While there is little disagreement about the need to place highly qualified principals in our schools, districts often do not have solid plans for getting the right people for the job and supporting them effectively. The recently released Wallace Foundation Perspective, The Making of the Principal: Five Lessons in Leadership Training, is particularly timely for those who understand the importance of effective school leadership as a core component for school improvement. The Perspective outlines five key lessons that will help state and district leaders get strong leaders where they are needed most.
Lesson 1: A more selective, probing process for choosing candidates for training is the essential first step in creating a more capable and diverse corps of future principals.
In several conversations I've had with superintendents and other district leaders, I've heard more than one make the point that the individuals they believe make the best principals are those highly effective teachers who do not want to leave their classrooms. These individuals should absolutely be celebrated for continuing to grow in the craft they so love. However, the Wallace Perspective argues district leaders should absolutely play a role in deciding who will assume the principalship, starting by tapping those they believe have the potential to do the job well. It makes the crucial point that "preparing not just more aspiring principals, but the right ones has to start when the first decisions are made about who should and should not be admitted to leadership training."
Lesson 2: Aspiring principals need preservice training that prepares them to lead improved instruction and school change, not just manage buildings.
When I reflect back on the principal training program I completed in 1990, I recognize it was perfectly designed to help me be an excellent building manager. After all, at the time, that was the expectation for most building principals. Of course, the job has changed considerably since then, and schools need building leaders who deeply understand instruction and know how to support effective teaching and learning. Districts and universities that are wondering what components should be in a high quality training program can begin their search by reviewing the Quality Measures tools that are referenced in the Perspective. Developed by The Education Development Center with the support of The Wallace Foundation, this assessment tool enables those who run principal programs to measure their programming against a set of best practices.
Lesson 3: Districts should do more to exercise their power to raise the quality of principal training, so that newly hired leaders better meet their needs.
This lesson is an excellent reminder to school districts about their power to significantly influence the type of training their aspiring leaders receive. This is particularly true in large districts that hire high numbers of principals each year. There is no reason for these districts to sit back and "hope" the preservice providers give them the kinds of candidates they need. The Perspective highlights several districts (e.g., Boston, Chicago, St. Louis) that have successfully exercised their consumer power to strengthen the caliber of the principal candidates they receive.
Lesson 4: States could make better use of their power to influence the quality of leadership training through standard setting, program accreditation, principal certification, and financial support for highly qualified candidates.
What I loved about this lesson is it reminds us that states have a role to play in this as well. Several states were mentioned for making notable progress in taking a coordinated approach to advancing school leadership. Delaware, Iowa, and Kentucky, for example, got high marks in the 2010 RAND study, Improving School Leadership: The Promise of Cohesive Leadership Systems, for their progress in aligning both state and district policies affecting principal training to clear school leader standards. Other states, including Georgia, Illinois, and Florida, were recognized in The Perspective for creating task forces or legislative workgroups to redesign leadership preparation statewide.
Lesson 5: Especially in their first years on the job, principals need high-quality mentoring and professional development tailored to individual and district needs.
I appreciate that the Wallace Perspective makes the case for high-quality mentoring and professional learning. I agree that this type of support is especially critical during the first few years on the job. However, given how quickly the field changes (Common Core is the latest example), it's just as critical that principals receive effective professional learning throughout their careers. They must continue to refine their knowledge so they can support teaching and learning in their buildings. The Standards for Professional Learning provide an excellent roadmap for developing and sustaining high quality professional learning for building principals as well as other district personnel.
If you are interested this Perspective or more information about school leadership from The Wallace Foundation, please visit the foundation's knowledge center at: http://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/school-leadership/Pages/default.aspx.
Director of Strategy and Development, Learning Forward