Education Drivers

Principal Preparation (Pre Service)

School principals must be prepared to effectively lead in often challenging school contexts, and high-quality leadership preparation programs represent an important component of school improvement and effectiveness. The numbers of traditional preparation program offerings and degrees awarded through colleges and universities are on the rise in the United States, as is the availability of alternative preparation pathways offered through non-postsecondary providers. Several recent reports have highlighted concerns with traditional preparation program quality, and many are calling for additional research into both traditional and alternative preparation program effectiveness. Available qualitative research, however, suggests several features of high-quality programs, including: 1) rigorous recruiting and selection processes; 2) research-based and standards-aligned curriculum; 3) meaningful and authentic learning experiences and internships; 4) cohort models of candidates progressing together at the same time; 5) program-district partnerships; 6) online/distance learning models; 7) authentic and meaningful student assessment; and, 8) rigorous program evaluation that assesses how programs impact candidate learning and satisfaction, leadership effectiveness, and career outcomes. Several preparation programs that have been subjected to rigorous program evaluation and have demonstrated successful candidate outcomes are described.

Principal Preparation Overview

School Principal Preparation PDF

Donley, J., Detrich, R., States, J., & Keyworth, (2020). Principal Preparation. Oakland, CA: The Wing Institute. 

An ability to shape the organizational school features essential for high-quality teaching and learning gives principals a strong but indirect influence on student learning and achievement (Hallinger & Heck, 2010; Hitt & Tucker, 2016; Leithwood, Harris, & Hopkins, 2020; Leithwood, Harris, & Strauss, 2010; Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008; Supovitz, Sirinides, & May, 2010). In fact, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires that every school be staffed with an effective leader (Fuller, Hollingsworth, & Pendola, 2017).

Where and how principals are prepared matters in whether schools have the educational leaders needed for effective leadership in the often demanding school contexts of the 21st century (Darling-Hammond, LaPointe, Meyerson, Orr, & Cohen, 2007; Orr, 2011; Orphanos & Orr, 2013). Programs may not adequately prepare principals for their roles (Mendels, 2016), prompting discussions of who has domain over providing leadership preparation pathways and the emergence of alternatives to university preparation, including alternative programs offered by for-profit entities (Ni, Rorrer, Pounder, Young, & Korach, 2019).

Research on the evaluation of principal preparation programs and the effectiveness of various pathways to the principalship is limited (Grissom, Mitani, & Woo, 2019; Orr & Barber, 2009; Perrone & Tucker, 2019). A good deal of primarily descriptive research has addressed the program elements, content, and structures that are characteristic of exemplary programs and considered essential for effective principal preparation (e.g., Crow & Whiteman, 2016; Darling-Hammond et al., 2007; Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012; Orr & Orphanos, 2011). The available research on characteristics of effective principal preparation programs and their impact is highlighted in the remainder of this report, following a brief discussion of the status of principal preparation.

Status of Principal Preparation in the United States

Candidates intending to become school principals progress through several stages. Attaining the administrative credential, or license, signals entry-level educator competence in leadership, and most often requires teaching experience and a minimum of a master’s degree (Scott, 2017), and, in some cases, passing a licensure exam (Hackman, 2016). Graduates earning licenses typically then apply for and move into administrative positions to become assistant principals and eventually principals; however, many complete these degrees for other reasons (e.g., to earn higher salaries) without intending to pursue administrative roles (DeAngelis & O’Connor, 2012).

Licensure represents entry-level skills and knowledge, and most states further require early career mentoring and continuous professional development for renewal (Hackman, 2016). While university-based programs are considered traditional pathways to the principalship, alternative preparation pathways such as receiving training through a non-university provider or passing an administrator exam without completing training are increasingly accepted by states (Perrone & Tucker, 2019). Little is known about the relative effectiveness of alternative and traditional university-based preparation programs (Hackman, 2016; Murphy, Moorman, & McCarthy, 2008).

The projected shortage of principals at the beginning of the 21st century failed to materialize (Browne-Ferrigno & Muth, 2008), and most recent estimates suggest a small but steady demand for principals nationwide based on the numbers of principals leaving the profession or retiring (Goldring & Taie, 2018). However, the demand for principals varies significantly by location, and economically disadvantaged schools and areas frequently have more difficulty filling positions with highly qualified candidates than their low-poverty peers do (Béteille, Kalogrides, & Loeb, 2012).

Recent research suggests sharp increases in both the availability and degree production of principal preparation programs. One national study found a 72% increase in the number of institutions awarding degrees (postbaccalaureate, master’s, specialist, and doctoral) in educational administration since the start of the century, and a 102% increase in the number of degrees granted during the same time period, far exceeding the annual number of job vacancies (Perrone & Tucker, 2019). Degree production for postbaccalaureate, master’s, and specialist degrees peaked around 2010 and has leveled off since; researchers have speculated that the conditions created by the recession of 2008 (i.e., budget cuts resulting in lower teacher tuition subsidies, less career or financial stability, and fewer available positions due to the elimination of many assistant principal jobs) led to larger numbers of educators seeking these credentials (Perrone & Tucker, 2019).

The growth in programs offered and degrees conferred was not uniform across all types of institutions; most of the increase stemmed from less resourced and less selective institutions (e.g., masters I/II institutions as opposed to doctoral, research-intensive institutions). Perrone and Tucker (2019) acknowledged that institutional selectivity might not be a strong proxy for preparation program quality but questioned the degree to which these institutions had adequate resources to provide exemplary program features and/or attract high-quality candidates to the field. They and others have called for more research to examine program quality for university-based programs, as well as studies to address the quality and effectiveness of alternative preparation pathways that are now producing large numbers of principal candidates (Hackman, 2016).

