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On Reforming Principal Preparation

by Frederick M. Hess - July 15, 2005

Ultimately, bringing school leadership into the twenty-first century will require that programs prepare principals to make hard choices relating to staffing, program effectiveness, and budgeting, while also cultivating the kinds of softer skills that will make them effective team- and bridge-builders. Such measures alone are insufficient, however. It will be equally necessary to rethink how we select leaders and reconfigure the authority they wield. Anything less is a blueprint for disappointment.

The quality of educational administration programs has been a hot topic this year, with a high-profile report by Teachers College President Arthur Levine casting a harsh light on current practice and calling for dramatic change.  Levines study focused on the structure, design, and scholarly rigor of educational administration and concluded, The majority of [educational administration] programs range from inadequate to appalling, even at some of the countrys leading universities. Levine called for a number of aggressive structural reforms.1

Two recent studies that I co-authored with Andrew Kelly on principal preparation complement Levines broad critique (the working papers are available at www.ksg.harvard.edu/pepg; one is currently under review, the other is forthcoming in Teachers College Record).  While Levine provided a comprehensive look at educational administration programs, Kelly and I examined the content of principal preparation, particularly the skills, knowledge, and perspectives addressed in the syllabi and readings.  We found that the substantive content of these courses poses particular concerns.

Analyzing syllabi and readings from a national stratified sample of principal preparation programs, we found that just 2% of the 2,424 course weeks analyzed addressed accountability in the context of school management or improvement, just 11% made any mention of or reference to data or empirical evidence, and work by the 50 most influential living management thinkers (as determined by a 2003 Suntop Media poll of management professionals, scholars, and students) accounted for just 1.6% of the 1,851 assigned readings. We concluded that programs are still training principals for a world of conventional school stewardship, leaving them unprepared for the rigors of modern accountability, personnel management, or team leadership.2

Notably, principal preparation places an evident premium on niceness, at the expense of preparing leaders to make difficult choices regarding faculty, budgets, programs, or confronting and remedying mediocrity.  There is much attention to organizational culture, which is reasonable enough, but it is inevitably swaddled in gentle encomiums to community and divorced from tough, practical guidance on how to forge and maintain a culture of excellence.   

Neither our findings nor Levines critique are especially surprising.  Public Agenda polling in 2003 reported that 67% of principals agreed that typical leadership programs in graduate schools are out of touch with the realities of what it takes to run todays school districts, and just 4% found their graduate school studies more helpful than collegial guidance or job experience.3  

Meanwhile, scholars and teachers of education leadership have paid remarkably little attention to what programs are teaching, what aspiring principals are reading, or, consequently, whether were preparing school leaders for the challenges they face.  Just one study since 1988 examined the content of principal preparation syllabi, while none have systematically examined the content of assigned texts.  Experts in the field are aware of this dearth of research.  In fact, veteran leadership scholar Joe Murphy concluded a survey of the field in 2004 by reporting that we know almost nothing about the content of preparation programs.4

Amidst the fuss, it is important to recognize that strong claims have been made for existing reform efforts.  Nationally recognized initiatives like the Ohio Principals Leadership Academy and the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement have received widespread attention along with high-profile support from foundations like the Gates Foundation and the Wallace-Readers Digest Fund.  The National Commission for the Advancement of Education Leadership Preparation and the Institute for Educational Leadership have hailed measures taken at programs like California State UniversityFresno, Wichita State University, and East Tennessee State.  Proponents of these programs have argued that their reforms have successfully addressed the key concerns regarding preparation.5  

However, I have questioned the strong claims made on behalf of these heralded programs.  In a piece published earlier this year in Educational Policy (available at www.aei.org/publication22126), Kelly and I examined several highly touted reform efforts and found little evidence that these programs were retooling the skills being taught, broadening the body of knowledge being taught, or making efforts to seek out especially promising candidates.  Most of the reforms dealt with reasonable but minor steps to bolster internships, foster cohorts, add instructional time, and so on.  In short, current reforms have amounted to less than we might hope.6

Even radical effortslike for-profit providers or new programsare constrained by the difficulties of working through the status quo.  For instance, for-profit providers, like the University of Phoenix and Capella University, have taken the path of least resistance and hew closely to traditional state licensure expectations.  Meanwhile, it remains to be seen what kinds of results principal academies in cities like New York or San Diego deliver and how these programs will evolve.

