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Study finds successes, challenges in shift to intensive principal preparation

A report assesses the progress of sweeping legislation to redesign the way school principals in Illinois are prepared, with the goal of improving schools statewide through higher quality leadership

A report released from the Illinois Education Research Council (IERC) at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, in partnership with the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (UChicago Consortium), assesses the progress of sweeping legislation to redesign the way school principals in Illinois are prepared, with the goal of improving schools statewide through higher quality leadership. The report summarizes findings from a two-year study assessing the progress of these ambitious reforms and describing the changes that occurred as a result of the new policy.

“This in-depth look at principal preparation programs is the latest in our series of studies of Illinois’ school leadership and provides insights into the challenges programs face after major reforms and the innovative ways that they have navigated through these challenges,” says IERC Executive Director Janet K. Holt.

Illinois’ new principal preparation policy required universities across the state to shift from a general training model geared toward multiple school administrative positions to more targeted and selective principal-specific preparation beginning in the 2014-15 school year. As a result, the study finds that preparation programs experienced substantial, but not unexpected, declines in enrollment.

However, university faculty and school district representatives believe the revised requirements provide more rigorous and realistic preparation relative for the job. Policymakers and statewide stakeholders have viewed this shift as a transition from an emphasis on the quantity of principals prepared statewide to the quality of their preparation. Staff and principal candidates from the preparation programs, as well as school district personnel interviewed for the study, generally agreed that the new programs are likely to produce school leaders who are more capable of improving schools and raising student achievement.

Nevertheless, questions remain about whether the supply of principals prepared in the new programs will be sufficient to meet statewide demand for school leaders. According to Bradford R. White, senior researcher at the IERC and the report’s lead author, “Finding a balance between quality and quantity is going to be a key to the success of this policy moving forward.”

The study concludes that continued efforts are needed to ensure that the redesigned programs fulfill their promise.

“What we find is that, generally, stakeholders across Illinois understand the challenges, as well as the additional resources required to make this more intensive program successful,” says Amber Stitziel Pareja of UChicago Consortium and a co-author of the report. “At the same time, they continue to see the redesign as a positive change, with the potential to produce better-prepared school principals as well as improved student achievement and more successful schools.”

The study was supported by grants from The Robert R. McCormick Foundation and The Wallace Foundation. Other key findings include:

  • The new policy strengthened partnerships between universities and school districts to help ensure that principal preparation reflects the needs of local schools
  • Internships focused on the mastery of leadership competencies rather than hours accumulated observing leadership have improved the depth, clarity and practicality of the experience
  • Instructional leadership is a clear focus of both the internship and coursework, but there is some worry that important administrative and managerial skills have been de-emphasized
  • The new programs have increased training for leading special student populations, including students with disabilities, English language learners and early childhood students, but whether this is sufficient to prepare principals to lead across all contexts remains a matter of debate

The complete report, along with other reports in the series, is available at and at

Laura Ascione

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