States Can Drive Change to Make Principals Prepared on Day One

Too many new principals say they are underprepared for such critical leadership tasks as evaluating teachers, aligning financial and other resources to instructional needs, building parent and community connections, and developing professional cultures in schools.

Lack of preparation—combined with high job demands, poor support, and increased accountability—raises principal stress to a boiling point.

The result: staggering numbers of talented new principals are leaving the profession. Nationally, new principal attrition rates hover at 25 percent per year. In some urban districts, attrition rates reach 35 percent.

While universities, colleges, districts, and nonprofits have to be part of the solution, state education departments play key roles in improving the systems that prepare effective principals. State education departments oversee approval of principal preparation programs, help set candidate-certification requirements, and parcel out federal funding for principal support under the Every Student Succeeds Act and the Higher Education Act. Many states are flexing these powers to inspire and compel better principal preparation.

A new Wallace Foundation report highlights AIR policy research on what these forward-looking states are doing. By analyzing studies and interviewing experts, AIR researchers identified 18 “high leverage” state-level policies that hold promise for increasing innovation and improving principal preparation, including:

  • Increasing program oversight partly through more frequent, in-depth preparation program reviews, and by providing post-graduation data to programs for formative feedback. A new AIR report for the George W. Bush Institute details What Districts Know—and Need to Know—About Their Principals
  • Raising the bar on principal-candidate selection by, for example, using “authentic” assessments (teacher observation and public speaking scenarios, among others) and supplying evidence of each candidate’s prior effectiveness as a teacher
  • Encouraging programs to use promising practices to retain candidates—say, enrolling principal candidates in cohorts that progress through programs together
  • Holding alternative certification and traditional programs accountable to the same accreditation criteria
  • Requiring programs to engage in evidence-based continuous improvement
  • Including competency-based assessment results, rating candidate performance against a set of predetermined skills and using other evidence in candidate-licensure and licensure-renewal decisions

After identifying these high leverage policies, the research team—including researchers from University Council of Education Administration—analyzed policies and administrative rules state by state.

We found that most state principal preparation accreditation and candidate certification did not use these high leverage policies. But a few states did have a number of new laws and administrative rules related to principal preparation. Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee have a majority of the innovative policies already in place. And others—California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia—employ many of these policies.

With funding from the George W. Bush Institute and U.S. Department of Education, AIR researchers are now exploring impacts of innovative principal preparation: Did the new policies spark innovative practices? Are new principals better prepared from day one? Are attrition rates down?

And on March 16, the Wallace Foundation announced a 5-year, $47 million initiative to redesign up to six university programs, all in states with policies supportive of high-quality principal training. “While research has proven that school principals matter significantly to teaching and learning, their preparation has struggled to keep pace with the growing demands of the job,” said Will Miller, president of The Wallace Foundation. “Many university programs are looking for ways to raise the bar, and the time is ripe for states to consider broad reform of these programs.”

Empowered to certify, fund, and license, states are well-positioned to quickly improve their principal candidates’ preparation and continuing education. By choosing combinations of the 18 improvement policies, assessing the results, and continually fine tuning their programs, each state can create a principal-preparation program that fits its unique needs. 

Matthew Clifford is an AIR Principal Researcher specializing in school principal leadership preparation, professional development and performance evaluation studies, and state policy affecting the principal workforce.