School & District Management

How the Pandemic Is Already Changing Principal-Prep Programs

By Denisa R. Superville — June 04, 2021 10 min read
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Even before the pandemic, university-based principal-preparation programs knew they had to change to keep pace with issues including the rapidly diversifying student body, the largely white teaching force, and principal-graduates seeking more support from their alma maters once they got their diplomas.

The pandemic—and the social justice protests spawned by the murder of George Floyd—added more urgency.

Just as K-12 schools closed for in-person instruction because of the pandemic, principal-prep schools—which have largely held online preparation programs at arm’s length over concerns about quality and rigor—found that they didn’t have a choice but to move their programs online.

Education Week spoke with leaders at four principal-preparation programs around the country. Here are some ways that such programs are changing because of the pandemic and what’s likely to stick around when the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.

Recruitment and access: Who gets in? The pandemic and the racial justice protests highlighted the need to diversify the principalship.

Preparation programs can waive standardized testing entrance requirements, broaden eligibility criteria, increase grants and scholarships, and work with districts and alumni to identify promising candidates, according to experts.

They can also set up satellite locations to make it easier for teachers in remote locations to take classes and continue to hold some classes online post-pandemic, expanding opportunities for racial, gender, and geographic diversity.

“This is not the time for us to use traditional means to recruit teachers,” said Michelle Young, the dean of Loyola Marymount University School of Education in Los Angeles, referring to the main pool from which principal-candidates are drawn. “This really needs to be an all-hands-on-deck recruitment strategy.”

Even before the pandemic, Loyola Marymount was working with local districts, including Los Angeles Unified, and the Los Angeles-based nonprofit, Diversity in Leadership Institute, to build a pipeline of teachers of color.

Principal-preparation programs can be expensive and take a while to complete, about two years on average, as candidates juggle teaching or regular K-12 work. “It’s a daunting task,” said Manuel Ponce, the director of the Institute of School Leadership and Administration at Loyola Marymount. “So you see more people opting out, than opting in.”

One response is to make programs less costly by investing in scholarships and grants. (This is where online components come in handy.) Doing so could make the programs attractive to a more diverse pool.

The master of school administration program at the College of Education at NC State University in Raleigh, N.C., for example, is completely grant-funded and free to all candidates. More than 55 percent of its students are people of color and from underrepresented communities.

University leaders reasoned that some students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, may still be carrying student loans from their undergraduate education and may be put off by the typical graduate school price tag. Some may be single parents.

“They can’t afford to take on that kind of debt,” said Lesley Wirt, the associate director of principal preparation at NC State University.

But the university has also been able to ensure that its classes are diverse through strong partnerships with the districts in which its graduates work. Classes are held in district buildings—meaning that NC State faculty members drive from Raleigh to the districts, many of them rural. The university also uses teachers from local districts as instructors in the program.

The pandemic showed that there were a lot of administrators who did not know how to lead SEL, which is different from implementing SEL practices in classrooms.

District officials also are asked to nominate prospective candidates, and NC State often double-checks with the districts about a candidate’s prospects after reviewing applications.

Another big part of expanding access is dropping standardized entrance exams. “They don’t really predict who is not going to be a great school leader,” said Bonnie Fusarelli, the director of NC State’s Leadership Academies.

Curriculum: Preparation programs can change their curricula to ensure that equity, social justice, and social-emotional learning are not just covered in a single, standalone course, but included in every course, whether it’s leadership administration or school finance.

For example, a course on instructional leadership may deal with how instructional coaching of teachers includes culturally responsive pedagogy, social-emotional learning, and trauma-informed care, Ponce said. A business practices course may now include how a school’s budget reflects its commitment to trauma and SEL.

Sheri Castro-Atwater, a professor in Loyola Marymount’s counseling program, sees promise in professors from the counseling department co-teaching in the principal-preparation program to ensure that principals are equipped with SEL tools. A similar approach can ensure that equity is threaded throughout the curriculum and not relegated to a single course.

After the pivot to online learning last spring, Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton tightened its curriculum to take into account the social and emotional well-being of students and staff.

In a course was on managing the school environment, for example, principal-candidates now have to think about whether the K-12 school schedule increases or decreases the stress of the teaching experience said Daniel Reyes-Guerra, an associate professor in Florida Atlantic’s department of educational leadership and research methodology.

“I do think the pandemic showed that there were a lot of administrators who did not know how to lead SEL, which is different from implementing SEL practices in classrooms,” Reyes-Guerra said.

“We have to teach assistant principals and principals how to make teachers self-aware,” Reyes-Guerra said. “How do you help them to be models of self-management?”

Sarah Woulfin, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education, said she prioritized students’ humanity during the pandemic, which she hopes will continue.

“I am somewhat optimistic that this will stay in a certain way and perhaps in certain pockets,” she said.

Equity is also expected to get more attention.