Faculty in principal preparation programs play a key role in determining program quality and candidate outcomes. While the majority of faculty members during most of the 20th century were white males in their 50s, increasingly they are female and, to a lesser extent, non-white (Hackman & McCarthy, 2011; McCarthy, Hackmann, & Malin, 2017). More program faculty have had prior school or district administrative experience, and there has been dramatic growth in the percentage who are working in clinical, non-tenure-track positions, many of which are part-time (Hackman & McCarthy, 2011). These faculty are more likely than their tenure-track counterparts to teach, advise students, and conduct field-based activities (McCarthy et al., 2017). Faculty are increasingly teaching online courses; in fact, many leadership preparation programs are using distance learning structures to deliver courses (Hackmann & McCarthy, 2011; Sherman & Beaty, 2007). Little is known about the relative effectiveness of these distance learning preparation courses in comparison with on-campus coursework (Brooks, 2010). In addition, research on professional development of program faculty is almost nonexistent and of some concern given the rapid changes to educational organizations and reform trends (Crow & Whiteman, 2016).

A recent report highlighted concerns with many principal preparation programs. The Wallace Foundation (Mendels, 2016) synthesized results from four reports prepared by major principal preparation organizations including the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA); it sought to assess the quality of approximately 700 university preparation programs in the United States through surveys of district and university leaders. Results indicated that many of these programs lacked effectiveness in many key quality areas. Five themes emerged: (1) District leaders were frequently dissatisfied with program quality, and universities acknowledged the need to improve; (2) strong partnerships between districts and universities were essential but rare; (3) courses of study often did not reflect the real jobs of principals and lacked adequate clinical experience; (4) university policies and practices often served to hinder improvement; and, (5) states largely failed to use their authority to improve programs, for example, by requiring university-district collaboration for accreditation.

Research shows that high-quality programs tend to have program features that address many of these concerns. An overview of research-based, high-quality principal preparation follows.

Characteristics of Effective Principal Preparation Programs

Contemporary principal preparation programs focus on developing three levels of knowledge: (1) declarative (the ability to describe effective leadership), (2) procedural (actual implementation of leadership skills), and (3) contextual (matching appropriate actions to a specific context or situation) (Cunningham, VanGronigen, Tucker, & Young, 2018). Arming principal candidates with these levels of knowledge and skills is thought to offer the best chance that learning in programs will transfer and help principals lead effectively in any school context (Ni, Hollingworth, Rorrer, & Pounder, 2016). Because of the increasing complexity of school leadership (Fuller, Young, Richardson, Pendola, & Winn, 2018), school leaders must engage in transformational learning that equips them with the capacity to “analyze the situations they face to understand how to approach various situations and decisions and to articulate the why that undergirds their actions and decision making” (Cunningham et al., 2018, p. 2).

Much of the research on characteristics of effective preparation programs focuses on case studies of innovative and exemplary leadership program models and surveys of the efficacy of program features. This research has revealed several features of effective principal preparation programs, including targeted and selective recruitment (Darling-Hammond, Meyerson, LaPointe, & Orr, 2010); program rigor and relevance with an emphasis on standards-based, instructional leadership (e.g., Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012; Davis, Darling-Hammond, LaPointe, & Meyerson, 2005; Orr & Orphanos, 2011); high-quality clinical experiences through active instructional coursework and internships (e.g., Borden, Preskill, & DeMoss, 2012); and cohort models, in which candidates enter and progress through coursework together (Darling-Hammond et al., 2007; Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012; McCarthy, 2015). In essence, effective preparation programs actively recruit and hire the right candidates for the right school context, and are consistent with principles of how adults learn best (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005) by providing learning approaches that are experiential, problem based, and authentic (Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012).

An overview of the research that addresses these and other features of effective principal preparation programs and the available literature on program outcomes follows. 

Rigorous recruitment and selection of program candidates. Rigorous recruitment and selection processes in principal preparation programs are important components of program effectiveness (Darling-Hammond et al., 2007; Orr, 2011), and these practices have been found in exemplary preparation programs (Darling-Hammond et al., 2010). Recruitment and selection are complementary processes; recruitment strategies impact the candidate pool in terms of characteristics such as diversity and degree of leadership potential, while selection strategies emphasize the intentional or unintentional ways that candidates are invited into preparation programs (Fuller, Reynolds, & O’Doherty, 2017).

Traditional indicators that are often used to select candidates in graduate leadership programs (e.g., Graduate Record Exam, or GRE) may be ineffective in identifying those capable of leading in many school contexts (McCarthy, 2015). Selection processes should factor in characteristics associated with effective leadership practice in particular school contexts rather than relying solely on test scores that purport to show the potential for academic success in graduate school (Hess & Kelly, 2005) but may not predict program acceptance or completion (Young, 2008). Multiple measures that assess the skills and knowledge associated with effective school leadership offer a way to get an authentic picture of a candidate’s potential for success (Sutcher, Podolsky, & Espinoza, 2017; Young, 2015a). For example, performance assessments may include measures such as a candidate’s capability to analyze data and plan strategically, evaluate instruction through written and oral feedback, and address inequities based on case studies (Cosner, Tozer, Zavitkovsky, & Whalen, 2015).

