Improving Principal Preparation: Strong Partnerships Key

As the role of school principal becomes increasingly complex and demanding, many university-based principal preparation programs admittedly have struggled to make fundamental changes needed to prepare principals for today’s schools. 

However, a major study released in June 2022 points to a path forward. "Redesigning University Principal Preparation Programs: A Systemic Approach for Change and Sustainability" is the final of three reports from the RAND Corporation’s five-year study of The Wallace Foundation’s University Principal Preparation Initiative (UPPI). The report’s authors found that, through collaboration with school districts, state partners and others, universities can defy expectations about institutional resistance to change and redesign principal preparation programs in meaningful ways. This finding is important, because previous research has shown that school principals matter greatly to teaching and learning. 

Launched in 2016, UPPI provided $47 million in grants to seven universities and their partners to redesign their principal preparation programs in line with research-supported practices. The seven institutions were Albany (Georgia) State University, the University of Connecticut, Florida Atlantic University, North Carolina State University, San Diego State University, Virginia State University and Western Kentucky University.

“Principal preparation programs have long faced criticism for being too theoretical and failing to keep pace with what school leaders need to know and do today,” said Rebecca Herman, senior policy researcher at RAND and principal researcher on the study. “Our report documents that the seven UPPI universities redesigned their course of study with, among others, school districts that hire their graduates, and rolled out more coherent programs that featured key research-based characteristics of high-quality programs.”

Specifically, UPPI teams improved the coherence of their programs by:

  • Aligning curriculum to national standards and state requirements.
  • Ensuring changes to instruction were informed by district needs and the real work principals do today.
  • Prioritizing practical, job-related experiences and district-based instructors.
  • Strengthening the use of cohorts, which enabled enrollees to develop a network for peer support during the program and after.
  • Working toward diversifying enrollment, in part by engaging with districts to make recruitment more collaborative and targeted.

The report’s findings underscore that a system of institutions with a stake in high-quality school leadership—universities, school districts and state organizations—can come together and work in partnership to change principal preparation to better align with the best available evidence. Although universities led the work, it was largely informed by district needs and bolstered by expanded efforts at the state level to support strong development of leaders. While the work was not without challenges—ranging from time constraints to some pushback from faculty—it proved feasible through strong partnerships and a commitment to improvement. "Redesigning University Principal Preparation Programs" joins a growing body of evidence about the importance of principal development. Recently, the Learning Policy Institute released "Developing Effective Principals: What Kind of Learning Matters?," which found that the preparation and professional development that principals receive not only shapes their efficacy as leaders, but also is associated with positive outcomes for teachers and students.

“​Principal preparation is an essential  part of a comprehensive, aligned principal pipeline by which school districts can build a bench of effective school leaders who help raise student achievement,” said Jody Spiro, director of education leadership at The Wallace Foundation. “Through this new report, we get a model of how universities, districts and states can work together to develop programs that are grounded in the realities of the job and supported by state and district policies.”