School & District Management

Tenn. to Change Training, Licensure Rules for Principals

By Lesli A. Maxwell — December 05, 2008 4 min read
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Education officials in Tennessee are poised to launch a major overhaul of its system for preparing principals, in a move aimed at improving the quality of the state’s cadre of school leaders.

Members of the state board of education voted unanimously last month to give preliminary approval to a redesign of principals’ training, selection, licensure, and evaluation. The panel is poised to give the changes a final stamp of approval by the end of the year, after some revisions, said Gary L. Nixon, the executive director of the state board.

The new plan, called the Tennessee Learning Centered Leadership Policy, will install a sweeping menu of changes that state education leaders believe will significantly alter who is selected to enter principal-preparation programs and how those candidates are trained, Mr. Nixon said. Among the more dramatic, and perhaps challenging, changes are the new standards and requirements for colleges and universities in Tennessee that want to continue to offer school leadership training programs.

Once the board issues its final approval later this month, which Mr. Nixon said was certain to occur, the changes will begin to take effect next year.

Under the new standards, candidates for principal training will no longer be able to “self-select” into programs, he said.

Colleges and universities, working with the school districts they serve most, will have to toughen their admissions standards on several fronts, including a requirement that applicants present evidence that they have improved student achievement. The state department of education will have to approve all new admissions criteria and changes to how principal-candidates are trained.

“This is a new set of standards that incorporates much more of a focus on instruction,” Mr. Nixon said in an interview. “There may be fewer folks coming out of the pipeline, but we are confident we are going to have higher-quality principals for our schools, especially when it comes to leaders who know how to work with struggling students and teachers to resolve instructional issues.”

Three Years of Work

The Nov. 14 vote by the Tennessee board capped three years of work by a range of state and local education officials, along with the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, which has partnered with several states in revamping programs for preparing school leaders.

For the undertaking in Tennessee, the SREB helped state education officials organize a commission and smaller working groups of educators to comb through research and make recommendations on what should change.

How principal-candidates are selected and trained by higher education institutions in Tennessee was a top target for change, said Kathy O’Neill, who directs leadership initiatives at the SREB and has worked closely with state leaders in developing the new policy.

Currently, some 20 different colleges and universities are offering education leadership degrees in the state.

“They are really spreading resources too thinly by supporting so many programs, when they turn out far more people with the master’s degree than there are jobs for them to fill,” said Ms. O’Neill.

As in most states, people in Tennessee who earn those degrees, often classroom teachers, can receive salary increases without ever taking the exam to get a state license and entering an actual leadership position. Under the new policy, candidates in principal-preparation programs must take and pass the state licensing exam as a condition for earning the master’s degree.

“That is a mammoth change,” said Ms. O’Neill. “It’s just one of many changes that will cause people to think much more about whether they want to do these programs or not.”

Emphasis on Partnerships

Tennessee’s new policy will also require that universities and the school districts that provide most of the candidates for their leadership programs establish “formalized partnerships” to develop the selection criteria for candidates. The partnerships also will design the curriculum and field experiences—which must be much more extensive than they have previously been—that each aspiring principal receives. The partnership agreements must describe how the programs will address the leadership needs of the particular districts.

Two institutions—the University of Memphis and East Tennessee State University in Johnson City—have already been working closely with local districts for the past two years as pilot sites. (“Joining Forces,” Sept. 12, 2007.)

Joseph F. Murphy, an education professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and a national expert on educational leadership, said such partnerships are necessary, but difficult to achieve.

“It’s very rare for there to be deep partnerships between universities and districts,” said Mr. Murphy, who has not taken part in the process of revamping the state policy.

“University faculty are hired usually because they are brilliant in school finance or some other area of expertise, but few of them have been trained on how to plan and develop new programs,” he said. “There will have to be a great deal of technical assistance to make these partnerships work.”

Another major feature of Tennessee’s new policy is in how the state will license principals.

The current system issues one license for “beginning” administrators, and another for “professional” administrators. The new policy will add an optional “aspiring” license that allows district superintendents to identify promising principal talent and put people into school leadership roles as they go through a formal preparation program. Another optional tier will be for “exemplary” administrators, who will be those leaders identified to be mentors to newer and aspiring leaders.

A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as Tenn. to Change Training, Licensure Rules for Principals

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