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Learning to Lead: What Gets Taught in Principal-Preparation Programs

by Frederick M. Hess & Andrew P. Kelly - 2007


School leadership is the key to school improvement. In a new era of accountability, where school leaders are expected to demonstrate bottom-line results and use data to drive decisions, the skill and knowledge of principals matter more than ever. Meanwhile, public school choice, charter schooling, developments in teacher compensation and hiring, and site-based budgeting have created new opportunities for principal leadership. In this environment, school improvement rests to an unprecedented degree on school leaders.

Purpose/Objective/Research question/Focus of study

Today, school principals are asked to lead in a new world marked by unprecedented responsibilities, challenges, and managerial opportunities. Are principal-preparation programs equipping their charges for this new role?

Research design

We examined the content of instruction at a stratified sample of the nation’s principal-preparation programs, including the programs training the most candidates, the programs regarded as the most prestigious, and more typical programs.

Data collection and analysis

We surveyed 56 programs and collected at least four “core” course syllabi from 31 that met the standards permitting systematic coding for a total of 210 syllabi. The syllabi yielded 2,424 total course weeks.


Just 2 percent of 2,424 course weeks addressed accountability in the context of school management or school improvement, and less than 5 percent included instruction on managing school improvement via data, technology, or empirical research. Of 360 course weeks devoted to personnel management, just 12 weeks mentioned teacher dismissal and nine mentioned teacher compensation.

Critics often assert that education schools are ideological. In fact, just 12 percent of all course weeks focused upon norms and values. In the norms-and-values lessons, however, there was strong evidence of normative bias in the topic descriptions and assigned readings.

There was little attention to management thinkers from outside of the narrow field of educational administration. Of the 50 most influential living management thinkers, as determined by a 2003 survey of management professionals and scholars, just nine were assigned a total of 29 times in the 210 courses.


The evidence raises questions about whether preparation is well-matched to the contemporary world of schooling, and whether graduates of principal-preparation programs are being equipped for the challenges and opportunities posed by an era of accountability. This study suggests new avenues for future research, including the degree to which syllabi actually reflect the content of instruction and what approaches to instruction or assessment are employed in the course of principal preparation.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 1, 2007, p. 244-274
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12742, Date Accessed: 9/20/2021 4:02:28 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 and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His research interests include educational leadership, the politics of education, urban school reform, and educational accountability. His recent publications include Urban School Reform: Lessons from San Diego (Harvard Education Press, 2005) and “An Innovative Look, a Recalcitrant Reality: The Politics of Principal Preparation Reform” (Educational Policy, 2005).
  • Andrew Kelly
    University of California, Berkeley
    E-mail Author
    ANDREW P. KELLY is a doctoral student in political science at the University of California-Berkeley. His research interests include the politics of education, educational leadership, and school board governance. His recent publications include “An Innovative Look, a Recalcitrant Reality: The Politics of Principal Preparation Reform” (Educational Policy, 2005).
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