A key reason for the limited reach of reform is that principal preparation programs (and educational leadership programs, more generally) are being buffeted by competing pressures.  On the one hand, critics are calling for programs to train candidates in new skills and competencies for the leadership challenges posed by a new era.  On the other hand, the reality is that most practicing principals have little opportunity to reward effective faculty, readily remove problem faculty, manage their budget, or operate as proactive leaders.  

The result is something of a closed loop in school leadership: since principals cant do it, it is silly to teach it, but if it isnt taught, new principals are certain to be ill-equipped to do it.  These factors combine to create a situation in which, as Public Agenda reports, just 36% of principals say that tougher scrutiny of teachers is resulting in weak teachers being denied tenure and just 30% that student performance is being factored into teacher evaluations.  In fact, 41% of todays principals think it is a good idea to hold principals accountable for student learning, while 45% deem it a bad idea.7  Principals unprepared for new freedoms, uncomfortable with accountability, and accustomed to a world of limited managerial discretion are hesitant about the implications of measures like performance-based pay or decentralized budgeting.  This fosters resistance to change and an inability to take advantage of new opportunities.


The lesson is that effective school leadership and revamped training need to progress hand in glove.  One-shot solutions which seek to just redress the content or structure of preparation without attending to the real constraints on principals wont get it done.  Meanwhile, seeking to widen the pipeline of potential principals or empower principals without attending to the requisite skills is a recipe for disappointment.


While Levines recommendations focus primarily on the structural aspects of educational administrationsuch as calling for an end to the Ed.D. and encouraging districts to cease blindly paying for course creditour research suggests it is equally vital to focus on the content of lessons and readings.  In particular, programs need to devote significantly more attention to teaching candidates to use data as a management tool, to hire selectively and reward excellence, to confront or proactively work to remove mediocre personnel, to lead schools in a public choice environment, and to provide concrete guidance on how to leverage accountability.  Of course, in traditional district schoolsand in many nontraditional schools or charter schoolsprincipals are limited in their ability to exercise these capacities by statute, rule, or culture. Those rules and those norms will have to change if preparation reforms are going to prove consequential.

Ultimately, bringing school leadership into the twenty-first century will require that programs prepare principals to make hard choices relating to staffing, program effectiveness, and budgeting, while also cultivating the kinds of softer skills that will make them effective team- and bridge-builders.  Such measures alone are insufficient, however.  It will be equally necessary to rethink how we select leaders and reconfigure the authority they wield.  Anything less is a blueprint for disappointment.


 Levine, A. (2005). Educating school leaders. (New York: Teachers College Education Schools Project).

2 Hess, F. and Kelly, A. (2005). Learning to lead: What gets taught in principal preparation programs. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Program in Education Policy and Governance); Hess, F. and Kelly, A. (2005).  Textbook leadership? An analysis of leading books used in principal preparation. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Program in Education Policy and Governance).

3 Farkas, S., Johnson, J., and Duffett, A. (2003) Rolling up their sleeves: Superintendents and principals talk about whats needed to fix public schools. (New York: Public Agenda).

4 Murphy, J., and Vriesenga, M.  (2004). Research in Preparation Programs in Educational Administration: An Analysis. Monograph prepared for the University Council for Educational Administration.

5 Hess, F. and Kelly, A. (2005). An innovative look, a recalcitrant reality: The politics of principal preparation reform. Educational Policy, 19(1): 155-180.

6 Hess and Kelly, An innovative look.

7 Farkas,  Johnson,  and Duffett, Rolling up their sleeves.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 15, 2005
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12081, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 8:07:16 PM

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About the Author
  • Frederick Hess
    American Enterprise Institute
    E-mail Author
    FREDERICK M HESS is Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the co-author of Learning to Lead: What Gets Taught in Principal Preparation Programs and Textbook Leadership? An Analysis of Leading Books Used in Principal Preparation, both published by the Harvard University Program in Education Policy and Governance and available at www.ksg.harvard.edu/pepg.
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