School & District Management

Getting Serious About Preparation

By Lynn Olson — September 11, 2007 14 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

For decades, preservice training for principals looked something like this: While working as teachers, they took occasional courses at an education school on such topics as school finance, law, and educational theory. After a few years, they completed a culminating field assignment, which might have involved shadowing their own principals. Then candidates applied for jobs in administratration.

That scattershot approach increasingly is giving way to dramatically different forms of principal preparation. The focus is less on creating efficient managers than on preparing individuals who can lead a school to higher student achievement.

Would-be principals now go through their courses of study in a predetermined order, and in cohorts with others in the same program. Seminars build upon one another to produce candidates who know how to analyze instruction, create learning opportunities for teachers, and strategize about how to move a school forward based on data. Field experiences start early and involve the actual exercise of leadership in a school building. And districts are taking on a larger role in shaping school leadership, from who gets admitted to training programs to how they are mentored and evaluated.

Leading for Learning
September 12, 2007
About This Report
Getting Serious About Preparation
A National View
Real-World Lessons
Joining Forces
Download the complete PDF version of this years report (1.22MB)
View previous years’ reports.

To be sure, the norm is somewhere between the traditional routes and the new ones. But the past few years have seen a significant proliferation of more intensive, carefully mapped-out preparation and a growing consensus about what “best practice” should look like.

“I think the big story is that people are moving to a common perspective about where we need to be and how we need to change,” says Joseph Murphy, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, in Nashville, Tenn.

The reasons for the shift are clear. The push for unprecedented levels of improvement in student performance, epitomized by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, requires a different kind of leadership: focused on instruction and achievement. Underpinning that recognition is a growing body of research on what good leaders do.

“It’s forcing a lot more attention on instruction and teaching,” says Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the Arlington, Va., based American Association of School Administrators, which represents district superintendents and other senior-level administrators. “The whole conversation about what people are looking for from school principals is much less the managerial stuff and much more the academic stuff.”

Rigorous Selection Criteria

One of the most notable aspects of the new generation of preparation programs is who gets accepted. Traditionally, universities have simply waited to see who shows up. In contrast, some of the newer programs vigorously recruit and screen candidates for their capacity and motivation to become successful leaders.

In a study released this year, “Preparing School Leaders for a Changing World: Lessons from Exemplary Leadership Development Programs” , lead author Linda Darling-Hammond found that the best programs worked with school districts to recruit candidates who were known as excellent teachers with strong leadership potential, and who reflected the local population.

As a result, she found, graduates of such programs were much more likely than those in a comparison group to be female and members of racial or ethnic minorities. They were also more likely to be working in an urban school and to have strong and relevant experience, such as serving as a coach for other teachers, a department chair, or a team leader.

Of the more than 5,000 people who have applied to New Leaders for New Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit group that prepares principals for urban districts, only 330 have been accepted since the program’s inception seven years ago.

“There is a very high and rigorous standard,” says Darlene A. Merry, the chief academic officer, including three “non-negotiables”: knowledge of teaching and learning, a belief in the potential of all children to excel academically, and an unyielding focus on goals and results.

Coherent Curriculum

Darryl Cobb, the chief learning officer for the New York City-based Knowledge Is Power Program, a national network of charter schools that prepares its own school leaders, says KIPP also looks for grit and tenacity in an individual’s prior working relationships with adults. That’s because principals improve student performance primarily by working with adults, not youngsters, he explains. They have to see their role as creating an environment and an organization in which teachers and students can succeed.

The Next Generation of School Leaders

During the past decade, the age of school principals has risen steadily. In part, this graying of the educational administration workforce may be attributable to the same demographic shifts that are affecting American society as a whole. However, this trend also signals significant changes within the profession. Participation in programs for aspiring principal:
Up-and-Comers: 51%
Veterans: 36%

Up-and-coming school leaders—those who have been principals for less than five years—are now entering the principalship at an older age and with more extensive leadership training and experience in administrative roles. The share of all principals with such training varies tremendously across the states.

Novice principals, however, are likely to find themselves at the helms of schools facing such challenges as high levels of student poverty and lagging academic performance. More recent cohorts of principals are also becoming increasingly diverse. Women, for example, now make up the majority of up-and- coming school leaders. And while only about one in five new principals is a member of a racial or ethnic minority group, this marks improvement compared with past generations.

An Older Principal Workforce
In 2004, school leaders were typically older than those working a decade earlier. Over the course of a decade, the median age of principals rose from 48 to 51.



Up-and-Coming Principals vs. Veteran Principals — previous leadership experience, characteristics of schools and background of principals (click on graphic below to see detailed stats)


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2007; Original analysis of data of the U.S. Department of Education’s Schools and Staffing Survey (1993-94 and 2003-04)

Equally important, the new generation of leadership programs offers a coherent curriculum that is deeply rooted in practice, focused on the principal’s role in improving instruction and student achievement, and designed to ensure mastery of core competencies by engaging participants in solving real-world problems through case studies, school-based projects, and simulations.

