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Answer Sheet
Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 07/29/2012

Study: The problem with principal training and how to fix it

This was written by Will Miller, president of The Wallace Foundation, which works to improve education and enrichment for disadvantaged children.

By Will Miller

Leadership is a critical issue in every profession.  In professions where lives are on the line – from medicine to the military – the rigorous processes for selecting, training and mentoring of doctors and officers shows how seriously the development of new leaders is taken.  Our best medical schools and military academies are hard to get into and tough to complete, with plenty of real world practice in internships and battle simulations under the guidance of experienced mentors to complement the academic training. 

In our public schools, future lives are on the line.  Yet as a country we have not historically thought as rigorously about how we develop the leaders of these critical institutions: principals.  All too often, new principals emerge from weak, unselective university-based training programs that don’t really prepare people to lead schools in the real world. Once hired for schools with staggering needs, these novice principals are left to fend for themselves without formal mentoring or support.  But it does not have to be this way.

From years of research, we know that well-trained and well-supported principals, more than anyone else, are in a position to cultivate better teaching and learning in every classroom. In fact, school leadership is second only to teaching among school-related factors that influence student achievement, according to a six-year study commissioned by The Wallace Foundation.

The study, the largest of its kind, analyzed data from 180 schools in nine states. “To date we have not found a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership,” wrote the authors, researchers at the Universities of Min­nesota and Toronto.  Moreover, better leadership training has the potential to pay off in reduced principal turnover, a major problem for school districts. 

Importantly, given today’s budget climate, the researchers concluded that efforts to improve the recruitment, training, evaluation and ongoing development of principals “should be considered highly cost-effective approaches to successful school improvement.”

Until recently, however, few policymakers and education officials were paying attention to the idea that aspiring and new principals needed the right training and support to succeed.

The good news is that this is starting to change, according to a new report, The Making of the Principal , which distills insights from school leadership projects and major research studies supported by The Wallace Foundation since 2000. The report finds that more school districts have begun providing better mentoring and professional development to new principals. Among other bright spots:  a number of districts have worked to raise the quality of “pre-service” principal training, while many states have tightened accreditation rules and adopted new standards to push universities and other training providers to improve.

The bad news is that much more needs to be done.  For example, the report finds that the training offered at most of the 500-plus, university-based programs, where the majority of  principals are trained, hasn’t kept pace with the evolving role of the school principal as “instructional leader,”  that is, a manager who focuses more on education  than on administration. 

The Making of the Principal offers five lessons that could help many more school districts as they devise ways to put strong principals in every school:

* A more selective process for choosing candidates for training is the essential first step. Exemplary programs rigorously review candidates’ skills, experience and leadership dispositions. The best programs actively involve school districts in identifying, recruiting and screening candidates with the potential and desire to lead schools.

* Aspiring principals need pre-service training that prepares them to lead improved instruction and school change, not just manage buildings. Exemplary programs offer curricula focused on improving instruction, coursework that applies theory to practice and well-designed internships.

* Districts can and should do more to exercise their consumer power as employers of university-program graduates to raise the quality of principal training. Training programs have a powerful incentive to improve when a district says it will only hire graduates of programs that meet its standards and needs.

* States could make better use of their power to influence the quality of leadership training through standard-setting, program accreditation, principal certification and financial support for highly qualified candidates. In 2010, at least 23 states enacted 42 laws to support school leader initiatives, but states need to do more to build a pipeline of qualified school leaders.

* New principals need high-quality mentoring and professional development tailored to individual and district needs. Since 2000, more than half of the states have enacted mentoring requirements, but too often, mentoring is merely a “buddy system,” with inadequately trained mentors.

Improving the training and support of principals won’t solve all the problems afflicting the nation’s failing schools any more than great leadership in medicine or the military can guarantee every life will be saved or every battle won.  But without effective leadership, we are unlikely to see student achievement rise.  The future lives of our children are on the line.  It’s time to get serious about leadership in our schools.

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