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Volume 20, Number 2
March/April 2004

Preparing the “Highly Qualified Principal”

Will new training and recruitment programs reshape the profession?


With its goal of putting a "highly qualified teacher" in every classroom, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has raised many questions about the current state of K-12 teacher preparation, certification, and professional development. Largely absent from the federal law are requirements about the qualifications of other school personnel, most notably principals. What if NCLB had also required that there be a "highly qualified principal" in every school by 2005-2006? What would such a designation mean, and how would we prepare someone to be this kind of school leader?

In recent years, a small but growing number of school districts, state agencies, universities, and philanthropies have been grappling with these kinds of questions—rethinking the skills, preservice training, and professional support that go into creating a school leader who can spearhead effective classroom instruction. This newfound interest in nurturing the qualities of effective principalship stems from the growing realization of the crucial role principals play in supporting-or limiting-efforts to improve schools and raise student achievement. Most principals themselves would likely agree that plans to improve curriculum, integrate standards, implement schoolwide reform, or reduce the achievement gap often succeed or fail largely based on a school's leadership.

Yet, the systems for preparing principals for U.S. schools have remained largely unchanged—and unquestioned—for many years. At the same time, high turnover rates in many regions have raised questions about whether there will even be enough candidates to lead schools effectively in the near future.

Revamping Coursework

One aspect of principal preparation that is widely seen as "in need of improvement" is the academic coursework offered in certification programs. Many principals complain that their traditional university-based classroom training was too piecemeal, too generic, or too theoretical—not focused enough on real-world challenges such as turning schools around or leading teams of teachers. As Jill Budd, a 6th-year middle school principal in Duval County, Fla., recalls, "The majority of the coursework that I had was so theoretical that it never got around to the things you really need to know to run a school effectively."

The need for more practical principal training is one of the main findings of a recent report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington. Based on interviews with more than 150 principals, the 2003 report found that universities generally provided them with a uniform set of courses that was often inappropriate for many of the schools they actually ended up leading. The report also found that principals do not necessarily have to be experts in every aspect of school life, but they must be skilled in diagnosing specific school needs and developing appropriate responses to those needs based on available resources—skills for which many of the principals interviewed believed their preservice training was inadequate.

In response to such concerns, some districts and universities have banded together to rethink traditional principal candidate coursework and replace it with programs that place greater emphasis on curriculum and instruction, the supervision of teachers, and professional development. In some places, the changes have been dramatic. At Oklahoma State University, for example, principal candidates must now take one-third of their courses in the area of curriculum and instruction. Previously, only one out of 12 courses was required in this area.

Some district leaders have even gone so far as to hire a liaison to help facilitate coordination between higher education institutions and their district, so that what is taught in university courses is related to what is needed most in a particular school or set of schools. Such training programs tailored to specific districts have tremendous benefits, according to some participants.

"The big difference is that you're really focusing on the culture of the district, using the language of the district," says Eric Markinson, an assistant principal at Churchill High School in Eugene, Ore., who participated in a district-specific principal-training program three years ago. "The homework projects were all situated in our schools and were specific to our school district, as opposed to having people from 30 different districts," he explains. The program, which also included a "critical friends" coaching element, was taught by local practitioners from Eugene schools, as well as university professors.

Other initiatives have gone even further in this direction. In the Principal Residency Network (PRN), a regional program that currently operates in New Hampshire, Vermont, Boston, and Providence, R.I., roughly 90 new principals have been trained to lead schools with virtually no traditional coursework, says codirector Dennis Littky. Using a modified "independent study" approach, the network relies on projects and assignments that are tailored to whatever areas candidates need to focus on most at their respective school sites. Each working with a director who is linked to a university-based certification program, candidates have to show that they have mastered a range of essential information and skills. If a candidate comes in with ten years' experience working extensively with parents, for example, then that person would work on areas such as budgeting and curriculum development.

Larry Myatt, a former mentor principal who now coordinates the program's Boston location, says the goal of the PRN is to give candidates "a pretty good dose of what it's like to be a principal." This real-world focus weeds out some who decide they aren't up for the challenge, he notes. "We get them as close as we can to the high wire," Myatt says. "We like the fact that we have a little bit of attrition in the program." The network's roughly 30 graduates, who receive state certification, advance based on the evaluation of the mentor principal and the university liaison.

Who Becomes a Principal

Another major change that some districts and states are making is to develop more proactive, purposeful recruiting methods for prospective principals, instead of the current "passive" system whereby teachers and others who are interested in administration essentially select themselves for leadership. These districts' leaders are looking for specific attributes in new principals. They actively recruit from among their ranks, then require that individuals apply to enter a training program, where candidates work on a specific set of competencies. Some of these efforts include the following:

  • The Dallas Independent School District recently selected 25 aspiring school principals for a new training program, working in cooperation with the University of North Texas and the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), an organization closely involved in helping districts in 16 southern states revamp their principal training and recruitment approaches. Recruitment focused on successful teachers with at least some experience working closely with other teachers, and a "passion for improving student achievement," according to SREB senior vice president Gene Bottoms.
  • In Springfield, Mass., the superintendent and other school leaders have developed a tailored program for district principals, for which they actively recruit people they believe can be effective school leaders. The district initiative has even encouraged the local university to revamp its own program, according to Richard Laine of the Wallace Foundation, which funds the Springfield project along with a host of other principal-training reforms around the country.
  • In New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area, a small but innovative principal-training program called New Leaders for New Schools puts applicants through a rigorous prescreening process, which includes extensive interviews and role-playing exercises. The program accepts only a fraction of those who apply. In 2002, New Leaders received about 600 applications for 50 principal internships, according to cofounder Jon Schnur. New Leaders also has taken the controversial step of recruiting candidates from outside education, as long as they have a minimal amount of classroom experience.

