The research is pretty clear and has been clear about what it takes to prepare principals well.”
Though the research over the last 20 years has been more explicit about how principals affect student and teacher outcomes and how better to prepare them to do so, universities themselves have been slow to respond, said Tozer, who is also an author on the report.
Money is a big reason, he said. More-stringent selection criteria and internships, for example, require deep partnerships with districts, and in the districts where those programs have taken root, both the universities and districts share the costs. But university teaching staff, by and large, are also not equipped to lead change, Tozer said.
Change also takes time, and state policies across the country, for the most part, are also behind on the research on best practices for supporting and preparing principals, he said.
A big role for states and the federal government
The report also comes with recommendations for policymakers. It calls for more research to better understand the content offered in prep programs and how that affects school leaders’ effectiveness; a closer look at the experiences principals have before they enter training programs; and more-explicit measures of what’s expected of principals.
There also are suggestions for policymakers. For one thing, the report recommends more professional development on equity, especially for principals in schools serving large numbers of nonwhite students and students experiencing poverty.
The federal government and states can also leverage competitive grants to recruit and support teachers with leadership potential throughout their leadership journey. States and districts can also tap into Title I and Title II funds, and money from the American Rescue Plan to beef up existing principal-pipeline programs or create new ones. (Title I funds support schools serving large numbers of students experiencing poverty, while Title II funds support educator development.)
And states, which approve and license programs, can use that authority to support and expand more-rigorous ones.
Many of those recommendations have been made before. And indeed, states such as Illinois and California, have made significant changes in principal-preparation.
Some districts, including Chicago, have robust pipeline and support programs. Higher education institutions such as the University of Illinois Chicago have revamped preparation programs from top to bottom, increasing the amount of time principals spend getting ready for the job, expanding the clinical experience, and working in partnerships with local districts.
Darling-Hammond said she’s optimistic that things will change. The question is how fast that will happen.
“It’s a struggle around the world typically to keep people focused on what to do to improve education,” she said.
“In the United States, [education is] a very political topic. Much of the discourse about education in the U.S. is around various aspects of the culture wars, not usually around how we invest to get more well-prepared and competent principals and teachers who are in a profession where they’d like to stay. … I am optimistic that we’ll make slow and steady progress. I wish I were more optimistic that we’ll get focused and purposeful and do what the research says quickly.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2022 edition of Education Week as For Principals, Prep and PD Fall Short, New Report Finds