Rather than rely primarily on self-selection into administrator certification programs (Farley-Ripple, Raffel, & Welch, 2012; Murphy, Young, Crow, & Ogawa, 2009), many districts must recruit both internally through grow-your-own programs, and externally by targeted recruitment that identifies leaders with the potential to be effective in particular school contexts. Leadership pipeline research demonstrates the value of strategically focusing on a pool of potential candidates who truly want to work as principals rather than broadly recruiting a larger pool of individuals (Fuller, Reynolds, & O’Doherty, 2017; Korach & Cosner, 2017). Many times, however, potential school leaders are identified informally through “tapping” processes, in which someone, often the principal, identifies and urges a teacher to enter a school leader preparation program (Fuller et al., 2017). Research suggests that while principals tap those whom they believe have more school-level leadership experience, they also disproportionally identify male teachers and those with whom they share the same ethnicity (Myung, Loeb, & Horng, 2011).

Program-district partnerships, in which universities and districts collaborate to recruit the right individuals into leadership roles, can serve to develop a candidate pool that reflects the diversity of the school community and reduce reliance on self-selection (Hitt, Tucker, & Young, 2012). State policymakers are increasingly supporting these partnerships; for example, Illinois enacted legislation that requires these partnerships and provides supporting documents and policy language to encourage successful implementation (Fuller et al., 2017) (see later discussion on program-district partnerships). Mission-focused preparation programs align their recruitment and selection processes to identify candidates both committed to these missions and with the aptitude to lead in various contexts, such as rural (Sanzo, Myran, & Normore, 2012), urban (Cosner et al., 2015), and turnaround schools (Davis, Leon, & Fultz, 2012).

Research-based and standards-aligned curriculum. McCarthy (2015) described a historic shift from a curricular focus on school management, finance, and budgeting to instructional leadership and leadership for student learning (Hackman & McCarthy, 2011; Hallinger & Heck, 2010); however, McCarthy cited research suggesting that courses offered in many programs had remained largely the same, and continued to emphasize discrete disciplines such as school law and school finance rather than the integrated and coherent programs of study thought to characterize exemplary programs (Hackmann & McCarthy, 2011). While the notion of standards-based programs emerged through the development of national standards for administrative licensure for leadership preparation programs (e.g., National Policy Board for Educational Administration [NPBEA], 2018), preparation programs in many cases have chosen to tweak course offerings by plugging standards into existing courses rather than making substantive changes to re-create programs around these standards (Murphy et al., 2008).

Research shows that exemplary preparation programs align with research-based standards and coherently link program goals, learning activities, and assessments with the program’s shared values, beliefs, and knowledge about what constitutes organizational effectiveness (Darling-Hammond et al., 2010; Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012; Orr & Orphanos, 2011). Learning and instruction represent the technical core of schooling (Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstrom, & Anderson, 2010), and principals are charged with creating structures and programs to support teaching and learning (Marks & Printy, 2003; Sebastian & Allensworth, 2012). Instructional leadership capacity building focuses on “the knowledge, skills, and commitments a leader needs to diagnose, develop, implement, and evaluate coherent systems of curriculum, instruction, data systems, supports, and assessment” (NPBEA, 2018, p. 88). Principals in high-quality programs become effective leaders capable of building teams of teachers who can support the development of students’ academic, social, and emotional skills, as well as differentiate teaching strategies to meet unique students’ needs (Sutcher et al., 2017).

Effective principal preparation programs include curricula that prepare leaders to develop collegial and collaborative staff learning environments, which are associated with improved student achievement (Wei, Darling-Hammond, Andree, Richardson, & Orphanos, 2009) and reductions in teacher turnover (Pogodzinski, Youngs, & Frank, 2013). Principal candidates need coursework and authentic learning experiences to help them develop structures that build teachers’ professional capacity and enable collaboration, such as extended blocks of time for planning and methods of distributed (or shared) leadership (Sutcher et al., 2017). For example, the University of Connecticut’s preparation program involves candidates practicing collaborative leadership tasks, such as encouraging teacher input and active involvement in school decision making (Darling-Hammond et al., 2007).

High-quality preparation programs focus on developing leaders with the capacity to enact continuous school improvement by preparing them with the knowledge and skills needed to establish ambitious goals and plans to accomplish these goals (Jacob, Goddard, Kim, Miller, & Goddard, 2015; Sutcher et al., 2017); to implement, monitor, and adjust improvement plans; and to rally staff, parents, and students to support improvement plans (Billingsley & McLeskey, 2014). These programs also include curricula that prepare educators to use data and collective inquiry(including staff, families, and community organizations) processes to pinpoint educational problems and identify strategies for improvement (Sutcher et al., 2017), arming candidates with quantitative and qualitative data analysis skills, including the observation of classroom instruction. The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Education Leadership program trains candidates to use a cycle of inquiry that includes (1) identifying root causes of problems (instruction, organization, leadership); (2) selecting instructional improvement strategies and a plan for strategy enactment; (3) setting process and outcome goals and a plan for goal assessment; (4) enacting a strategy action plan; and (5) diagnosing process and outcome progress and adjusting as needed (Cosner et al., 2015).

Many principal preparation programs now include curriculum units on cultural foundations and social justice to better prepare school leaders who are culturally competent and can promote equity, inclusion, and equal access to learning for the nation’s increasingly diverse student population (Barakat, Reames, & Kensler, 2018; Crow & Whiteman, 2016; Khalifa, Gooden, & Davis, 2016). Barakat and colleagues summarized the research on building the cultural competence of school leaders; they noted that a selective admissions process (including a commitment to social justice/equity), the experience of traveling and/or studying abroad, diverse cohort and faculty members, field/internship experiences in diverse settings, and a special diversity or social justice course were program components that correlated with the cultural competence of school leaders.

