By Lee Mitgang


The Making of the Principal: Five Lessons in Leadership Training

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The Making of the Principal: Five Lessons in Leadership Training

For more than a decade, The Wallace Foundation has worked with states and districts to develop and test ways to improve school leadership in order to promote better teaching and learning. Improving the often-weak training of principals has been central to that work. Drawing on new research and lessons from the field, this report updates a 2008 Wallace report, Becoming A Leader: Preparing Principals for Today's Schools. It takes a fresh look at the continuing progress and lingering challenges of providing every school with leaders who have the necessary preparation to help all children succeed as learners.


The education field is finally embracing school leadership as an essential ingredient in reform, worthy of investment in its own right. Facing pressure to have all children meet high standards, states and districts increasingly are recognizing that successful school reform depends on having principals well prepared to change schools and improve instruction, not just manage buildings and budgets.

It is the principal, more than anyone else, who is in a position to ensure that excellent teaching and learning are part of every classroom. In fact, leadership is second only to teaching among schoolrelated factors as an influence on learning, according to a six-year study, the largest of its kind, which analyzed data from 180 schools in nine states. The report by researchers from the Universities of Minnesota and Toronto further noted: "To date we have not found a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership."1

Stanford University's Linda Darling-Hammond, a leading education scholar and national reform voice, emphasizes the profound impact good leaders have on teaching quality: "It is the work they do that enables teachers to be effective - as it is not just the traits that teachers bring, but their ability to use what they know in a high-functioning organization, that produces student success. And it is the leader who both recruits and retains high quality staff - indeed, the number one reason for teachers' decisions about whether to stay in a school is the quality of administrative support - and it is the leader who must develop this organization." 2

"Leadership only succeeds if the leader brings other people along into the same vision, and they are all able to work together and trust one another."

Just one of the many signs of school leadership's ascent as a reform priority after years of relative neglect is the stream of endorsements from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and the National Association of Secondary School Prin- cipals for the work under way by The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to develop a first-ever national board-certification program for practicing principals.3

Still, if the value of leadership has gained wider acceptance, it is leadership of a very particular sort - a far cry from traditional autocratic or "hero-leader" models. The latest evidence emphatically concludes that leadership works best when it is shared in the school community.4 As Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Educational Policy in Washington, D.C., put it: "Leadership only succeeds if the leader brings other people along into the same vision, and they are all able to work together and trust one another. A school that's in deep trouble is going to take years to change, and it has to be a continuous process with continual supports. And that means it can't be one person, but a group of people who are dedicated enough to stay with something for a long period of time." 5

What then are the core functions of this more instruction-focused, collaborative conception of school leadership? A recently published review by The Wallace Foundation identified these five:

  • Shaping a vision of academic success for all students;
  • Creating a climate hospitable to education;
  • Cultivating leadership in others;
  • Improving instruction; and
  • Managing people, data and processes to foster school improvement.6


The growing acceptance of this conception of school leadership has raised an accompanying challenge: how to ensure that the training and support that novice principals receive is in line with the new leadership model as well as district needs and standards.

Over the last decade, there has been notable progress in revamping principal preparation. Since 2000, virtually all states have adopted new learning-centered leadership standards. Some states are using them to tighten principal certification rules and compel leadership training programs either to improve or shut down. Roughly half the states have, for the first time, mandated mentoring for newly hired principals. Urban districts from New York City and Boston to Chicago, Louisville, Denver and San Diego have entered partnerships with area universities - or have formed their own leadership academies - to create training programs more closely tied to district priorities and student needs. [See story on Denver’s efforts] Private funding has helped spur this movement, including grants from The Wallace Foundation to 24 states and 15 large districts as part of its decade-old education leadership initiative. More recently, the federal government has added impetus through its Race to the Top and school leadership grants.

The last decade has also seen more diversity among leadership training providers. University-based programs are likely to remain predominant. But efforts such as New Leaders,7 the National Institute for School Leadership, and Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) have emerged as innovative, alternative sources of principal preparation.

Early indications are that there may be payoffs for students in having better-trained principals. The NYC Leadership Academy, for example, launched in 2003 to supply the city's most challenging schools with highly qualified new leaders, was the subject of an independent evaluation looking at student achievement test scores. The study found that elementary and middle schools led by academytrained principals had demonstrated more accelerated growth in English language arts and math than comparison schools led by other novice principals.8

Lessening the damage and expense of unwanted principal turnover has been another motivation for investing in better leadership training. The Minnesota-Toronto research found that the average school experiences changes in principals every three or four years, and this leadership churn can do measurable harm to student achievement.9 Turnover has dollars-and-cents consequences too, says John Youngquist, director of principal-talent management for the Denver Public Schools, which has teamed with the University of Denver to build a nationally recognized principal training program: "There is a real cost to bringing in new principals every year, and if we can lower the number of principals we're bringing in by increasing their tenure through better support and preparation, then dollars become available that we can reallocate."10

Early indications are that there may be payoffs for students in having bettertrained principals.

The impact of better leadership training on principal turnover has not yet been rigorously studied. But the experience in two districts offers promising signs. Leaders of the Jefferson County (Ky.) Public Schools have credited a high-quality training program, developed in 2002 with the University of Louisville, with a 70 percent drop in principal turnover between 2005 and 2010. Notably, all but three of the 37 interns the district hired as principals during that period successfully led their schools to meet state accountability standards.11 In Providence, R.I., an exemplary principal training and support system developed by the University of Rhode Island in collaboration with the district has placed graduates in leadership positions in roughly half of the district's 49 schools - and to date, not one has been terminated by the district. "These are not plum jobs," says Ed Miley, the district's director of leadership development and support. "There's lots of potential for failure, and fortunately, as a group, our training graduates haven't failed. They've been asked by the district to stay."12

All too often, principaltraining has failed to keep pace with the evolving role of principals.

