Districts Developing Leaders: Lessons on Consumer Actions and Program Approaches from Eight Urban Districts

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Districts Developing Leaders: Lessons on Consumer Actions and Program Approaches from Eight Urban Districts

Our analysis of the involvement of eight urban school districts with leadership preparation programs led to a number of conclusions with important implications for districts, universities, policymakers, and other funders.

First, to effectively invest in leadership preparation, school districts need to recognize the power of their position as consumers of principal preparation programs’ graduates, and the resulting influence that they can wield in shaping these programs. By behaving as consumers, districts can improve the quality of program candidates and graduates (by setting standards and expectations), increase the number of qualified candidates for leadership positions, and ensure that program curricula address district needs.

Second, districts should look to harness the resources of local universities to develop, staff, and support leadership preparation programs that can meet state higher education standards and leader certification requirements. Such an undertaking requires districts and universities to work together to forge a new understanding of what school leaders need to know and be able to do to improve local schools, and to translate this understanding into leadership preparation strategies.

Third, districts and universities can redesign leadership preparation as a multistaged learning process, as several districts in our study did. Such a multi-staged process could begin with pre-service exploratory experiences as a prerequisite for admission to a formal preparation program that has a supervised internship. Following successful completion of certification and degree requirements (the next stage) and placement in a leadership position, the final stage of the system would be coaching and close supervision in the initial induction period. This system would begin to address the broader, increasingly more intense stages of development that are needed to effectively prepare aspiring leaders, particularly in demanding environments and conditions.

Fourth, districts and universities can focus on knowledge development, drawing from their respective areas of expertise. This effort comprises infusing information about the districts’ specific challenges and priorities into university course content and other learning experiences, while inculcating discipline-based theory about district procedures into operations and management skills development.

Fifth, feedback on graduates’ performance as school leaders is essential for both districts and universities to learn from their investments and to improve program quality and effectiveness. Monitoring of and feedback on graduates’ performance are crucial to turning district and university investment into improved preparation and a viable strategy in districts’ systemic reform work and universities’ redevelopment of their leadership preparation approaches.

Sixth, supportive district and state policies for leadership preparation complement the districts’ and universities’ program design and redesign work for their affiliated programs. However, as shown by recent developments in some states, such as Kentucky, states can go further in encouraging leadership preparation programs to be more aligned with local districts’ needs and priorities.

Finally, high-quality program models require more dedicated funding and cannot rely on foundation and government grants. Some of the policy-encouraged strategies—particularly offering full-time internships as part of leadership preparation— are expensive. States and districts must explore other means of providing and supporting paid, full-time internships and other program elements in order to continue such a critical component of leadership preparation, resulting in betterprepared aspiring leaders.

For information on the study methodology, see the technical report: or


  1. Kelley, C., & Peterson, K. D. (2002). The work of principals and their preparation. In M. S. Tucker & J. M. Codding (Eds.), The principal challenge (pp. 247–312). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; Murphy, J. (2002). Re-culturing the profession of educational leadership: New blueprints. Educational Administration Quarterly, 38(2), 178–191; Murphy, J. (2006). Preparing school leaders. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education; Young, M. D., Petersen, G. J., & Short, P. M. (2002). The complexity of substantive reform: A call for interdependence among key stakeholders. Educational Administration Quarterly, 38(2), 137.
  2. Darling-Hammond, L., Meyerson, D., LaPointe, M. M., & Orr, M. T. (2009). Preparing principals for a changing world. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.


This work was made possible by the support and efforts of many people. First we thank The Wallace Foundation for strong guidance in every step of our work: conceptualizing, conducting, and presenting our research and findings.

We are grateful for the extensive time and insight we received from project directors, state and district officials, principals, program graduates, university officials and staff, and others who participated in our interviews, answered our surveys, and enabled document analyses about their districts and leadership preparation programs.

We thank Lois Adams—Rodgers (Council of Chief State School Officers), Joe Cirasuolo (American Association of School Administrators), Betty Fry (Southern Regional Education Board), Carolyn Kelley (University of Wisconsin), and Kyla Wahlstrom (University of Minnesota)—our virtual advisory board—for their generous time and contributions to our work.

We would also like to acknowledge the skillful work of our research team who assisted in conducting the case studies: Margaret Barber, Tricia Browne-Ferrigno, Jacob Easley II, Brian Lord, Carolyn Riehl, Charles Rockman, Eve Goldberg, Charlotte North, Jessica Blum, and Jennie Wu.

And a special thanks to our copyeditors, Jennifer Davis-Kay and Thecla Ree, for their positive spirit and meticulous editing skills, and Melissa Lin, for her ongoing administrative, publication, and project coordination support.

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