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Principal Preparation Programs

Equipping school leaders for new pressures and challenges.

A school principal's job has never been tougher.

The accountability movement—culminating with the federal No Child Left Behind law in 2001—has put pressure on principals to improve student performance, resulting in school leaders’ transitioning from a more administrative role to becoming more heavily involved in assessment, instruction, curriculum and data analysis.

But are today’s leadership programs in graduate schools of education adequately readying new principals to handle these seemingly ever-increasing responsibilities? According to a 2006 survey by Public Agenda, a nonprofit research organization that reports public opinion and public policy issues, nearly two-thirds of principals felt that typical graduate leadership programs “are out of touch” with today’s realities. The good news is that a host of principal leadership development programs are aiming to fill the gap, striving to ensure that new and veteran principals are better prepared for today’s challenges.

"It causes my assistant principal and me to collaborate more about certain teachers so we can agree that we are seeing the same things." -Vickie Nelson, school principal, Granville County (N.C.) Public Schools

Such programs can be off ered by the state, district or an outside organization, and they can focus on everything from emotional intelligence issues and classroom walkthroughs to data analysis andteam building.

Strategy Specific

Many principal training programs focus on the new role they assume in instructional leadership amid accountability pressures to raise student achievement.

Some programs focus on a specific set of skills and are tied to a particular educational philosophy and methodology.

"It's not about telling war stories." -Gary Bloom, associate director, New Teacher Center, University of California-Santa Cruz

Teachscape, a for-profit professional development services company, bases its instructional leadership training on the “high-yield strategies” developed in research by Robert Marzano, an education consultant and senior scholar at Midcontinent Research for Education and Learning. Examples of such teaching strategies include summarizing, note taking, and cooperative learning.

Teachscape’s Classroom Walkthrough with Refl ective Practice, which is a process and set of tools, trains principals and other instructional leaders in classroom observation protocols to recognize and track teachers’ use of Marzano’s techniques, says Cheryl Williams, Teachscape’s vice president.

To facilitate such tracking, the company provides high-tech help. Principals are trained to use wireless PDAs—such as Palm Pilots—with custom software to quickly check off which teaching practices they observe during the classroom visit.

After making observations, the data are uploaded and compiled in customized reports for principals.

Principals can use the results as springboards for discussions with teachers on how to improve or as important clues to what exactly are the professional development needs at that school. The data are not meant to serve as an evaluative tool, but rather as a guide for which areas might need to be strengthened, Williams says.

“It’s an observational tool to give principals the data they need to decide where their teachers need support,” says Williams, who recommends that districts first receive instruction on high-yield strategies before learning about the PDAs.

This year, Vickie Nelson, an elementary school principal in the Granville County Public Schools in North Carolina, along with other principals and instructional leaders in the district began using Teachscape and Palm Pilots to record observations. Nelson says the tools allow her and her assistant principals to be on the same page in terms of observations, such as whether students are taking notes or engaging in active listening. “It causes my assistant principal and me to collaborate more about certain teachers so we can agree that we are seeing the same things,” she says. “So we get together and talk about a teacher’s strengths and weaknesses” to work with the teacher to improve their skills, she adds.

Team Leadership

Principals can’t do it alone given the demands. Some programs focus on the idea of a principal facilitating a leadership team, focusing on collaborative initiatives.

The Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) recommends that not just principals go through its leadership training program but also that “leadership teams,” including department chairs, do so. Cheryl Gray, the education board’s coordinator of leadership curriculum, development and training, describes the two main principles of the group’s philosophy: “The work of the principal to improve student achievement is significantly about curriculum and instruction, and, secondly, the principal cannot do it alone but must do it in collaboration with a leadership team,” she says.

The group takes a “leadership team” approach that has principals and other school leaders trained together in “leadership curriculum modules” focusing on such areas as “using data to focus improvement,” “aligning teacher assignments and student work to rigorous standards,” and “prioritizing, mapping and monitoring the curriculum.”

The organization has 19 different modules, allowing it to tailor its leadership development program to the various specific needs of different districts, she says.

The nonprofit organization can arrange for trainers to go to districts, or it can “train the district’s trainers” to help districts deliver the SREB program themselves.

The group, which has “trained trainers” in 48 states, also helps universities and state governments redesign school leadership programs. The education board has worked with such states as Alabama, Louisiana and Kentucky in developing leadership programs. Based on review of research, SREB has found 13 “critical success factors” essential to good leadership (see sidebar).

