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A $47-Million Initiative to Improve University Training of Future Principals

March 16, 2016



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The Wallace Foundation
Jessica Schwartz

The Hatcher Group
Angie Cannon


Wallace Launches $47 Million Initiative to Build Evidence on How Universities Can Shape More Effective Training of School Principals

Eighty percent of district superintendents surveyed say university programs need to improve; many universities see room for change; states have the authority to play a bigger role

New York (March 16, 2016) – The Wallace Foundation is launching a five-year, $47 million initiative to help universities improve how they prepare future principals, especially for the nation’s highest-need schools, as new studies point to a concern that many programs are falling short of school district needs and expectations.

The University Preparation Program Initiative will fund redesign of up to six university programs, all in states with policies supportive of high-quality principal training. It builds on 15 years of Wallace-supported research and experience about what makes for effective principals and their preparation. The new initiative will include independent research focusing on: how universities can develop and implement high-quality courses of study and other supports for effective training; and how universities and high-needs school districts can form effective partnerships.

“While research has proven that school principals matter significantly to teaching and learning, their preparation has struggled to keep pace with the growing demands of the job,” said Will Miller, president of The Wallace Foundation. “Many university programs are looking for ways to raise the bar, and the time is ripe for states to consider broad reform of these programs. We hope this initiative will provide evidence about how to strengthen these programs, as a first step toward eventually creating a new, national evidence-based norm for how principals are prepared, particularly for schools with the greatest challenges.”

The university initiative comes as a synthesis of four new Wallace-commissioned studies, Improving University Principal Preparation Programs: Five Themes From the Field, suggests that educators and policymakers nationwide believe university preparation programs need improvement. Eighty percent of district superintendents surveyed for one of the studies are largely dissatisfied with the training that principal candidates receive. Many universities, surveyed for another of the studies, also see room for improvement, especially in collaborating with districts to provide higher-quality clinical experiences for aspiring leaders. 

Each university will be asked to work with up to three partner school districts so that the university and district jointly develop the elements research has identified as essential to effective principal training, including solid internships and other school-based experiences for aspiring school leaders. The effort will pair each university with a leading principal preparation program that can guide the university’s work in key areas, such as curriculum redesign. The  university initiative will also provide funding for the states in which the universities are located to review their principal preparation program policies and see if changes could encourage the development of effective preparation programs statewide. The foundation will announce the selected universities, with their district partners, in the fall, following a rigorous selection process.

An overview of university preparation programs

The following five themes outlined in Improving University Principal Preparation Programs describe the current state of university-based programs:

  1. Districts are largely dissatisfied with the quality of principal preparation programs, and many universities believe that their programs have room for improvement.  In rating the effectiveness of preparation for 15 common principal responsibilities, such as recruiting and selecting teachers, superintendents rated all 15 below the effective level. More than a third of university programs believe current programs prepare graduates “not well” or only “somewhat well.” Ninety-six percent said they are planning some changes over the next two years, with 56 percent planning moderate to significant changes.

  2. University-district partnerships are essential to high-quality preparation, but are far from universal. Almost all universities said collaboration between universities and districts was an essential part of effective preparation programs, but more than a fifth indicated such partnerships were not part of existing programs. Nine in 10 superintendents said district-university collaboration occurred only sometimes or almost never. 

  3. The course of study at preparation programs does not always reflect principals’ real jobs. Almost all university respondents said coursework should include case studies, role playing and simulations approximating the real work of principals, but only 60 percent strongly agreed that their programs include such practices.

  4. Some university policies and practice can hinder change. Respondents said some university structures, bureaucratic regulations, incentives and faculty mindsets can stifle efforts to improve the quality of principal preparation. Barriers range from a lack of understanding about the need for leadership training to be practice-based to the tendency to hire research-oriented faculty members who often have not been principals. 

  5. States have authority to play a role in improving principal preparation, but many are not using this power as effectively as possible. States have two strong policy levers to improve principal preparation: program approval and candidate licensure, but the new research says these are not fully used, and many states could do more to foster higher-quality programs.

