Professional Development

Principal Prep and PD: What Works and What’s Being Left Out

By Denisa R. Superville — June 07, 2022 6 min read
Principal Vernicka Rolle-Murray leads students to classrooms after breakfast, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, during the first day of school at Washington Elementary School in Riviera Beach, Fla.
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Research on the types of training and support effective principals need has become clearer over the last two decades, but a new, in-depth report also shows that the application of those lessons varies from state to state.

The report, Developing Effective Principals What Kind of Learning Matters?, digs deep into the research on principal preparation and professional development and what principals think of it.

And the work isn’t done.

“This is still a young body of research on three things ... whether principals make a difference, how they make a difference, and how do you prepare principals to make a difference,” said Steve Tozer, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Chicago College of Education and one of the report’s authors.

Here are some key takeaways from the report from the Learning Policy Institute, done with the support of the Wallace Foundation. (The Wallace Foundation supports Education Week coverage of issues including education leadership.)

We already know the ingredients of high-quality principal prep

Some of the main ingredients of these programs include:

  • A rigorous selection process for candidates;
  • Cohorts or networks for aspiring principal-candidates;
  • Curriculum that reflects real-world practices;
  • Clinical experiences longer than 20 weeks;
  • Mentors and coaches for the candidates; and
  • Learning opportunities that give candidates a chance to address actual school-based challenges—for example, through role-playing or projects.

High-quality preparation programs also, of course, are grounded in teaching would-be principals instructional-leadership practices and about managing and leading people and change. And they include close partnerships between the provider (whether a university or a private organization) and the districts in which graduates will work.

High-quality professional development, on the other hand, should also include small-group support for school leaders, such as one-on-one mentoring, professional learning communities, and opportunities for principals to practice what they’re learning.

High-quality programs are out there, but access can be spotty

Over the last decade, a higher percentage of principals who’ve exited their preparation programs are saying they’ve had exposure to the key parts of high-quality principal-prep, according to the report. Of course, the depth of that exposure varies from program to program, district to district, and state to state.

For example, 87 percent of principals who got their certification in the last 10 years said they had access to content on leading instruction that focused on higher-order thinking, compared with 80 percent of those certified more than 10 years ago.

Overall, however, about 70 percent of principals said they had minimal access to almost all the areas considered key to high-quality principal prep, the report says.

A higher percentage of principals from California, which changed its licensure and approval process, were more likely than their peers nationally to say they’ve been exposed to key program content.

While 83 percent of principals nationally, for example, said they got training on leading schoolwide change to boost student outcomes, 97 percent of California principals said the same.

Training on equity remains a challenge

The new report, led by Linda Darling-Hammond, the president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, cited research showing that exposing principals to just one course on “meeting the needs of diverse learners” can help them work with students from diverse backgrounds.

But research in this area is still scarce, with most of the scholarship focused on students of color, according to the authors, who found only one study among those that fit the criteria centered on working with LGTBQ students.

About 82 percent of principals nationally said they were prepared to lead schools and support students from diverse cultural, linguistic, and racial, and ethnic backgrounds. But among recent graduates—those who were certified over the last 10 years—that number is 86 percent. And in California, 99 percent of principals said they were prepared to respond to the needs of students coming from diverse backgrounds.

And the ease of access to those programs varies, according to the report.

School leaders heading schools with large numbers of students experiencing poverty reported having fewer opportunities in their programs with exposure to some of the key content areas in their prep programs, such as the cohort-based model and real-world, problem-solving aspects of the job than their peers in schools with fewer students experiencing poverty. They were also less likely to have coaches and mentors.

The authors noted, however, that that was not the case in California, where nearly all principals—99 percent in the survey of California principals used in the report—said their program provided opportunities to work in a collaborative learning environment with various stakeholders and students from diverse linguistic, ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds.

State policy can make a big difference

While states wield huge influence over principal-preparation and -professional-development programs, not all are using that power, the report says.

One big area is adopting standards for school leaders, which all states and the District of Columbia have done, according to a 2015 report by the University Council on Educational Administration, a group of higher education institutions that offer leadership-preparation programs.

State policies were inconsistent in other important areas where they can make a big difference. Those buckets include the quality of the internship experience that aspiring principals get, the ability to promote and support strong partnerships between school districts and universities, and the power to increase the rigor of candidate selection and recruitment. The oversight of preparation programs is also another area where states have enormous leverage, according to the report.

Fewer than half the states had rigorous selection processes and district partnerships, and only Illinois and Tennessee met all the requirements laid out by the university council. Eleven states met none of the requirements, according to the UCEA report.

There are examples where principal prep and support changed drastically after robust state action. Since California changed its licensure and approval process, principals have reported they’ve felt better prepared to lead schools in a variety of areas, according to surveys.

In Pennsylvania, all new principals are required to participate in the Pennsylvania Inspired Leadership Program within their first five years on the job. The program is tied to the state’s school leadership standards. Results have been positive, including an 18 percent drop in principal turnover compared with turnover in the years before the program came along.

And North Carolina’s Principal Fellows Program, which started in 1993, provides scholarships to aspiring principals. The programcovers a master’s degree in school administration as well as a salary in the second year to allow principal-candidates to work as an assistant principal under the supervision of a veteran principal.

Are things changing? Possibly. All 50 states and the District of Columbia said they planned to invest in school leadership when they submitted their Every Student Succeeds plans to the U.S. Department of Education, according to a 2018 analysis by New Leaders, the New York City-based school leadership development program. .

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