Unfortunately, such efforts remain the exception. All too often, training has failed to keep pace with the evolving role of principals. This is especially true at most of the 500-plus university-based programs where the majority of school leaders are trained. Among the common flaws critics cite: curricula that fail to take into account the needs of districts and diverse student bodies; weak connections between theory and practice; faculty with little or no experience as school leaders; and internships that are poorly designed and insufficiently connected to the rest of the curriculum, and lack opportunities to experiencereal leadership.13 [See Q&A on the status of university-based training programs]

The problems typically begin with lax admissions. Many programs admit nearly everyone who decides to apply, often with little input from the districts that may eventually hire them. Such programs frequently select candidates based mainly on paper evidence of their educational background. The process often fails to probe for evidence of a candidate's ability to work well with teachers or in challenging school settings. It reveals little about a candidate's resilience, integrity and belief in all children's ability to learn - qualities central to a school leader's eventual success.14 And many programs fail to screen out applicants whose primary motive is not to lead a school, but to get the salary bump or promotion that goes with an advanced degree.

An especially provocative 2005 critique by former Columbia University Teachers College President Arthur Levine found that admissions criteria at the majority of university-based leadership programs "...have nothing to do with a potential student's ability to be successful as a principal."15 All too commonly, Levine wrote, these programs "have turned out to be little more than graduate credit dispensers. They award the equivalent of green stamps, which can be traded in for raises and promotions to teachers who have no intention of becoming administrators."16

The good news is that the field today has at its disposal a wealth of research-validated examples that point to more effective ways to select, prepare and support new school leaders. Some of the most compelling were documented in a landmark 2007 report by a team of Stanford University researchers led by Darling-Hammond, Preparing School Leaders for a Changing World. A 2010 report, Districts Developing Leaders, published by the Education Development Center, Inc., added fresh case histories showing the different ways districts can exercise their influence to create training programs that are higher quality and more suited to their needs - often, though not always, in partnership with universities.

The increased recognition of leadership's importance and the growing body of evidence on what works in preparing new leaders together offer hope that inadequate preparation programs will eventually be replaced by ones that better reflect the new conceptions of school leadership and the tough challenges facing districts. But that same research also makes clear how far we are from the ultimate goal: ensuring that every school has a well-prepared principal who can promote excellent teaching and learning.

In the following section, we identify five lessons that could help speed progress toward that end.

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1. Karen Seashore Louis, Kenneth Leithwood, Kyla L. Wahlstrom, Stephen E. Anderson et al., Learning from Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning, Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement/University of Minnesota and Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, 2010, 9. (Report available at

2. The Wallace Foundation, Education Leadership: A Bridge to School Reform, 2007, 17. This publication presents highlights of a 2007 national conference hosted by the foundation shortly after the publication of Darling-Hammond's report, Preparing School Leaders for a Changing World, on improving principal training. Darling-Hammond has served on The Wallace Foundation's board of directors since 2009. (Both reports are available at

3. The Wallace Foundation is among the private funders of the national certification effort.

4. Seashore Louis et al., see pp. 19-29 for a discussion of collective leadership's benefits. The report found that such leadership has a measurable positive effect on student's reading and math scores in state-mandated tests.

5. Interview with Jack Jennings, January 25, 2012.

6. The Wallace Foundation, The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning, The Wallace Foundation, January 2012, 2. Also see Bradley S. Portin et al., Leadership for Learning Improvement in Urban Schools, Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington, 2009, for an excellent description of shared leadership and working with instructional teams. Both reports can be downloaded at

7. Previously known as New Leaders for New Schools.

8. An evaluation of the Academy's Aspiring Principals Program (APP) by the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University was conducted in 2009 with a follow-up in 2011. (Both reports are available at According to the 2011 follow-up: "In other words, APP led schools continue to show evidence of closing the performance gap in both ELA and math with initially higher performing schools run by similarly tenured principals after controlling for differences in school and student characteristics and standardizing for citywide performance trends."

9. Seashore Louis et al., 173.

10. Interview with John Youngquist, January 31, 2012.

11. Lee Mitgang, "Flipping the Script," The School Administrator, a periodical of the American Association of School Administrators,December 2010, 18.

12. Interview with Ed Miley, February 2, 2012.

13. Becoming A Leader: Preparing School Principals for Today's Schools, The Wallace Foundation, 2008, 4.

14. Gretchen Rhines Cheney et al., A New Approach to Principal Preparation: Innovative Programs Share Their Practices and Lessons Learned, Rainwater Leader ship Alliance, 2010, 8. The Rainwater Leadership Alliance was established in 2005 by the Rainwater Charitable Foundation to promote the spread of best practices of nine exemplary district-based, university-based and nonprofit leader preparation programs. Of those, a number participated in The Wallace Foundation's education leadership initiative: the Gwinnett County Public Schools Leaders-Plus Academy, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Virginia's Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education, the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) School Leadership Program, and the NYC Leadership Academy.

15. Arthur Levine, Educating School Leaders, The Education Schools Project, 2005, 31.

16. Ibid., 24.