Districts Have Power to Improve How Universities Prepare Future Principals

October 27, 2010


Education Development Center, Inc.
Alison Cohen

The Wallace Foundation
Jessica Schwartz

Kari Hudnell
202.955.9450, ext. 318

NEW YORK (October 27, 2010): School system officials dissatisfied with the “product” they get from universities’ K-12 leadership preparation programs can do something about it, a new report says

Districts can exercise their power as “discerning customers” or “collaborators” and help leadership programs adapt to district needs – or they can act as “competitors” and go into the preparation business themselves, according to Cheryl King and Michelle LaPointe of Education Development Center, Inc., and Margaret Terry Orr of Bank Street College of Education.

Commissioned by The Wallace Foundation, Districts Developing Leaders: Lessons on Consumer Actions and Program Approaches from Eight Urban Districts examines the efforts of school systems to design or redesign leadership preparation programs in Boston; Chicago; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Jefferson County, Ky.; Providence, R.I.; St. Louis; Springfield, Ill.; and Springfield, Mass.

“When districts see themselves as consumers of universities’ principal preparation programs and act accordingly, they can have a direct and significant impact on program design, content and field experience,” said Orr, director of the Future School Leaders Academy at the New York-based Bank Street College of Education. “By creating their own programs or working with the universities, districts can ensure they have enough candidates qualified to lead hard-to-staff schools.”

Previous research has detailed what programs should do: provide better, more selective training that prepares leaders to improve teaching and learning and turn around failing schools. Effective programs, these studies say, recruit teachers with leadership potential, use a curriculum focused on instructional leadership and instill the ability to change school culture and improve teaching. They must also provide student-centered instruction that integrates theory and practice, problem-based learning, teacher development and effective data use and includes quality internships.

Many training programs, however, fail to offer all of these features and often neglect, as well, to tailor their training to the specialized needs of urban districts with large numbers of troubled schools.

Districts Developing Leaders shows how urban school districts can exert their consumer influence to prod the suppliers of leadership programming into offering higher quality “products,” that is, future principals.

Three Consumer Approaches
From setting qualification expectations to setting up their own programs, the eight districts used a combination of three consumer approaches to ensure that leader-preparation programs were providing them with qualified candidates:

  • By becoming a “discerning customer,” districts set clear expectations and guidelines for what principal candidates should know and be able to do. In some of the studied districts, this was done with faculty from partner universities. Researchers found that this approach required time investments from the district and university, but did not require much money and showed the greatest potential to improve both the programs and graduates.
  • Some districts instead became “competitors” with local university-based programs, even granting their own state certification to graduates. While this gave districts the greatest control over results, it was the most costly and time-consuming option, and might be more vulnerable to changes in leadership, funding and reform.
  • Other districts used contracts and other incentives to become “collaborators” with university programs. When districts offered “preferred provider” status to university programs, for example, the school systems could persuade universities to change selection criteria and to customize program content, instruction methods, internships and assessments to suit the districts’ needs. While this approach was more expensive, it was more likely to be sustained than the districts’ own programs.

“This report shows districts and universities a range of opportunities,” said Edward Pauly, director of research and evaluation at The Wallace Foundation. “Research over the past 10 years has shown how important leadership is for turning around high-need schools, and now we know some of the strengths and challenges of different paths toward developing these crucial leaders.”

Implications for Practice and Policy
The report also underscores the importance of actions that can be taken not only by districts and universities but by state policymakers. It includes the following recommendations:

  • Districts can make use of university resources, including time and dedicated personnel, to help develop, run and support leadership preparation programs.
  • University leaders and faculty should find out from urban districts and incorporate into the curriculum what school leaders need to know in order to help improve area schools.
  • Universities and districts should gather feedback on the performance of graduates as school leaders and use that information to improve the programs.
  • States can go beyond many current district and state policies by encouraging alignment between programs and the needs and priorities of local districts, requiring, for example, more field experience and internship hours as prerequisites to professional licensure.
  • States and districts should work together to find ways to pay for improvement measures that require extra money, such as a full-time, paid internship for leadership trainees.

As always, more research on the subject remains to be done, the authors found, but there are early indications that these alternatives to the traditional “you do your job and we’ll do ours” approach will bear fruit.

“The challenge of leading today’s schools is unprecedented. Leaders stepping into these roles are required to hit the ground running with little room for error,” said King, director of Leadership for Learning Innovation at Boston-based Education Development Center (EDC). “Understanding the new knowledge and critical skills required to be effective in these jobs is a fundamental prerequisite to any preparation program. Our findings suggest that some districts are making important strides in their efforts to negotiate with providers to generate needed program changes.” The Wallace Foundation commissioned EDC to conduct the study.

All reports – including a Wallace summary of the study – are free and can be downloaded from The Wallace Foundation’s Knowledge Center at www.wallacefoundation.org


Education Development Center, Inc. (EDC) is a global nonprofit organization that develops, delivers, and evaluates innovative programs to address some of the world’s most urgent challenges in education, health, and economic development. Working with public-sector and private partners, we harness the power of people and systems to improve education, health promotion and care, workforce preparation, communication technologies, and civic engagement. Visit www.edc.org.

The Wallace Foundation is an independent, national foundation dedicated to supporting and sharing effective ideas and practices that expand learning and enrichment opportunities for all people. The Foundation maintains an online library of lessons about what it has learned, including knowledge from its current efforts aimed at: strengthening educational leadership to improve student achievement; enhancing out-of-school-time learning opportunities; and building appreciation and demand for the arts. Visit www.wallacefoundation.org.