Thanks to a three-year grant, Floyd County Schools in Rome, Ga., had its principal, assistant principals and nearly all faculty members at its high schools and middle schools take part in leadership training modules such as working in leadership teams and analyzing data.


The teams during the training worked on real-life problems in their schools, such as a review of various literacy techniques, and handled homework assignments related to issues at their campuses, says Superintendent Lynn Plunkett, whose Floyd County district took part in the program and plans to continue the practice following the expiration of the grant at the end of this school year.

Previously, when participants thought about leadership, they thought of topdown management, Plunkett says. Teachers didn’t feel part of the leadership process; they deferred to the principal and felt like they had no opportunity for input. “I think the biggest thing our principals learned is how to share and distribute leadership, because that’s a very, very different way of looking at leadership,” she says.

“The principals were able to see talents and strengths among their faculty members that they didn’t know were there,” adds Plunkett, whose 11,000-student district is 60 miles northwest of Atlanta.

The training led one principal to have teachers handle discipline and dress code issues at a high school freshmen academy, because he realized those experienced teachers knew more about “how to motivate those kids and work with them and transition them into high school than he would ever have sitting in his office and not being with them on a day-to-day basis,” Plunkett says. The leadership team model ensures that ideas and resources are drawn from the entire school, which Plunkett views as a “change agent” and getting a schoolwide buy-in.

School staff didn’t see that sometimes teachers have a better grasp of school issues than administrators and that the only way “you could really be a change agent” in school is for the entire leadership team to support the changes that had to be made as a group and work with faculty to get those changes in place, she says.

New principals enter the job armed with their lessons in coursework, says Michael Heff ner, interim assistant superintendent at the Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Watsonville, Calif. “And then there’s [the time] when you are in the job and all of the stuff that you cannot teach in a classroom and you can’t read in a book comes up,” he says.


Side-by-Side Coaching

Some districts, when searching for principal leadership programs, have preferred those that offer close, side-by-side coaching of new principals.

The New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, offers a coaching-model principal leadership program in which the organization connects districts with specially trained coaches—nearly all of whom are former principals—to provide on-the-job guidance for new principals.

The group, which has trained a network of such coaches, distinguishes the work of its coaches with that offered in many districts’ principal mentorship programs that pair new principals with veteran principals or other organizational insiders.

The coaches can provide an important outside perspective to the principals’ daily challenges, says Gary Bloom, associate director of the center. In addition to bringing a new perspective, coaches also are more likely to be confi ded in by new principals who might be reluctant to share problems with somebody inside the district out of fear of embarrassment or looking incompetent, he says.

The center’s coaches consider problems and needs as learning opportunities and provide emotional support and advocacy in a confidential setting, Bloom says.

They provide technical expertise, such as assistance with school data analysis, while also addressing issues of emotional intelligence, communication and interpersonal skills. The principal and the district bring up specific problems or needs, and the coach attempts to facilitate approaches. “It’s not about telling war stories,” Bloom says. “It’s not about telling them what to do. It’s about building the principals’ internal capacity.”

Heffner experienced the benefits of NTC coaching firsthand as a principal. He recalls how as a new principal he was given the task of making teacher assignments for the following school year. Heff ner had to balance teacher skill sets versus teachers’ preferences in determining in which grade level or course each teacher could best impact student achievement.

Heff ner had to learn how best to approach changing the assignments of some veteran teachers who had become accustomed to their grade level or course. “It’s a really hard conversation for a new principal o be working with veteran staff members who may have been teaching this course or this grade level for a lot of years,” he says.

His coach advised him to be honest with the teachers and helped him prepare a nonthreatening, collegial approach, ensuring it was not a one-way conversation, Heffner recalls.

Coaches help new principals look beyond day-to-day problems. “The work with the coach gives a site administrator support in day-to-day issues but also finds a way to connect it back to the larger picture of what we’re doing with the school as leader,” Heffner says.

In addition to data analysis and emotional intelligence, coaches typically focus on helping principals improve in areas such as teacher evaluations and classroom observations. NTC coach Daniel Ordaz, a former assistant superintendent and principal in the East Side Union High School District in San Jose, Calif., says coaching is about asking questions to enable principals to find answers or solutions on their own. “We are trying to change their mindset, transform their thinking about particular problems,” Ordaz says.

Principals need real-world help when they get the job. Administrative credentialing programs teach important theory, he adds. “You get out on the job, and sometimes the practice and the theory don’t meet,” Ordaz says. “And that’s one of the problems we’ve had in the past. People go out on their own and don’t have anyone to assist and guide them.” Principal leadership programs are designed to fix that.

Kevin Butler is a contributing writer for District Administration.