However, few school leadership programs evaluate participants’ cultural competence as a program outcome (Crow & Whiteman, 2016). While few studies have addressed the impact of these programs, several studies have demonstrated that high-quality programs contributed positively to participants’ cultural knowledge, beliefs, and motivations. For example, a leadership for social justice course resulted in positive developmental shifts in preservice candidates’ dispositions in areas such as appreciating diversity as an asset and providing a safe and supportive learning environment (Allen, Harper, & Koschoreck, 2017). However, most studies fail to measure or detect the impact on candidates’ actual cultural skills (Barakat, Reames, & Kensler, 2012, 2018). Barakat and colleagues suggested that “although having an internship component in diverse settings might be a good start, it would appear that additional program changes are needed for educational leadership students to develop necessary [cultural skills]” (Barakat et al., 2018, p. 18).

Curriculum standards for preparation programs also include community and external leadership, or “developing a leader’s knowledge, skills, and commitments necessary to engage families, community, and school personnel in order to strengthen student learning, support school improvement, and advocate for the needs of their school and community” (NPBEA, 2018, p. 89). Research suggests that meaningful family and community engagement contributes to positive student outcomes, and principals play a key role in creating structures to support this engagement (Louis et al., 2010), including two-way communication processes (Tschannen-Moran, 2001), and parent and family involvement (Sheldon, Epstein, & Galindo, 2010).

Finally, preparation programs address organizational management to develop candidates’ capacity to effectively run schools (NPBEA, 2018). School leaders must be able to develop and monitor school management and operations to support student learning and fulfill the school’s mission and vision, as well as be able to diagnose needs (e.g., fiscal, technology, and physical resources) and develop a resource plan to meet those needs (Robinson et al., 2008). Curricula related to organizational management also include building capacity to interpret and adhere to laws, rights, policies, and regulations related to schools (Grissom & Loeb, 2011; Louis et al., 2010).

Meaningful and authentic learning experiences. Principal preparation programs must provide pedagogies and learning activities consistent with how adults learn most effectively, which includes integrating life experiences with new knowledge and actively engaging with new experiences and information (Cunningham et al., 2018; Knowles et al., 2005). This learning is accomplished through the instructional approaches and program features described below.

Problem-based learning and reflection. Authentic, meaningful, and relevant problem-solving activities through the use of instructional activities such as case studies and simulations have received some research support (Cunningham et al., 2018; DeJong & Grundmeyer, 2018; Sutcher et al., 2017; Young, 2015b, 2015c; Young & Crow, 2017). Principals need to understand, represent, and solve problems encountered in practice, and some evidence suggests that this problem solving can be taught and developed in candidates (Copland, 2000) and offers a way to practice skills in protected and safe settings (Brazer & Bauer, 2013).

Case study analysis, in which candidates analyze problem-based scenarios and develop potential solutions, “provides a forum for self-directed learning with authentic problems of practice that aspiring leaders will encounter in their professional lives” (Byrne-Jiménez, Gooden, & Tucker, 2017, p. 184). Descriptive research has shown that case study analysis aligns with preparation standards, promotes candidate reflection and decision-making skills, and builds communities of practice (Crow & Whiteman, 2016).

Other learning experiences consistent with best practices in adult learning include role-playing, Socratic questioning methods, and technology-assisted simulations (National Institute for School Leadership, 2020; Taylor, Cordeiro, & Chrispeels, 2009). Critical reflection activities, such as journal writing about social justice issues in a relevant course or during clinical experiences, can encourage candidates to examine and question the assumptions that guide their way of thinking and making sense of the world (Boske, 2011; Byrne-Jiménez et al., 2017). Active and authentic problem-based learning experiences, when coupled with frequent opportunities for reflection and analysis of practice, support adult learning and are characteristic of exemplary preparation programs (Darling-Hammond et al., 2010; Orr & Orphanos, 2011; Perez, Uline, Johnson, James-Ward, & Basom, 2011). However, little direct empirical evidence exists regarding the impact of these pedagogical approaches on principal leadership and competencies (Byrne-Jiménez et al., 2017).

Internships and leadership mentoring/coaching. Field-based experiential learning through internships involves principal candidates applying and refining their skills as they serve in varying leadership capacities under the wing of experienced and ideally expert principals; this training is key to high-quality principal preparation and strongly influences the candidates’ learning and capacity to serve as instructional leaders in their schools (Darling-Hammond et al., 2010; Orr, 2011; Orr & Orphanos, 2011; Perez et al., 2011; Sutcher et al., 2017). These internships, also called residencies, constitute the aspect of leadership often referred to as clinical preparation. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) defines clinical preparation as “fully integrating a school-based experience throughout every facet of the program, providing candidates with adequate time and opportunity to engage in authentic adult leadership work and reflective practice experiences” (as cited in Mendels, 2016, p. 11). Internships are intended to help candidates strengthen their leadership and administrative skills while practicing relevant tasks such as communication, evaluation of teaching, and resource management (Reyes-Guerra & Barnett, 2017).

