School & District Management

Study Sheds Light on Qualities of Best Training for Principals

By Lynn Olson — April 30, 2007 6 min read
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It’s widely accepted that principals are vital to school success, but few studies have closely examined how to train effective school leaders. Now, a report has identified the common features of exemplary programs for preparing principals who can guide instruction and foster school improvement.

The study examined eight programs, chosen on the basis of expert recommendations, that represented a variety of approaches to preservice and in-service preparation and had evidence on effectiveness as shown by the quality of their graduates. It was prepared by researchers at Stanford University in collaboration with the Washington-based Finance Project, a policy-research group.

“The findings show that high-performing principals are not just born, but can be made,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, the lead author of the report and a professor of education at Stanford. The bad news, she said at an April 20 session held here during the spring forum of the National Conference of State Legislatures, is that most states lack the infrastructure to support such programs.

Characteristics of the programs include active recruitment of candidates, guidance from expert practitioners, a coherent blend of theory and practice, and well-designed and -supervised internships.

To understand how the programs operate and are funded, the researchers conducted interviews; observed classes, workshops, and meetings; and surveyed program participants and graduates about their preparation, practices, and attitudes. They compared the responses with those of a national random sample of 661 elementary and secondary school principals.

In addition, the researchers followed a small number of program graduates on the job, interviewed and surveyed the teachers with whom they worked, and examined data on their schools’ practices and achievement trends.

A Professional Advantage

Principals who were prepared in exemplary programs were more likely than other principals to engage in practices associated with effective instructional leadership.


SOURCE: “Preparing School Leaders for a Changing World”

The preservice programs selected for the study were sponsored by four universities: Bank Street College in New York City; Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss.; the University of Connecticut in Storrs; and the University of San Diego, working with the San Diego Unified School District. Ms. Darling-Hammond said the researchers had hoped to include some nontraditional preparation programs, such as those offered by the nonprofit organization New Leaders for New Schools, but that such programs did not have long enough track records at the time.

Four school districts sponsored the in-service programs highlighted: Hartford, Conn.; Jefferson County, Ky., which includes Louisville; Region 1 in the New York City system; and San Diego Unified.

The study was financed by the New York City-based Wallace Foundation, which also underwrites coverage of leadership issues in Education Week. It follows a highly critical report on traditional administrator-preparation programs by Arthur E. Levine, then the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, that was released in 2005. (“Panel Urges U.S. Push to Raise Math, Science Achievement,” March 16, 2005.)

Aggressive Recruitment

The new study of principal-development programs and policies found that exemplary programs actively recruited candidates, rather than waiting to see who enrolled. Working with local districts, they reached out to excellent teachers with strong leadership potential, who reflected the local population.

As a result, graduates of those programs were significantly more likely than members of the comparison group to be female (72 percent vs. 46 percent) and members of racial or ethnic minorities (36 percent vs. 11 percent). In addition, a larger proportion of participants reported working in an urban school (72 percent vs. 18 percent). And they were much more likely to have strong and relevant teaching experience, often having served as coaches for other teachers, department chairs, and team leaders.

The principals-in-training typically completed their programs in cohort groups, receiving formal mentoring and advice from expert principals. They completed a comprehensive and coherent curriculum aligned with state and professional content standards, and focused on leadership for instruction and school improvement. And the programs themselves tightly integrated theory and practice, including well-designed and supervised internships.

Two of the programs, in particular, Delta State and San Diego’s Educational Leadership Development Academy, offered full-year, paid administrative internships with expert principals, financed by the state of Mississippi in one case and by the San Diego public schools through a foundation grant in the other.

Six in 10 of the 2002 to 2004 graduates of the exemplary programs were already principals by 2005, and another 20 percent were assistant principals. In contrast, most studies have found that only about 20 percent to 30 percent of those who graduate from administrator-preparation programs become principals within several years of graduation, and fewer than half enter any administrative position.

Coherent Programs

Similarly, the in-service programs for practicing principals that were studied offered a well-connected set of learning opportunities that were informed by a coherent view of teaching and learning.

Instead of offering a string of one-day workshops on unrelated topics, the programs organized a continuum of learning opportunities for principals aimed at developing specific professional practices. Those practices typically included how to develop shared, schoolwide goals and direction; how to observe and provide feedback to teachers; how to plan professional development and other learning opportunities for teachers; how to use data to guide school improvement; and how to manage the process of change.

Principals from the exemplary programs reported far more participation in a wide range of learning opportunities than did principals in the comparison group. In particular, they took part more often in district-supported peer observations and visits to other schools, in principals’ networks and conferences, and in professional-development activities with teachers. Nearly all the districts studied engaged principals in guided “walk-throughs” of schools to look at particular practices in classrooms and consider how to evaluate and improve teaching and learning.

The annual costs for the 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 of leadership preparation and staff development require a significant financial commitment, Ms. Darling-Hammond said, 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.”

The researchers also examined policies to support such programs in the states represented by the programs and in three additional states, Delaware, Georgia, and North Carolina.

Seven of the eight states studied have adopted national standards for principal preparation as part of the program-approval process. Six of the eight states support at least one state leadership academy that helps organize, broker, and provide ongoing professional development for principals.

Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, argued that supporting leadership development is a “good investment” for states, and one of the least-developed areas of education. But he cautioned legislators to expect some resistance from those who are now making money from the existing system—or nonsystem—of professional development and training.

A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2007 edition of Education Week as Study Sheds Light on Qualities Of Best Training for Principals


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