Such assignments, the Southern Regional Education Board notes in a 2006 report, “Schools Can’t Wait: Accelerating the Redesign of University Principal Preparation Programs” , might engage participants in analyzing local data to determine priorities, working with principal and teacher teams to carry out instructional interventions or school reform models, or planning and implementing school-based research. Often, practitioners from the district and local schools work with university faculty members in developing and teaching such courses.

“What we’re seeing in the better programs is a real shift in the courses being taught,” says Gene Bottoms, the senior vice president of the Atlanta-based SREB. “Where it used to be one course in curriculum and instruction, that’s beginning to make up 25 percent to 30 percent of the content.”

For example, the National Institute for School Leadership, a Washington-based for-profit group that contracts with states and districts to prepare school leaders, has developed 14 case studies—many with video simulations—to help candidates develop the knowledge and skills they will need on the job.

“We don’t hate theory,” says Robert C. Hughes, the vice president of NISL. “Theory is very important. Policy is very important. But the piece that wasn’t getting its due was practice.”

Chances to Practice

To help candidates apply what they are learning, exemplary programs also provide early and intensive field-based experiences for would-be principals that are integrated with their coursework.

According to the SREB, candidates should have access to a continuum of experiences. That includes observing, participating in, and leading teachers to improve classroom practice, and completing at least one major academic-improvement or “action research” project in a school. Candidates also should receive feedback and coaching on their performance during their fieldwork, including support from carefully selected and trained mentor principals.

The nature of such well-designed and well-supervised internships is particularly critical, according to Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University. Two of the programs she studied, at Delta State University in Mississippi and in the San Diego Unified School District, offered full-year, paid administrative internships with expert principals, financed by the state of Mississippi, in one case, and by the district through a foundation grant, in the other.

After a summer program, a New Leaders for New Schools candidate spends a year as a resident in a school under the guidance of both a mentor principal and a coach, who meets with the candidate regularly to provide job-embedded support and reflection.

“You can’t just give people the information and assume that they know how to go and apply it,” says Merry of New Leaders. “Probably the magic of the whole process is in supporting them as they practice the application.”

Districts as Partners

Unlike the highly theoretical programs offered in more traditional settings, these new principal-preparation programs also work closely with districts—and are sometimes created and run by districts themselves—so that they reflect the local context.

Geoff Southworth, the deputy executive director of England’s National College for School Leadership and the college’s strategic director of research and policy, argues that leadership “needs to be finely tuned to the circumstances in which leaders operate.”

That requires a tight linkage between theory and practice, rooted in local communities.

The New York City Leadership Academy’s Aspiring Principals program recruits, prepares, and supports principals specifically for the city’s public schools. Once accepted, aspiring principals take part in a six-week summer “intensive” that engages them in a series of simulated school projects that reflect the realities of the settings in which they’ll work. That preparation is followed by a 10-month, school-based residency under the mentorship of an experienced principal, and by a planning summer that enables candidates to have a successful transition into their leadership positions.

The curriculum is based on the real experiences of New York principals and current systemwide reform efforts. And the faculty members who guide participants in acquiring the knowledge and skills they’ll need to run their own schools are former principals or principal supervisors.

“There are some generalizable skills,” says Sandra J. Stein, the chief executive officer of the academy, “but for somebody going in new to a complex context, it helps to have as much of their training grounded in the realities they’re actually going to face.

“Part of the goal here,” she adds, “is just to accelerate the learning, so that people hit the ground running.”

Yet even the best preservice programs now acknowledge that new principals need additional support during their first few years on the job, while they are still learning their role. That’s why programs such as New Leaders for New Schools, the New York City Leadership Academy, and others now build in coaching or mentoring for novices.

“A number of our grantees have been more active in getting under way a bona fide support process for the first, second, and third year on the job,” says Frances McLaughlin, a senior director at the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation, which recently awarded a new round of grants for innovative principal-development programs. “In fact, several of our grantees are actually shifting money away from preservice training and into better and more support for principals on the job, in the form of mentoring and some continued cohort-based learning.”

The Leadership Academy, for example, offers all New York principals individualized learning opportunities during their first four years on the job, ranging from on-site coaching and workshops to chances to network with their peers.

In England, first-time head teachers (as principals there are known) are entitled to a flexible grant of about $2,600 during their first three years on the job, which they can use for a wide range of learning activities.

New Providers

As significant as the change in the content of principal-preparation programs is the shift in who’s preparing new school leaders. Even as many university-based programs are being redesigned—some at the insistence of state policymakers—they’re also losing their monopoly.

“The process of replacing university-based educational leadership programs is well under way,” wrote Arthur E. Levine in “Educating School Leaders” , a 2005 report. “In fact, the programs have done all they possibly could to encourage it. The question is whether education schools and their leadership programs will attempt the reforms necessary to curb current trends.”

Besides such nonprofit ventures as New Leaders for New Schools, which now has contracts with nine large urban districts, a host of other players are involved: for-profit companies that offer online training modules, charter school networks such as KIPP that are creating their own preparation programs, and districts that have decided to “grow their own” principals.

“I’m constantly surprised when I run into superintendents from much more moderately sized districts who say, ‘We’re running our own program now,’ ” says Houston of the AASA, who also believes that the wave of online education for future administrators “is just starting to build.”