Internship designs may be (1) full-time and job embedded, in which a candidate works in concentrated blocks of time as a quasi-administrator; (2) detached, in which a candidate takes a single course and engages in leadership tasks during off-duty teaching hours (before/after school, evenings, summer), documenting completion of activities in a journal or portfolio; or (3) course embedded, in which field-based experiences are integrated into a variety of courses to allow a candidate to connect learning to experiences in authentic settings (Barnett, Shoho, & Copland, 2010). Detached internships are most common (Reyes-Guerra & Barnett, 2017), although full-time, job-embedded internships, which are more intensive and in-depth and often involve university-district partnerships, are gaining appeal (Crow & Whiteman, 2016). High-quality internships have been shown to help candidates acquire standards-based skills (Ringler, Rouse, & St. Clair, 2012), increase their confidence in assuming leadership roles (Reyes-Guerra & Barnett, 2017), and see their work in increased layers of complexity, better preparing them to lead (Orr, 2011; Perez et al., 2011). However, some concerns have been raised about the tendency of many candidates to intern in the school where they already teach, thus limiting exposure to other school contexts;  a lack of well-prepared mentors; and assignment of more procedural tasks (e.g., attendance, bus duty) than tasks that require engagement with meaningful problems of practice (Clayton, 2012; Reyes-Guerra & Barnett, 2017).

Exemplary internship programs possess several characteristics in common. These internships establish clear expectations for a candidate’s responsibilities and roles (Clayton & Myran, 2013), provide the candidate with authentic leadership responsibilities (Havard, Morgan, & Patrick, 2010), and include highly effective mentoring and coaching that include modeling of leadership skills (Duncan, Range, & Scherz, 2011; Sutcher et al., 2017).

Coaching and mentoring are consistent with all aspects of supporting adult learning, and are essential to facilitate transfer of new learning to the school setting (Southern Regional Education Board, 2007; Zepeda, 2013). Effective mentors share their expertise and help candidates reflect on their practice (Mendels, 2016), and can “help candidates link their internship experiences to the theories and problem-based activities they learn in their coursework” (Sutcher et al., 2017, p. 10). Preparation programs often seek to identify mentors who have proven experience with enhancing instruction in their schools (Bartee, 2012), but also make selections based on professional reputation, years of administrative experience, and willingness to spend sufficient time with interns as well as to participate in mentor training (Brooks, Havard, Tatum, & Patrick, 2010; Havard et al., 2010). The mentor-intern relationship can flourish when respect, openness, and trust are established mutually, when reflection is encouraged and conversations are thought provoking and nonjudgmental, and when the mentoring relationship is given priority through frequent opportunities for face-to-face contact (Schechter, 2014).

Some exemplary preparation programs offer intensive internship experiences; for example, the New Leaders alternative preparation program includes a yearlong residency in which candidates typically serve as assistant principals while being mentored by an expert principal (Gates et al., 2014). Other programs involve program-district collaborative efforts to pair candidates with expert principals (Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012). The University of Illinois at Chicago’s doctorate in urban education provides a fully paid, yearlong principal residency that is district funded, and includes site-based leadership coaching during the principal residency and continuing as a candidate transitions to assistant principal or principal (Cosner et al., 2015).

While highly effective, these programs are expensive and can present barriers to institutions and candidates if districts do not cover the costs (Mendels, 2016). High-quality programs provide financial support to candidates to complete their internships; for example, the Principal Fellows Program offered in North Carolina uses state funding to support yearlong principal internships (University of North Carolina General Administration, 2020).

Supportive program structures for candidate learning. Research has identified several features of high-quality principal preparation programs that relate to how they are designed, organized, and delivered to optimize candidate learning.

Cohort models. A limited research base has shown that having small groups of aspiring principals progress through multiyear programs together collaboratively as peers promotes several positive leadership-related outcomes (Crow & Whiteman, 2016), and is generally considered a key element in high-quality or exemplary preparation programs (Cosner et al., 2015; Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012; Greenlee & Karanxha, 2010; McCarthy, 2015; Sutcher et al., 2017). Cohort models have been shown to increase the likelihood of program completion (Nimer, 2009); build candidates’ capacity to develop peer relationships and networks, and help them develop a sense of trust and community in their programs (Greenlee & Karanxha, 2010; Salazar, Pazey, & Zembik, 2013); improve leadership learning and development (Ni et al., 2019; Salazar et al., 2013); and increase the likelihood that candidates feel well prepared for the principal role (Huang, Beachum, White, Kaimal, Fitzgerald, & Reed, 2012). In addition, evidence suggests that cohort models in exemplary programs create lasting networks of graduates who can share ideas and resources, and engage in problem solving and critical reflection with peers well into their careers (Darling-Hammond et al., 2007).

Program-district partnerships. Partnerships between university or alternative principal preparation programs and districts are increasingly used in establishing program structure, content, and delivery (McCarthy, 2015), and are considered a feature of exemplary programs (Mendels, 2016). The program and the district often jointly carry out candidate recruitment and selection, and university faculty, district personnel, and exemplary practitioners engage in team teaching (Sutcher et al., 2017). Effective collaboration between programs and districts enables candidates to experience coherently linked clinical training and coursework and helps them bridge theory into practice (Sanzo, Myran, & Clayton, 2011).

However, as noted earlier, these program-district collaborations continue to be relatively rare (Mendels, 2016). Research has identified several challenges, including inconsistency in ownership and participation by all stakeholders, high rates of leader turnover in districts, difficulties in placing interns, and institutional barriers and poor economic conditions (Brooks et al., 2010; Browne-Ferrigno, 2011). Nonetheless, there are calls in the literature for state policy changes to encourage these partnerships, such as making program-district collaboration a qualification for program accreditation (Mendels, 2016).

