Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Principal Preparation: Moving Beyond Assessment

By Ann Hassenpflug — May 17, 2011 5 min read

Increasingly, principal-preparation programs are getting the national scrutiny that has been focused on teacher education for some time.

Today, many principal-training programs run by public and private higher education institutions have been modified to align them with national standards from the Educational Leadership Constituent Council, or ELCC. To receive national recognition from ELCC as part of the college of education accreditation process, faculties have revised their principal-training programs to include assessments that require graduate students to engage in specific activities scored according to rubrics.

Educational administration faculty members have spent immense amounts of time and effort (without extra compensation or reduced teaching and research loads) to design and implement common principalship assessments. One problem with this: The intense focus on tests has caused other important program components to be neglected—despite a lack of data confirming that the new assessments actually make any difference in a future principal’s leadership ability.

Instead of continuing to tinker with assessments in principal-preparation programs, it is time to look at other pieces of the process to determine if the necessary questions are being asked about the preparation process, which includes the selection (or, more often, self-selection) of candidates, the pedagogy and delivery methods used in the courses, the knowledge base and skills addressed in the educational administration courses, and the qualifications of the faculty.

Currently, most programs in educational administration impose few restrictions on who can enter them. For instance, although most of these students are teachers, being a teacher is not a requirement to take principalship courses. And, while having a teaching license is often required to obtain a principal license, alternative-licensure programs may offer a way around even that requirement. At many institutions, students need only a minimum 2.5 undergraduate grade point average for admission, and they need not provide any evidence that they have demonstrated above-average teaching, that they have reading-comprehension skills necessary for serious graduate work, and that they have above-average oral- and written-communication skills. Finally, neither creativity nor imagination is a requirement for admission.

Instead of continuing to tinker with assessments in principal-preparation programs, it is time to look at other pieces of the process."

The recruitment of a cohort from one school district or limited geographical region creates yet another set of problems. Because the students who stay together for all of their coursework become a tight unit socially and intellectually, they are often unwilling to consider recommendations for best practice when it differs from their shared personal experiences or opinions.

The instructional techniques used in principal-preparation programs should be appropriate for producing graduates who have the cognitive skills; problem-identifying abilities; decisionmaking, communication, and interpersonal skills; and creativity necessary for school leadership.

Where is the research that demonstrates that taking part in online chat rooms can really prepare principalship students to facilitate face-to-face group discussions, parent meetings, and teacher conferences? As principals, they will need to be able to participate in and facilitate face-to-face discussions and conversations. Dialogue is a large part of a principal’s work, especially for a constructivist leader or someone trying to build and support a professional learning community. Students can’t learn to interview teacher-candidates or conference with a marginal teacher merely by watching a commercial video online. They need to actually role-play and practice these activities in class under the guidance of a professor and with feedback from other students serving as observers.

Although the current focus on assessments suggests that content of educational administration programs has received significant attention, that generally is not the case. The assessments have often been shoehorned into existing courses even when they don’t fit with the course content. Departmental and college politics may make the replacement of old courses with new courses controversial. Just finding the time to sit down and have lengthy discussions about what should be addressed in a principal-preparation program is challenging, but the potential conflict that could develop from such discussions may be regarded by some faculty members as too threatening.

Differences of opinion among department members may be the result of their own diverse backgrounds. Those with experience as principals may have views that differ from those of faculty members lacking any school administration experience. Additionally, clinical faculty and adjuncts may have very limited knowledge of the research on best practice and may want to focus solely on experiences that led to their individual practices. Even when contingent faculty members are included in the discussion with tenure-track faculty, their own employment status may cause them to limit their remarks or choose to agree with the most powerful or vocal tenure-track faculty.

The quality of tenure-track faculty members is also a significant issue that needs more review. Just having a doctorate from any higher education institution in some field of education does not mean the individual is able to teach educational administration courses. Questions need to be raised by educational administration faculty members about what qualifications are necessary for professors who prepare principals. Current tenure-stream faculty members have the professional knowledge to best address this issue. But if they step away from having that hard conversation, then politicians and for-profit education organizations will be able to move forward with their own plans for revising principal-preparation programs. Educational administration professors should not allow their profession to be undermined or to silence their own voices.

Educational administration faculty members should demand a rigorous debate within their own institutions and within their states rather than acquiesce to the deprofessionalization and deskilling of their profession. Assessments are not the only topic for discussion, and professors should not limit themselves to just discussing how to design them. Instead, they should be asking questions about all aspects of the principal-preparation process and making the changes that are needed to fashion a new and richer culture for principal training.

A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2011 edition of Education Week as Principal Preparation

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