The studies were undertaken by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the American Institutes for Research, the University Council for Educational Administration and AASA, The School Superintendents Association. They included literature reviews, detailed field surveys, interviews with experts, focus groups and analyses of state regulations. The report, discussed in this video​, is available for free here.

Design of new Wallace initiative

The timing may be ripe for state policy action to improve principal preparation, because the newly enacted revision of the nation’s major federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, shifts more authority to states. The studies by the American Institutes for Research and the University Council for Educational identified 13 states that have taken steps to reform policies affecting principal preparation—and, thus, appear particularly open to strengthening programming: California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Virginia. Based on the nominations of field leaders and other experts, Wallace has invited 24 universities in 10 of these states to apply to participate in the initiative. The list includes 20 public and four private institutions; five are historically black colleges

The universities selected to participate in the initiative will be asked to redesign their programs over the four years of the initiative and include in that work the introduction of a comprehensive set of strong courses and clinical experiences. The universities will also be paired with leading preparation programs that can help guide the universities in tailoring their offerings to the needs of the school districts that hire their graduates. Districts will be asked to develop and use data systems to track how the graduates perform on the job.

For the state work, Wallace will ask policymakers to examine their current state policies affecting university principal preparation, determine whether they promote or hinder sound programming and principal development, and consider changes in policy and practice. The foundation will fund stakeholder engagement activities to allow the policymakers to conduct the review in consultation with those who bring expertise to bear; depending on the state, they might include superintendents, university representatives, principals, unions, and parent groups.

Independent researchers are expected to issue two major reports about the initiative to inform policymakers, educators and others. The first report, expected in 2018 or 2019, will analyze the early implementation experiences of the universities. The final report, expected in 2021, will evaluate, among other things, whether the universities successfully modified their programs and how they overcame institutional barriers to their work.

Building on Wallace-supported research and experience, the universities will assess their programs against evidence of the characteristics of strong programming drawn from this research. A 2007 study by Linda Darling-Hammond and colleagues at Stanford University, Preparing School Leaders for a Changing World: Lessons from Exemplary Leadership Development Programs, found programs need to be selective, offer courses focused on the principal’s role in improving classroom instruction and taught by knowledgeable faculty members, and provide rigorous internships. A 2010 Education Development Center report, Districts Developing Leaders: Lessons on Consumer Actions and Program Approaches from Eight Urban Districts, examines school districts’ power to influence preparation programs when districts act like “discerning customers” who clearly describe to training programs what they are seeking in principal capabilities.

Another recently released, Wallace-commissioned report, Improving State Evaluation of Principal Preparation Programs, describes key principles for the design of rigorous state evaluation of principal preparation programs. Written by New Leaders, a principal training and policy organization, and the University Council for Educational Administration, the report is intended for state officials who assess and approve principal preparation programs.

“We hope this initiative shows strong examples of how universities can upgrade their principal preparation programs, including better collaboration with school districts and a review of state policies that promote high-quality training statewide,” said Jody Spiro, director of education leadership at Wallace. “If this can be accomplished, we have the potential to accelerate widespread progress in preparing principals to lead schools across the country.”


The Wallace Foundation seeks to improve education and enrichment for disadvantaged children and foster the vitality of arts for everyone. The foundation has an unusual approach: funding efforts to test innovative ideas for solving important public problems, conducting research to find out what works and what doesn’t and to fill key knowledge gaps – and then communicating the results to help others. Wallace, which works nationally, has five major initiatives under way:

  • School leadership: Strengthening education leadership to improve student achievement.
  • Afterschool: Helping selected cities make good afterschool programs available to many more children.
  • Building audiences for the arts: Enabling arts organizations to bring the arts to a broader and more diverse group of people.
  • Arts education: Expanding arts learning opportunities for children and teens.
  • Summer and expanded learning: Better understanding the impact of high-quality summer learning programs on disadvantaged children, and enriching and expanding the school day in ways that benefit students.

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