In some cases, districts play a key role in designing preparation programs (Merchant & Garza, 2016), and effective partnerships often consist of district funding of leadership candidates’ programs (Cosner et al., 2015). The Urban School Leaders Collaborative, for example, was designed by district and university leaders to build social justice–focused leadership capacity in an urban district that educates large numbers of Latino students (Merchant & Garza, 2016). In addition to contributing to the program design, the district participates actively in the selection of candidates, and district leaders frequently serve as adjunct faculty to teach program coursework; these components have strengthened personal relationships and trust among students, district personnel, and faculty (Merchant & Garza, 2016).

Online/distance learning models. While not explicitly noted in the literature as a key component of high-quality principal preparation programs, online learning models are a growing trend in delivery mode for educational leadership preparation programs (Anderson et al., 2018; Hackman & McCarthy, 2011), and thus their discussion is warranted. Some programs are fully online while others offer hybrid models, which include both in-person and distance coursework (Perrone, Rice, Anderson, & Budhwani, 2020). One recent study found that 43% of programs nationally offered a fully online pathway to principal licensure (Perrone et al., 2020), and another revealed that 84% of programs offered at UCEA institutions included at least a few hybrid learning opportunities (Anderson et al., 2018).

The perceived benefits of online learning options include increased access to courses in rural areas, which often struggle with higher principal turnover rates and a lack of a sufficient pool of qualified replacements (Pendola & Fuller, 2018), increased flexibility for candidates already working full-time in school systems or elsewhere (Anderson et al., 2018), and the potential for minimizing gender, race, and disability disadvantages that may occur in face-to-face programs (Preis, Grogan, Sherman, & Beaty, 2007). Although research is only just emerging on the effectiveness of online versus face-to-face delivery, some early evidence suggests few if any differences in learning outcomes (Korach & Agans, 2011; Mullen, 2020), which may have implications when weighing the costs of providing face-to-face instruction versus virtual instruction.

Authentic and meaningful student assessment. High-quality principal preparation programs use standards-based assessments to elicit feedback for both the candidate and the program generally; these assessments are tied to program vision and goals and are used for continuous program improvement (Davis et al., 2005; Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012; Sutcher et al., 2017; Young & Crow, 2017). In a review of five exemplary programs, Davis and Darling-Hammond (2012) found that all five assessed candidate competence both throughout and at the completion of programs using multiple performance measures. Examples included structured portfolios containing critical work products, problem-based learning projects, professional platform statements, monthly site visits, and formal evaluations.

Portfolios have received the most research attention in the literature, with some descriptive studies documenting the connection between standards-aligned portfolios and reflective practice, and the capacity of portfolios to represent positive trends in candidates’ understanding and application of standards as they progress through a preparation program (Crow & Whiteman, 2016). Other measures of candidate learning may include end-of course reflections and quality of action research projects (Buskey & Karvonen, 2012), as well as capstone thesis projects that engage students with documentation and analysis of cycle and inquiry leadership work conducted through a residency program (Cosner et al., 2015).

Formative assessment measures used throughout the program to gauge candidate progress and adjust programming as needed, and summative measures used at the end of programs to determine candidate outcomes are both needed for continuous improvement of preparation programs (Korach & Agans, 2011).

Rigorous program evaluation. While there is a good deal of implementation evidence that identifies components common to exemplary school leader preparation programs, much less rigorous evidence is available on how these programs promote candidate learning, on-the-job leadership performance, and school performance, and on how they influence career outcomes (Black & Murtadha, 2007; Crow & Whiteman, 2016; Herman, et al., 2017; McCarthy, 2015; Ni, Hollingsworth, Rorrer, & Pounder, 2016; Orr & Barber, 2009), despite the increasing state and national emphasis on program evaluation (Crow & Whiteman, 2016). However, several researchers have documented preparation program impact on self-reported learning outcomes, leadership confidence and efficacy, and satisfaction of graduates (Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012; Ni et al., 2019; Orr, 2011). In a review of exemplary programs. Davis and Darling-Hammond (2012) found that the programs produced high levels of satisfaction and high levels of confidence and efficacy with administrative and instructional leadership tasks. Orr (2011) found positive associations between program features (e.g., program content, delivery strategies, supports, internship) and self-reported graduate learning outcomes.

Orr and Orphanos (2011) found that exemplary preparation program graduates reported higher program quality and internship quality than a national sample of conventional program graduates, and that these higher qualities significantly impacted graduates’ learning about organizational and instructional leadership. Additional research is needed to determine whether graduates are able to demonstrate the two key dimensions of learning transfer (Blume, Ford, Baldwin, & Huang, 2010): generalization of learned skills to a variety of leadership tasks and contexts, and maintenance of acquired leadership skills over time (Ni et al., 2019).

The UCEA has responded to the overall lack of evidence on effectiveness of leadership preparation programs by establishing the INSPIRE Institute for the Evaluation of Educational Leadership Preparation, which equips practitioners with systemic, valid, and reliable evaluation tools (Winn et al., 2016). One tool is the INSPIRE-G survey, which is used to collect information on recent graduates’ assessments of their program experiences and perceptions of various program quality elements, and their self-assessed learning about leadership (Ni et al., 2019).

A recent national study found that graduates who reported high-quality program features (program rigor/relevance, faculty quality, peer relationships, cohort structure, and internship experiences) reported higher levels of knowledge and skills related to leadership learning; strongest associations were found for program rigor/relevance and faculty quality, although the faculty quality association was fully explained by a program’s rigor/relevance. (Ni et al., 2019). Furthermore, cohort models, while positively related to learning outcomes, had an indirect impact and were found to be mediated by peer relationships. Findings from this study add confirmation to the research addressing features of exemplary preparation program, such as coherent content emphasizing instructional leadership, high-quality clinical experiences, and cohort models that build teamwork and collaborative learning (Ni et al., 2019).