Intentional or not, one notable effect of these efforts is that they often generate a more diverse group of candidates than is typical in the principal pool, according to SREB's Bottoms and others. This includes more women, some younger candidates, and many experienced teachers who may have considered becoming principals in the past, but had been reluctant to get "stuck" in the traditional assistant principal role of disciplinarian. In New York City, officials say that the first cohort of principals in training under the new program was 36 percent minority. According to New Leaders for New Schools officials, roughly half of its participants are minority candidates.
Obstacles to Change

As promising as they may be, these innovations in training and recruitment face serious obstacles before they can be adopted more widely. The current system has been in place for many years and provides a steady stream of tuition income to universities, as well as an open door for teachers to become certified as principals at a time when principal turnover is high.

There is also some debate about whether the principal should necessarily even be a school's primary instructional leader. Some envision a more management-oriented approach, with a stronger role for lead teachers in guiding instruction, or a shared leadership role that mirrors the chief executive officer/chief academic officer pairing currently being used in some large urban districts like San Diego and Chicago.

Other challenges include:

State certification issues.
Many of the changes in how principals are trained are being made within current certification requirements and regulations, or through waivers, but nearly all revolve in some way around university-based training programs. More widespread change might require further adjustments to state certification requirements, either through regulatory changes or by statute.

Roughly 15 states have loosened their principal certification requirements over the past several years, according to the Wallace Foundation's Laine, but much more needs to be done. In New York City, for example, the district's Leadership Academy may, pending discussions with state officials, eventually certify its own principals rather than rely on an association with a higher education institution. "Universities have a lock on [principal] certification right now," Laine observes.

Professional development. Ongoing support and leadership development for principals is another key issue that must be addressed along with the training of new principals. One such effort, the National Institute for School Leadership (NISL), run by the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), has made professional development for in-service principals its main focus. "You can have perhaps the biggest immediate impact on the quality of school leadership by working with those who are already drawing paychecks," says Thomas Toch, director of the NCEE's Policy Forums program.

Using ideas from the corporate world and from the National War College, which trains U.S. military leaders in Washington, the main idea behind the NISL is to "reorient" principals who are already on the job toward fully taking on the role of instructional leaders who can use student data effectively, identify weaknesses in order to improve student achievement, and reallocate resources accordingly. The program combines intensive instruction and online learning and is currently being implemented in a handful of districts.

Anecdotal reports are positive so far. "I've gotten professional development in the past," says Jill Budd of Duval County who—along with every other middle and high school principal in the district—has been participating in the NISL program since last summer. "But here [in the NISL program] there is a lot more opportunity to discuss issues with your peers.

Changing the workplace. Even the best-trained principals need a supportive workplace with reasonable expectations, and at least some of the new school leadership efforts are trying to address these kinds of concerns. Principal attrition rates are high, the pressures are tremendous, the level of real autonomy can be low, and the job is notoriously exhausting. The New York City Leadership Academy program, as well as the performance-based system set up in the District of Columbia, are trying to make substantive changes so that principals can actually succeed at the reforms they have developed the skills to implement

Up-front costs. One obvious factor common to many of these alternative or innovative training programs is that they require significant additional investments or reallocations by districts and foundations. Under the traditional system, candidates generally pay their own way, usually while teaching and receiving salary increases for additional graduate credits. No research exists at this point to prove that the added cost is making a difference, much less paying off. But one thing seems certain: without investments in leadership, real school reform faces an uphill battle.

"Cost is the biggest problem," says Dennis Littky of the Principal Residency Network. "This is unfortunate, because everybody should put their money into leadership."

Alexander Russo is an independent education writer and a contributing editor for Catalyst magazine in Chicago. He is the editor of the recent book School Reform in Chicago: Lessons in Policy and Practice, published in 2004 by the Harvard Education Press.

For Further Information

For Further Information

E-Lead, c/o Institute for Educational Leadership, 1001 Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 310, Washington,
DC 20036; tel. 202-822-8405.

E. Gootman. “Schools Get $4 Million to Recruit Principals.” New York Times, September 23, 2003, p. B4.

C. Mazzeo. “Improving Teaching and Learning by Improving School Leadership.” National Governors Association and NGA Center for Best Practices, September 2003.

National Institute for School Leadership, located at the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), 555 13th St., NW, Suite 500 West, Washington, DC, 20004; tel. 202-783-3668.

Principal Residency Network, part of The Big Picture Company, 275 Westminster St., Suite 500, Providence, RI, 02903; tel. 401-456-0600.

Southern Regional Education Board
, 592 10th St., NW, Atlanta, GA 30318; tel. 404-875-9211.

M. Stricherz. “In San Diego, Principals’ Focus Is Teaching and Learning.” Education Week, November 28, 2001, pp. 6–7.