Effective principals can generate better outcomes for the teachers, students and the schools they lead. But great principals don’t grow on trees; they receive high-quality development and ongoing support.
In this report, researchers synthesize two decades of research on principal pre-service preparation and professional development and describe results of their own additional studies. They find that high-quality learning programs for future and current principals are associated with improved outcomes such as principals’ feelings of preparedness, teacher satisfaction and retention, and student achievement. Evidence also suggests that a focus on equity-oriented leadership has the potential to improve principals’ ability to meet the needs of diverse learners.
The research was led by Linda Darling-Hammond, who was also lead author of an influential report, released 15 years ago, describing the key characteristics of effective principal preparation and professional development.
The report finds that high-quality pre-service preparation programs have common elements:
- Rigorous recruitment of candidates into the program;
- Close school district-university partnerships;
- Groupings of enrollees into cohorts;
- Experiences where candidates apply what they learn, guided by experienced mentors or coaches; and
- A focus on important content, with the five most important areas being leading instruction, managing change, developing people, shaping a positive school culture and meeting the needs of diverse learners.
Mentoring and coaching were influential and valuable for current principals, along with collegial learning networks and applied learning, the report finds.
Researchers found via a national survey that principals’ access to high-quality learning opportunities appears to have improved over the last decade, with more than two-thirds of principals today reporting having had at least minimal access to learning across the five key content areas. At the same time, there are clearly gaps. One example: “Few principals have access to authentic, job-based learning opportunities during preparation, and high-quality internships are still relatively rare,” the report says.
In addition, access to learning opportunities varies greatly across states and by school poverty level, an indicator that also tends to reflect the racial demographics of a school. Principals in high-poverty schools were much less likely to report that they had professional development on important topics including redesigning schools for deeper learning and designing professional learning opportunities for teachers and other staff, for example. And only 10 percent of principals in high-poverty schools reported having had a mentor or coach in the last two years versus 24 percent in low-poverty schools.
Across the country, most principals reported wanting more professional development in nearly all topics, but faced obstacles in pursuing learning opportunities, including lack of time and insufficient money.
The authors emphasize that state policies can make a difference in the availability and quality of leadership preparation programs. In states and districts that overhauled standards and used them to inform principal preparation, learning opportunities, and assessment, there is evidence that the quality of principal learning has improved.
To foster high-quality principal learning, the authors suggest that policymakers can:
- Develop and better use state principal licensing and program approval standards;
- Fund statewide efforts, such as leadership academies, paid internships and mentor training; and
- Encourage greater attention to equity by, for example, allocating professional development resources to schools that need them most or funding high-quality preparation for prospective principals of high-poverty schools.
The report is the third of three research syntheses commissioned by Wallace. The first, released in February 2021, examined the critical role of principals in student learning and other outcomes. The second examined the increasingly important role of assistant principals and was released in April 2021.