Currently under debate in the research literature are best practices in the identification of common metrics (outside of self-report data) to assess the effectiveness of principal preparation programs (McCarthy, 2015). Commonly discussed metrics include graduates’ success in increasing student achievement, effectiveness as leaders, job placement rates, and subsequent retention in the position. In an analysis of principal preparation programs in Tennessee, Grissom et al. (2019) found associations between these programs and high and low principal job performance (e.g., ratings received by supervisors and teacher ratings of leadership quality), but program effectiveness rankings varied by the type of outcome (labor market, job performance, licensure scores) measured, and the researchers were unable to discern exemplary programs or those that were failing and required intervention.

The researchers also determined that the school context (e.g., numbers of disadvantaged students in the school or district) into which principals are hired varied considerably across the preparation programs, and that analysis of these factors must be included in any evaluations of these programs. The researchers and others warn that, in some cases, using these metrics exclusively may lead policymakers to make unwarranted conclusions about leadership program quality and effectiveness (Fuller & Hollingsworth, 2018; Grissom et al., 2019).

Several principal preparation programs incorporate many of the exemplary program characteristics previously discussed, and employ rigorous evaluation processes to determine program impact. New Leaders’ Aspiring Principals program (APP), is a national alternative certification program that recruits and trains aspiring principals who then serve in urban high-need schools. The program provides the core elements of selective recruitment and admissions, strong program-district partnerships, alignment to research-based standards, residency-based training, data use for continuous improvement, and early tenure endorsement and support (Gates, Baird, Doss, et al., 2019; Gates et al., 2014). A 5-year evaluation of the impact of this model found that students in schools led by program graduates made small but significantly larger achievement gains in reading and math than students at schools led by non-APP new principals, although the magnitude of effects varied substantially across districts (Burkhauser, Gates, Hamilton, & Ikemoto, 2012; Gates et al., 2014). In addition, almost two thirds of New Leaders alumni were people of color, compared with an average of 20% of principals and teachers nationally. A subsequent follow-up analysis continued to find high levels of APP candidate diversity, higher achievement scores and higher attendance levels at schools led by APP graduates, and higher 2-year (but not 3-year) principal retention and placement rates into principal positions compared with non-APP graduates who were also new principals (Gates, Baird, Doss, et al., 2019).

Another example of more rigorous program evaluation is the research-supported Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline Initiative (PPI). As stated previously, attracting effective principal candidates is most acute for hard-to-staff schools, which often lack applicant pools with sufficient numbers of candidates who have relevant leadership experience, leading to high levels of attrition and ongoing cycles of hiring replacements, particularly in low-income urban settings (Center on School Turnaround, 2017; Goldhaber, Lavery, & Theobald, 2015). In 2011, PPI invested in six large urban districts, engaging these districts and preparation programs in collaborative recruitment and selection efforts aligned with district leadership standards (Turnbull, Riley & MacFarlane, 2015). District-developed standards further guided preparation, hiring, evaluation, and support of principals, and PPI supported districts as they developed tracking systems that documented where leaders were prepared, their career paths, and evaluation data. These tracking systems, in turn, provided data to inform preparation/professional development programs and decisions about hiring and placements, as well as specific principal competency needs in the district (Turnbull, et al., 2015). A longitudinal analysis demonstrated that schools, particularly those in the lowest quartile, with newly placed principals in PPI districts had significantly higher academic performance than comparison schools with newly placed principals, and PPI principals were more likely to be retained after 2 and 3 years on the job (Gates, Baird, Master, & Chavez-Herrerias, 2019).

A cost-effectiveness analysis revealed that PPI did not represent a “big ticket” district expenditure, with participating districts devoting 0.4% of their current expenditures to principal pipeline activities (Kaufman, Gates, Harvey, Wang, & Barrett, 2017). An academic return on investment (ROI) analysis found that the per-student costs ($42) were small relative to student achievement benefits compared with other academic interventions (Gates, Baird, Master, et al., 2019). This finding is consistent with other research that demonstrates the cost effectiveness of successful school leadership initiatives, such as the National Institute for School Leadership’s executive development program (Nunnery, Ross, Chappell, Pribesh, & Hoag-Carhart, 2011; Nunnery, Yen, & Ross, 2011).

Summary and Conclusions

Principals are highly important to schools, as they create school conditions that enable high-quality teaching and learning, and effective preparation programs are needed to equip candidates with the knowledge and skills needed to create these conditions. Aspiring principals have an increasing selection of preparation pathways, including alternative programs outside the traditional university setting. Recent national data on university preparation programs show increases in the number of institutions offering programs, credentials earned, and number of faculty with clinical experience in K–12 settings; however, surveys of faculty and district leaders reveal questions about the quality of many university preparation programs. While little is known about direct principal preparation program outcomes, a larger, though primarily descriptive, research base suggests that exemplary preparation programs provide several high-quality features and components.