”Schools are microcosms of our bigger society,” said Wirt from NC State University, where conversational Spanish is a new part of the program. “A good leader needs to know how to address those issues once they are in school.”

At Florida Atlantic, the discussion was around ensuring that equity permeated each class.

Reyes-Guerra gave the example of a math teacher he encountered in his career who would say he only taught math, not reading, writing, or social justice.

“The response is, but you do,” Reyes-Guerra said, adding that a teacher decides when to use a word problem or how to use statistics to engage in a broader discussion.

Another example: “Are you assigning your best teachers to AP courses? Is that equity? Should they be working with students who are most challenged?” he asked.

Crisis management is also expected to be given more weight in the curriculum.

“We have hurricanes, floods,” said Fusarelli. “Leadership is about crisis management.” Fusarelli’s program has long had a component on emergency management, including bringing in employees from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Stronger balance between theory and action: Candidates at NC State spend the second year of the two-year program in a residency, learning what it’s like to work as a principal under the supervision of a mentor principal. They’re also assigned an executive coach to help them develop their leadership skills.

But while students need a heavy dose of exposure to the real, practical aspects of the job, programs have to strike the right balance.

“You have to know the theory, otherwise, it’s just replicating the status quo and going with the flow,” Fusarelli said.

More online, hybrid opportunities: Despite pressure, university-based programs had been slow to move online before the pandemic.

But the forced move online gave many educators and programs real-time data that they can use to finesse future offerings to appeal to more students, including teachers in rural areas who may have to drive for hours to attend classes after school or busy teachers juggling family and work obligations.

Young, of Loyola Marymount, thinks that while the majority of programs will continue to be face-to-face, some will gravitate to hybrid formats. A real challenge will be what elements will be online and which ones will be face to face.

Some students missed out on internships during the pandemic, while others were able to continue their clinical experiences online by shadowing school leaders in virtual classrooms and participating in things like safety briefings and the school reopening debates. Some had what Young called a “more robust” clinical experience because nearly everything in K-12 had moved online.

One benefit of online schooling was that researchers and experts became more accessible to students because they could just pop in on Zoom to discuss what was happening in real time in schools across the country.

On the flip side, online schools had to rely heavily on simulations to make up for the experiences that normally come with in-person schools.

But Young and others think that once the majority of students are back in the buildings it will be easier to figure out what parts of the programs are best held online and which ones would make sense in person.

The demand is certainly there. Student enrollment increased when Loyola Marymount moved online, with the school drawing students who no longer needed to move to Los Angeles or commute to enroll, Ponce said.

While Ponce thinks more leadership preparation schools will move to hybrid or include online components, education schools will have to think about how to continually deliver those programs with fidelity.

“We used the pandemic opportunity and remote learning to think about how do you lead in a different space of education, how do you prepare and teach in crisis situations?” Ponce said. “I think that’s where we were able to keep the rigor.”

Given the competitive nature of higher education, Woulfin, at the University of Connecticut, said she expects some online or hybrid programs to continue.

“I think students are going to ask for some of this,” she said. “They’ve seen us deliver it online for a year” and may decide that given the tradeoffs—sitting in traffic for 45 minutes, missing time with their children—online is the better of the two options, she said.

Ongoing networking and continuous professional development for graduates: This is something that research has encouraged, but it has not been a widespread practice. And professional development that includes community partners could also prove beneficial.

“One of the things the pandemic has demonstrated to us is that we cannot solve these problems alone and that more cross-collaboration and pollination are needed,” Young of Loyola Marymount said.

Ponce also sees a shift to an ongoing relationship between schools and graduates, who in the past have been pretty much left on their own devices after they got their diplomas.

“The credential doesn’t help you through the ups and downs and the ebbs and flows of doing the job,” Ponce said.

A new fellowship for principals of color at Loyola Marymount will pair principal-candidates with a mentor throughout the program — and for 10 months afterwards. The program has philanthropic support to cover the 10 months. But one of the biggest challenges will be continuing to fund the network beyond that.

Schools can also invest in bringing students back for workshops, discussions, and symposiums with guest speakers and experts.

“We know how to put on tons of webinars and online conferences without leaving home and at minimal cost,” Ponce said.

Stronger university-district partnerships: Both districts and universities have to recognize that the partnership is mutual. Universities should not just think of districts as learning labs.

“If we want to ensure quality ... it has to be in conjunction with the consumers, who are the districts,” said Reyes-Guerra.

It’s important to be in tune with districts’ expectations of their leadership needs, Woulfin said. The pandemic and the racial justice protests “made us notice the differences between districts and ... district contexts, and how that shape what teachers are doing—and ultimately what school leaders are doing,” she said.

Coverage of principals and school leadership is supported in part by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2021 edition of Education Week as How the Pandemic Is Already Changing Principal-Prep Programs


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