Redesigning University Principal Preparation Programs: A Systemic Approach for Change and Sustainability

Research has shown that school principals matter greatly to teaching and learning, but the university training they receive for the job has struggled to keep pace with the post’s growing demands. To test a path forward, in 2016 The Wallace Foundation launched the University Principal Preparation Initiative, providing support to seven universities in seven different states so they could work with districts and other interested parties to better align their principal preparation programs with evidence-based practices.

This publication summarizes the final report in a three-part series from the RAND Corporation’s seven-year study of the effort. The researchers found that through collaboration with school districts, state organizations and others, universities can defy expectations about institutional resistance to change and bring about meaningful principal preparation program redesign.

Specifically, the teams working on the effort improved the coherence of their programs by:

  • Harmonizing the curriculum with national standards and state requirements for principals;
  • Ensuring changes to instruction were informed by district needs and the real work of principals;
  • Emphasizing practical experiences and job-related activities that reinforced coursework, and providing stronger coaching and other supports; and  
  • Strengthening the use of cohorts, which enabled enrollees to develop a network for peer support during the program and after.

The seven universities—Albany (Ga.) State University, the University of Connecticut, Florida Atlantic University, North Carolina State University, San Diego State University, Virginia State University and Western Kentucky University—also worked towards diversifying enrollment, in part by engaging with districts to make recruitment more collaborative and targeted.

The report’s findings underscore that widespread improvement in principal pre-service programs requires action by a system of institutions with a stake in high-quality school leadership—universities, school districts and state organizations—and that strong partnerships between the three are essential. Although universities led the work, the redesign was significantly informed by district needs and bolstered by expanded state-level efforts to support leader development. The work was not without challenges, which ranged from time constraints to some pushback from faculty members. A number of factors made it feasible, however. They included strong partnerships; a commitment to improvement; use of a tool, Quality Measures, to identify areas for improvement; and the development of logic models.

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