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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
  • Enabling principals to apply what they learn through job-based internships, applied learning, and mentoring or coaching, is particularly critical for the efficacy of pre-service and in-service learning opportunities.
  • A specific focus on equity-oriented leadership has the potential to improve principals’ ability to meet the needs of diverse learners. Applied learning opportunities and reflective projects are especially important for deepening principals’ understanding of the ways in which biases associated with race, class, language, disability and other factors manifest in society and schools and how to work toward more equitable opportunities and outcomes.
  • Principals’ access to high-quality learning opportunities varies across states and by school poverty level, reflecting differences in state policies.
  • Policies that support high-quality principal learning programs can make a difference. In states and districts that have overhauled standards and have used them to inform preparation, clinically rich learning opportunities, and assessment, evidence suggests that the quality of principal learning has improved.

“Effective principals can make a difference in raising student achievement throughout their schools. Since they play such a crucial role, it is essential that they are well-prepared and supported,” said Jody Spiro, director of education leadership at The Wallace Foundation. “This research deepens our understanding of the common elements of high-quality principal learning opportunities and underscores the vital role universities, districts and states can play together in developing these programs and making them more accessible.”

The researchers found that access to high-quality learning had measurably improved over the past decade, reflecting increased recognition of the important role of the principal. Yet while most principals nationally (77%) reported having some kind of internship, less than half of those who had an internship (46%) felt that the experience adequately prepared them for their first year in the position. LPI found that only about half of principals who had internships had actually taken on responsibilities that are typical of an educational leader, such as leading, facilitating, and making decisions. And very few in-service principals reported having had access to coaching or mentoring – key strategies for improving principal effectiveness.

Principals’ access to high-quality learning opportunities also varied across states and by school poverty level, an indicator that also tends to reflect the racial demographics of a school. Principals in low-poverty schools were much more likely to report that they had access to important content and effective learning approaches compared to principals in high-poverty schools. Across the country, most principals reported wanting more professional development in nearly all topics but faced obstacles in pursuing learning opportunities, including lack of time and insufficient money.

Key recommendations for policymakers and practitioners include:

  • Develop and better use state licensing and program approval standards to support high-quality principal preparation and development.
  • Invest in a statewide infrastructure for principal professional learning to ensure principals have access to coordinated, high-quality, and sustained professional learning. Federal funds from the Every Student Succeeds Act Titles I and II (including the 3% state set-aside for leadership development initiatives) and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 can be used, along with state investments.
  • Encourage greater attention to equity concerns, both in principal preparation and in access to high-quality professional development in underserved schools and districts.
  • Undertake comprehensive policy reforms at both the state and local levels to build comprehensive, aligned pipelines of qualified school principals and a coherent system of development.

The report is the third of three research syntheses commissioned by Wallace. The first, released in February 2021, examined the critical role of principals in student learning and other outcomes. The second examined the increasingly important role of assistant principals and was released in April 2021.

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