Access to high-quality principal preparation programs has improved, but varies, indicating a need for policies that enhance opportunities.

6 findings to inform your state’s principal preparation

Access to high-quality principal preparation and professional learning programs has improved over the past decade but varies widely, indicating a need for state policies that enhance opportunities

As state leaders continue to weigh the best use of federal funding to improve education in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a major new research report by the Learning Policy Institute and The Wallace Foundation underscores the importance of federal, state, and district policies that foster the availability and quality of principal preparation and professional development programs.

The research finds that the preparation and professional development a school principal receives not only shapes their efficacy as a leader, but are also associated with positive outcomes for teachers and students. 

Developing Effective Principals: What Kind of Learning Matters?, conducted by LPI, synthesizes peer-reviewed scholarship from 2000 to 2021 that addresses principal preparation and development programs. It also examines survey results and statewide policies to understand the extent to which principals have access to high-quality learning opportunities and the role of policies in increasing access. The study’s authors are Linda Darling-Hammond, Marjorie E. Wechsler, Stephanie Levin, Melanie Leung-Gagné and Steve Tozer. The report updates a prior 2007 study, Preparing School Leaders for a Changing World, led by Darling-Hammond.

“It’s an especially challenging time to be a principal,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, the study’s principal researcher and president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute. “However, principals who receive high-quality training feel better equipped to handle the real-world demands of the role and tend to stay in their jobs longer. They are also better prepared to meet the needs of diverse learners. This study makes clear that investing in high-quality principal development has a real payoff not only for principals themselves, but also for teachers and students in the schools they lead.”

For this study, authors reviewed and synthesized peer-reviewed research from 2000 to 2021 that met the criteria for addressing the features of principal preparation and development programs and their relationship to principal, teacher, and student success or a lack thereof.

In addition, to understand the extent to which principals have access to high-quality learning opportunities, the authors analyzed survey data from national samples of principals affiliated with the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, as well as two statewide samples from California and North Carolina.

Among the key findings:

  • High-quality principal preparation and development programs can improve principals’ feelings of preparedness, teacher satisfaction and retention, and student achievement.
  • High-quality principal learning programs have common elements:
    • Rigorous recruitment
    • Close district-university partnerships
    • Cohort structure
    • A focus on important content, such as leading instruction, managing change, developing people, shaping a positive school culture, meeting the needs of diverse learners

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