School & District Management

States Get Tough on Programs to Prepare Principals

By Jeff Archer — October 17, 2006 6 min read
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Impatient to prepare better-qualified school leaders, a growing number of states are giving their universities an ultimatum: Redesign your preservice programs, or get out of the business of training school administrators.

State policymakers in Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee have moved in recent months to require graduate programs in educational leadership to meet new standards. Iowa and Louisiana already have done so, prompting a few programs to go off-line.

The aim is to prod universities to produce principals who are better equipped to lead school improvement. In response, many programs are working with school districts to jointly select administrator-candidates and to create new courses with more field-based experiences.

Analysts say the policy push reflects a new recognition that most education schools are unlikely to update their programs on their own. Kathy O’Neill, who directs leadership initiatives at the Southern Regional Education Board, said state action is needed.

“Working with individual institutions, we just didn’t see there would be the capacity or total will to make this happen,” said Ms. O’Neill, whose Atlanta-based group leads a 5-year-old network of universities engaged in the redesign of principal preparation.

Some state policymakers also took notice when Arthur E. Levine, the former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, issued a sharply critical review of the nation’s university-based programs to prepare administrators in a report 18 months ago.

As states complete the process of requiring such programs to redesign themselves, they’re learning more about the challenges involved. Education schools often say getting adequate district participation in the recruitment and support of principal-candidates can be a problem.

But many education school leaders see value in the effort. Cleveland Hill, who recently retired as the dean of the education college at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., said the possibility of being shuttered helped convince others at the university of the need to change.

“Once you go through the process, and look back, you realize this was a very tough thing to do, but probably the only way it could have gotten done,” he said. “If we hadn’t had that push from the top, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Changing the Rules

States are driving the retooling by changing requirements for programs that qualify people for school administrator licenses. In general, states doing so are moving from stipulations that certain courses be taught to mandates that specific skills be mastered.

In 2003, for example, Louisiana called on all of its universities that prepared administrators to submit proposals for new training programs that focused on skills such as data-driven decisionmaking, parent engagement, and leadership of staff development.

Of the 15 that submitted plans, only one—the University of Louisiana at Monroe—was fully approved off the bat. Nine were approved conditionally. And five were sent back to the drawing board, in some case more than once, by the state’s summer 2006 deadline.

Nathan M. Roberts, the director of graduate studies in education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said the changes demanded were significant. His program—one of the first to submit a proposal—was approved conditionally, though it had been working on a redesign for years with the SREB.

Davita Lancelin, left, Dequindra Redding, and Pamela Jordan work together at an elementary school on a project for their studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

The SREB redesign network, which includes 11 universities, is funded by the New York City-based Wallace Foundation, which also underwrites coverage of leadership in Education Week. A number of states also use Wallace grants to support redesign efforts.

Mr. Roberts said that in the old structure, Lafayette didn’t consult with districts about whom to admit. Students took courses largely in whatever order fit their schedules. And many, he admits, sought the master’s degree simply to earn more money, not because they wanted to become administrators.

“So I’m producing these numbers, but I know it’s not going to help the district,” Mr. Roberts said.

In the university’s new program, which was launched a year ago, faculty members work with district leaders in picking from among applicants. Students take their courses in a specified sequence, and in a cohort, over two years. Classes stress assignments to be completed in the field.

Gwen Antoine could be a poster child for the program. The curriculum director at Jeanerette Middle School in Iberia, La., had been taking graduate-level courses in administration on and off at Lafayette for about a decade when she heard about the new program.

“Nothing that I had learned in those courses prepared me, or gave me any inkling of what to expect once I became an administrator,” she said. “It was research, theory, just listening to professors lecture, and regurgitating information that wasn’t really useful.”

Now in her second year in the new program, Ms. Antoine often applies what she’s learning. For instance, she’s doing a study for one of her classes on the effects of benchmark testing to gauge students’ progress throughout the year—a schoolwide initiative she’s leading.

Ms. Antoine said she likes being in a cohort of 18 people. “It forces you to stay in the program,” she said. “If you want a master’s degree, you have to do it on the university’s terms, which I like, because every course builds on the last one.”

Some Programs Closed

States are finding, however, that such overhauls take more effort than initially thought. Louisiana first told its universities to submit redesign proposals by 2004, but extended its deadline after campuses struggled to meet it.

“[At first], they were taking their existing courses, and looking to see how the standards could fit them, which is not what we wanted to happen,” said Jeanne M. Burns, the state’s associate commissioner for teacher education initiatives, who helped to lead the effort.

A sticking point has been involving local school districts. University leaders say some districts don’t devote enough time to recruiting candidates, and some are reluctant to allow classroom teachers in the universities’ programs enough time to do fieldwork during the day.

“The onus has been on the universities to redesign, and to get the districts to understand their role,” said Frederick Dembowski, who chairs the department of educational leadership and technology at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond.

Some districts have been supportive, however. The 6,300-student Evangeline Parish district pays tuition for its staff members in the redesigned program at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. District leaders say they have a shortage of potential principals.

A few universities haven’t been able to meet their states’ new expectations. Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, and Centenary College in Shreveport, La., were not approved by the states’ deadlines, and so cannot admit new students to their programs.

Both are small, private institutions. Sue N. Hernandez, the chairwoman of the education department at Centenary, said to meet the state’s criteria would have required hiring more full-time faculty. Many of the instructors in the college’s educational leadership program have been adjuncts.

“It just didn’t make sense to increase the size of our faculty in this department,” she said.

Two other institutions in Iowa faced a similar fate: St. Ambrose University in Davenport, and Loras College in Dubuque, were told that their administrator-preparation programs didn’t pass muster, largely because they lacked enough full-time faculty.

Both Roman Catholic institutions on the state’s eastern edge, they decided to pool their resources. They hired a faculty member from Louisiana, who had helped a university there redesign its preparation of school leaders, to set up a joint program.

The new partnership won state approval late last year, after two years in which St. Ambrose and Loras couldn’t take new candidates. Robert Ristow, the dean of the education college at St. Ambrose, admits frustration at having been shut down, but said the principals now prepared there will be better for it.

“I firmly believe that our program is on much more solid ground than it was previously,” Mr. Ristow said.

“It was a shocker,” he said of the state’s action. “It was, ‘These are the standards; you’ve got to meet them.’ ”

A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2006 edition of Education Week as States Get Tough on Programs to Prepare Principals

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