Blog: The Educated Reporter

Wanted: High-Quality Principal Training

(From left to right) Moderator Emma Brown of The Washington Post moderates a panel on principal leadership with experts Vincent Cho, Erika Hunt, Glenn Pethelfar at Boston University in May 2016. (Lilli Boxer for EWA)

Given the key role that strong leadership plays in providing effective schools, experts, superintendents and universities say principal training deserves a “needs improvement” on its report card.

The nation’s numerous principal-preparation programs are hit or miss, according to Vincent Cho, assistant professor of educational leadership at Boston College.

“There are thousands and thousands of leadership programs operating right now,” and they aren’t all equal, Cho said.

Far from it. District superintendents are often left wanting, according to a recent survey. It finds that eight in 10 superintendents are dissatisfied with the way principals are trained in university-based preparation programs, and universities that host the programs agree. The survey results are part of a report assessing the quality of university-based principal training programs and making recommendations on how to improve them.

Cho and other experts discussed the preparation of school leaders at an Education Writers Association conference in Boston this spring. The issue is of growing urgency, as a generation of principals retire and must be replaced.

“Relatively few of these principal-preparation programs are of the quality that districts are looking for,” said Glenn Pethell, the executive director of leadership development for Gwinnett County Public Schools, near Atlanta.

The district came up with a solution a decade ago: Only give principals credit for attending a preparation program it deems valuable. The district identified five acceptable university programs, he explained at the EWA event.

“We maintain, as the employer, that we are the clients of these university programs,” Pethell said.

Illinois also jumped on the problem a decade ago when the tide of retirements approached, according to Erika Hunt, a senior policy analyst at Illinois State University’s Center for the Study of Education Policy.

The state assembled a group including representatives from labor unions, state education boards, and stakeholder groups. That group discovered that while up to 7,000 people were earning the administrative endorsement each year to become principals, “most people weren’t there to become principals,” she said. They just wanted to climb the pay scale or take a different administrative position. Many programs weren’t even doing their job in preparing principals, she added.

The result: Illinois passed a law in 2010 shutting down all 31 principal-preparation programs. Universities had to start over, rebuilding their programs and submitting them for state approval.

The state ended up with 26 university-operated programs that are required to work in partnership with school districts and incorporate leadership residencies across elementary and secondary education..

These programs can only accept educators planning on becoming school principals, which has resulted in far fewer participants, she said.

“Although these numbers are drastically down, we have 700 people (being certified every year) who genuinely want to be principals,” Hunt said.