And while many district programs still must maintain ties to universities for their candidates to be certified, some states, like Massachusetts, have empowered districts to license administrators themselves—with or without a higher education institution.

The expansion of new models has brought with it new challenges, however. For one, researchers have only begun to generate new knowledge about how best to produce school leaders who can raise student achievement. In a recent review of the research on preparation programs, Murphy of Vanderbilt University and his colleague Michael Vriesenga found that, “in general, the field of school administration is weakly informed by empirical research findings, drawn from either quantitative or naturalistic perspectives.”

Of the roughly 2,000 articles they reviewed for the study, only 8 percent dealt with preservice training programs, and fewer than 3 percent were empirical studies, focused on quantitative data.

While many in the field favor preparation that includes extensive fieldwork, such a system can be expensive, as it takes principals-in-training out of their current jobs for lengthy periods of time and requires that they receive ongoing supervision. The Stanford study, for instance, found the annual costs for exemplary preservice programs ranged from about $25,500 per participant in San Diego to $87,000 per participant for Delta State, with the largest expense associated with the paid-internship year.

Although high-quality programs require a significant financial commitment, Darling-Hammond, the Stanford researcher, argues that it’s still a good investment “to get somebody who is so much better prepared and so much more competent when they hit the job.”

At the Margins

Despite the growing consensus about what needs to happen to better prepare school principals, most observers of the field agree that change is still at the margins and has yet to reach the bulk of institutions that prepare future leaders.

“There’s a lot happening,” says Levine, a former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, who is now the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, N.J. “I can’t tell you the quality of it all.”

“In general, I’m more skeptical about the promise of current developments and models than are the people who are in the institutions providing the stuff,” says Frederick M. Hess, who in 2005 co-wrote a scathing critique of the content of 31 principal-preparation programs, “The Accidental Principal.” The study concluded that the programs were not teaching the kinds of skills—such as the use of data, research, and performance evaluation—needed to lead schools in the 21st century.

Hess asserts that the high-stakes-accountability climate under the No Child Left Behind law has made states even more reluctant to deregulate the process for preparing and certifying school leaders, and to open it up to nontraditional candidates and programs.

Others also say that states have been reluctant to take the steps necessary to produce real change. Some states—such as Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, and North Carolina—have required all of their university-based preparation programs to retool themselves and reapply for program approval, or be shut down. They’ve also brought in teams of experts from outside the state to review program designs and recommend improvements. But that’s still the exception.

The Southern Regional Education Board, which represents 16 states, urges states to adopt rigorous, well-defined standards for school leaders; provide a curriculum framework to guide program redesign; create an external process for auditing the quality of program curricula; and strengthen accountability for results, including measures of graduates’ on-the-job performance and the achievement of students in their schools.

Some experts say the best thing states could do is to stop providing salary increases for teachers who take courses in administration, but have no intention of leading a school.

“At the moment, half the people in these programs are there for salary bumps, not because they want to be administrators,” says Levine, “so what they want are fast, easy, nonrigorous programs. And as long as there’s a large market for that, people are going to provide it.”

“There’s no question,” agrees Murphy of Vanderbilt. “There’s this amazing policy lever that states just refuse to take. If they had the courage to say there’s no salary credit if you’re a teacher, then you would begin to really shrink these programs. And you would be able to commit resources to the education of people who are going to do the job.”

States also could deny accreditation to programs that don’t place 80 percent of their graduates in leadership positions in five years, Murphy says.

But while improvements remain at the margins, says Bottoms of the SREB, “I do see a momentum building on the part of state leaders far different than what we saw seven or eight years ago. I believe we’re poised for the curve to turn up rather rapidly.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2007 edition of Education Week as Getting Serious About Preparation


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion I Invited My Students to Be the Principal for a Day. Here’s What I Learned
When I felt myself slipping into a springtime slump, this simple activity reminded me of my “why” as an educator.
S. Kambar Khoshaba
4 min read
052024 OPINION Khoshaba PRINCIPAL end the year with positivity
E+/Getty + Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management The Complicated Fight Over Four-Day School Weeks
Missouri lawmakers want to encourage large districts to maintain five-day weeks—even as four-day weeks grow more popular.
7 min read
Calendar 4 day week
School & District Management From Our Research Center Principal Salaries: The Gap Between Expectation and Reality
Exclusive survey data indicate a gap between the expectations and the realities of principal pay.
4 min read
A Black woman is standing on a ladder and looking into the distance with binoculars, in the background is an ascending arrow.
School & District Management Schools Successfully Fighting Chronic Absenteeism Have This in Common
A White House summit homed in on chronic absenteeism and strategies to reduce it.
6 min read
An empty elementary school classroom is seen on Aug. 17, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York. Nationwide, students have been absent at record rates since schools reopened after COVID-forced closures. More than a quarter of students missed at least 10% of the 2021-22 school year.
An empty elementary school classroom is seen on Aug. 17, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York. A White House summit on May 15, 2024, brought attention to elevated chronic absenteeism and strategies districts have used to fight it.
Brittainy Newman/AP