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What Do Principals Want From Professional Development?

UPDATED

While researchers have touted the benefits of mentors and coaches for school leaders, only about a quarter of elementary school principals say they have had access to a mentor or coach in the last two years, a new report finds.

That percentage was even smaller in high-poverty schools, where 10 percent of those principals said they had a mentor or coach during that period.

Access to the counsel and support from mentors and coaches varied based on the school leaders' experience, with new and novice principals more likely to report having a coach or mentor.

Those are among the findings in a new report from the National Association of Elementary School Principals and Learning Policy Institute looking at professional development for elementary school principals: access, quality, need, barriers, and ways to improve continuous learning for school leaders.

It was not all bad news. More than 80 percent of the principals who responded to the survey said they had participated in professional development on "managing change," "creating collegial learning environments," and school improvement. And large percentages said they'd had continuous learning opportunities to support students with disabilities, English language learners, those from diverse backgrounds, and serve children equitably. 

But there were key areas principals found lacking: Only 32 percent said they had opportunities to share leadership practices with colleagues three or more times in the last two years, and a little more than half—56 percent-—had participated in professional learning communities.

"High-quality professional learning can equip principals with the knowledge, mindset, and skills to support effective teaching and to lead across their full range of responsibilities," according to the report. "With this investment, principals are best positioned to foster school environments in which adults and students thrive."

"If we want better schools and improved educational outcomes for our students, we must support and invest in high-quality professional learning opportunities for principals," said L. Earl Franks, the executive director of the NAESP.

Principals said they needed professional development in key areas dealing with student well-being, among them:

  • 83 percent in supporting students' social-emotional development,
  • 82 percent in supporting students' physical and mental well-being,
  • 76 percent in developing responsible young adults,
  • 74 percent in leading schools with restorative justice practices, and
  • 73 percent in developing students' higher order thinking skills.

Creating equitable school communities was also an area that principals said they needed more training.

  • 71 percent wanted PD on meeting the needs of students with disabilities
  • 64 percent wanted it to help support English-language learners, and
  • 69 percent wanted such help on equitably serving all learners.

The kind of whole child efforts and equity training principals needed help with varied based on where principals worked, the study found.

Principals in suburbs were more likely than principals in rural areas and cities to want professional development on supporting students from diverse backgrounds and English-language learners. And for whole child efforts, principals in cities were less likely than their rural counterparts to want professional development to support students' physical and mental well-being.

That elementary principals say they need more continuous learning opportunities on whole child efforts is unsurprising. In the NAESP's 2018 ten-year survey of principals, school leaders listed student well-being issues as their top concerns, specifically mental health, poverty, student behavior, lack of student supervision at home, and students' safety and security.

Issues related to students' well-being did not make the top 10 issues about which elementary school principals had "high" or "extreme" concerns in the previous once-in-a-decade study, published in 2008.

Addressing social-emotional issues has been a major concern for principals amid the coronavirus pandemic and racial unrest, and Franks said the organization has been working with principals to help them respond to the crises while attending to the wellbeing of their students and staff.

"We knew back in [2018] that SEL was important," Franks said. "We still have a long way to go in providing the resources that are needed."

The need could be attributed lack of money to hire additional counselors to help students, Franks said. But he also said that leadership-preparation programs are not equipping principals to have those kinds of discussions—whether it's for their own emotional well-being or their staffs' and students'.

Even when professional development was available, principals faced barriers. They often bumped up against money, time, and lack of personnel—not enough people to take over their duties to give them time to attend the sessions.

Time appeared to the most common enemy for principals looking to take advantage of professional learning opportunities, with 67 percent saying that time was an issue. Many principals do not have assistant principals who can cover for them while they take time off, Franks said.

And surprisingly, districts didn't always help principals surmount the challenges they faced accessing professional development—a phenomenon more common among principals leading high-poverty schools and schools that enroll large numbers of students of color. While 87 percent of principals in low-poverty schools said their principals helped them overcome barriers to getting professional development, that fell to 65 percent among principals leading high-poverty schools. (Overall, the vast majority of principals said their districts supported their professional development.)

The report has a series of recommendations for district, state, and federal officials to bridge the gap and ensure principals participate in high-quality continuous learning opportunities. They include expanding funding on the federal and state levels to offset the cost of those programs, as well as districts ensuring that the content is tailored to meet principals' needs and that they are job-embedded.

"My hope is that this report can be used to inform district and state education leaders, as well as policymakers at the state and federal levels, on the current needs," Franks said. "But it also lays out a blueprint for how they can support their leaders moving forward."

The findings are based on the responses of 407 principals among a random sample of 1,000 school leaders who are members of the NAESP.

You can read the full report, along with the implications from the findings and the range of recommendations, here.

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