School & District Management Opinion

How States Can Build Leadership Systems

By David S. Spence & Gene Bottoms — December 10, 2007 6 min read
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As a nation in the midst of unprecedented, 21st-century economic challenges, we can no longer afford to rely on the luck of the draw to find the leaders our schools need.

We need “learning-centered” school principals—leaders who have a deep understanding of how students learn, not simply how to run a school.

Learning-centered school leaders know how to create a professional environment in which all the adults in a school are constantly improving their own skills and knowledge, and challenging each other to serve the needs of every student.

While experts espoused similar sentiments a decade ago, which led to national standards for school leadership, now we need much more from a field that is so important to the education of all our children.

Through years of work with state policymakers and education agencies, universities, and school systems, the Southern Regional Education Board’s learning-centered leadership program has identified steps that any state can use to build a dynamic school leadership system. We’re urging that states set their own systems in motion by doing the following:

Be more precise about expectations for good school leaders. Many states have adopted the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium standards, or some variation of them. While these standards have served an important purpose, much has happened since their creation—including the enactment of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and other changes increasing the pressures on schools to raise achievement.

A Call to Action:
School Leadership
How States Can Build Leadership Systems
Getting Serious About Leadership
Toward the ‘Highly Qualified’ Principal

Leadership standards lay the foundation for principal-preparation programs and principal evaluation, and they make a powerful statement about the quality we expect from schools and universities.

It’s time for a new generation of school leadership standards in every state that clarify the responsibilities today’s school leaders have for improving schools and learning. States such as Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia are among those that have improved their leadership standards.

Be more selective about principal-candidates. To be blunt, just about anyone can enroll in graduate-level programs that prepare school leaders, including untested and poorly qualified candidates. Research shows that most of the United States does not have a shortage of principal-candidates—only a shortage of good ones, especially in struggling schools.

We can develop a supply of well-prepared school leaders if universities and districts work together to select and prepare candidates who show potential for improving classroom practices and student achievement. Right now, about half of program graduates don’t even become principals, but earn the degree simply to raise their pay.

States should require candidates for the principalship to meet more-rigorous selection criteria for preparation programs. To gain admission, applicants should be required to show evidence of expertise in curriculum and instruction, proven leadership abilities, and a record of improving student achievement.

University and school district partnerships in principal preparation rarely emerge without state leadership and support. Already, Louisiana and Alabama have begun to require such partnerships to select stronger candidates for preparation programs. They’re on the right track.

Ensure that university-based leadership programs improve. Speaking of graduate-level principal-preparation programs, many of them need work.

Too many university-based programs offer a last-century curriculum overloaded with courses on management and administration. Many also do not adequately help aspiring principals develop the competencies needed to lead a team of highly skilled and motivated teachers.

See Also

What are the best ways to find, train, and support successful school leaders? Join the discussion.

SREB research shows that state policies in recent years that required the redesign of principal-preparation programs have produced only marginal improvements. Policymakers can accelerate change by requiring universities and school districts to partner in a whole new wave of redesigned programs. States should hold the programs accountable for relevant content, quality school-based internships, and support for principal-candidates that includes released time for training.

Kentucky is debating legislation to make many of these changes, and Georgia and Florida are requiring programs to redesign themselves and seek state approval. It’s a good idea, and other states should consider similar actions—with involvement from K-12 and higher education.

Help aspiring principals learn on the job. Textbooks and lectures don’t cut it. Today’s principals need to solve problems and analyze issues within the complex school environment. And principal-candidates need on-the-job practice under the guidance of a trained mentor before they are licensed to lead.

Unfortunately, many principal-preparation programs provide internships in name only. They allow interns to choose their own mentors and schools for their internship sites. Many programs also fail to provide trained mentors who can expertly demonstrate competence and coach others to meet the state’s leadership standards.

Incredibly, one principal testified at an SREB conference on school leadership last year that her internship in graduate school had consisted of her collecting tickets at a high school football game!

We’re advising state leaders to invest in high-quality internships and mentoring for all principal-candidates in all preparation programs—or to reduce program enrollments at public universities to allow faculty members, mentor principals, and district staffs to concentrate on preparing candidates with the most potential. Or states can cut the number of programs and invest only in higher-quality programs with strong internships.

Require more of beginning and veteran principals. The state’s power to license principals can be an effective tool to ensure that schools have learning-centered principals.

Learning-centered licensing goes far beyond background checks or academic degrees that tell us little about a candidate’s capacity for school leadership. A high-quality system includes performance criteria and evaluations for licensure at the entry, professional, and advanced levels.

Research shows that most of the United States does not have a shortage of principal-candidates—only a shortage of <i>good</i> ones, especially in struggling schools.

Alabama is developing a system to link the principal license to the knowledge, skills, and demonstrated leadership abilities expected of candidates. License renewal should be contingent on continuing evidence of work to improve student achievement, not just participation in a specified number of professional-development activities. The principal who earns the highest professional license will be expected to provide plentiful evidence of significant accomplishments in school leadership.

Policymakers also need to create and support high-quality induction programs for new principals. Most states don’t have them.

Build better ways to find the leaders schools need. While good teachers with leadership abilities will continue to become effective principals, research shows that some leaders in other fields have the skills that principals need, such as experience in leading change and problem-solving.

These potential candidates may include professionals such as guidance counselors, leaders of youth-oriented programs, and others who work with young people and understand the importance of helping students achieve at high levels and graduate. They should be allowed to prove themselves on the job while they are trained in instructional-leadership practices.

Provide stronger leadership for traditionally low-performing schools. Many states have not always given sufficient attention to building leadership capacity in struggling schools. Principals of low-performing schools cannot be expected to turn their schools around on their own.

Policymakers need to ensure that districts build effective leadership teams of teachers and others who can work alongside principals to improve schools. States also need to make certain that school districts and local school boards create the conditions that will allow leadership teams to work effectively to develop the capacities of district staffs to support school teams in improving instructional practices.

State and local leaders—from the governor and legislators to superintendents, principals, and teachers—need to make school leadership a top priority. We’ve lost too much time already.


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