Exemplary principal preparation programs carefully recruit, select, and train the right candidates to lead schools rather than relying on self-selection or less formal “tapping” processes that may not result in an appropriately diverse or qualified pool of candidates. Ideally, this careful selection includes multiple measures of a candidate’s potential to be successful as a school leader in the district context. These programs also include curricula that are aligned with quality standards for best practices. Highly effective programs prepare principals to use data and collective inquiry processes to foster continuous school improvement, establish collegiality and collaboration among staff for improved teaching and learning, exert leadership through their work with families and the community, and become effective organizational managers of personnel, resources, etc. Most preparation programs also incorporate curricula that address cultural competence and/or social justice issues; evidence suggests that minor tweaks such as adding a course to cover these issues may not be sufficient and that more comprehensive programming adjustments may be needed.

Effective preparation programs provide authentic and meaningful instruction to arm principal candidates with school leadership knowledge and skills that enable transfer of program learning to authentic educational contexts. This instruction is consistent with how adults learn most effectively and includes plenty of active engagement through coursework and clinical experience that enhance a candidate’s capacity to integrate new learning with prior experience. This active engagement can be fostered through problem-based learning coupled with critical reflection activities. Internships in school settings frequently are shorter term and part-time; however, longer field experiences that include authentic leadership tasks and high-quality mentoring and coaching likely enhance the benefits of these experiences. As these internships are more costly, exemplary programs are often district funded to reduce the financial burden on principal candidates.

Most of the research suggests that cohort models are effective ways to organize candidate learning in principal preparation programs, serving to build collaborative relationships among candidates and establishing networks of peers that can provide lasting sources of support. Program-district partnerships, in which program and district staff work together to recruit and select candidates and provide coherent, tightly aligned coursework and clinical experiences that meet leadership needs in the district context, represent an additional supportive structure of high-quality programs. However, these collaborative relationships are rare, although state policies to require this collaboration may increase their quantity. Increasingly, programs are offering online instructional delivery, which may have certain advantages over face-to-face models in terms of increased access and flexibility; however, much more research is needed to discern the relative effectiveness of online versus face-to-face programming in these programs.

More and more, the literature has called for programs to document their effectiveness in preparing effective school leaders. Exemplary programs use multiple forms of authentic and meaningful student performance assessment to provide both formative and summative data, such as structured portfolios and action research projects that document learning and are tied tightly to program goals. Little is known about how principal preparation programs directly impact candidate learning, career outcomes, and school performance. However, recent research has established a link between graduates’ ratings of high-quality program features and their self-reported learning outcomes; researchers are just beginning to explore how principal preparation programs may influence outcomes such as principal retention, job performance, and licensure scores. Several exemplary programs have used more rigorous program evaluation methods to document positive outcomes—for example, improved student achievement, principal diversity, and retention—as well as demonstrate the program’s cost effectiveness and return-on-investment.

In conclusion, while we know a good deal about what constitutes a high-quality principal preparation program, we know much less about the effectiveness of programs more broadly and which types of delivery models may be most beneficial. This is somewhat problematic given the rapid rise in the numbers of programs and degrees awarded, the trend toward online learning in programs, and the recent increase in alternative certification pathways. There is some evidence to suggest that substantive quality improvements are needed for many leadership preparation programs; however, much more rigorous research is needed to understand the extent and nature of the changes needed.   


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Sheldon, S. B., Epstein, J. L., & Galindo, C. L. (2010). Not just numbers: Creating a partnership climate to improve math proficiency in schools. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 9(1), 27–48.

Sherman, W. H., & Beaty, D. M. (2007). The use of distance technology in educational leadership preparation programs. Journal of Educational Administration, 45, 605–620.

Southern Regional Education Board. (2007). Good principals aren’t born—they’re mentored: Are we investing enough to get the school leaders we need? Atlanta, GA: Author.

Supovitz, J., Sirinides, P., & May, H. (2010). How principals and peers influence teaching and learning. Educational Administration Quarterly, 46(1), 31–56.

Sutcher, L., Podolsky, A., & Espinoza, D. (2017). Supporting principals’ learning: Key features of effective programs. Palo Alto: Learning Policy Institute.

Taylor, D. L., Cordeiro, P. A., & Chrispeels, J. H. (2009). Pedagogy. In M. D. Young, G. M. Crow, J. Murphy, & R. T. Ogawa (Eds.), Handbook of research on the education of school leaders (pp. 319–370). New York, NY: Routledge.

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2001). Collaboration and the need for trust. Journal of Educational Administration, 39(4), 308–331.

Turnbull, B. J., Riley, D. L., & MacFarlane, J. R. (2015). Districts taking charge of the principal pipeline: Building a stronger principalship: Volume 3. Washington, DC: Policy Studies Associates.

University of North Carolina General Administration. (2020). North Carolina Principal Fellows Program. Chapel Hill, NC: Author.

Wei, R. C., Darling-Hammond, L., Andree, A., Richardson, N., & Orphanos, S. (2009). Professional learning in the learning profession: A status report on teacher development in the United States and abroad. Dallas, TX: National Staff Development Council.

Winn, K. M., Anderson, E., Groth, C., Korach, S., Pounder, D., Rorrer, A., & Young, M. D. (2016). A deeper look: INSPIRE data demonstrates quality in educational leadership preparation. Charlottesville, VA: University Council for Education Administration.

Young, I. P. (2008). Predictive validity of the GRE and GPAs for a doctoral program focusing on educational leadership. Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 3(1), 1–25.

Young, M. D. (2015a). Effective leadership preparation: We know what it looks like and what it can do. Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 10(1), 3–10.

Young, M. D. (2015b). From the director: Flipping the educational leadership classroom with LSDL. UCEA Review, 56(2), 6–7.

Young, M. D. (2015c). The leadership challenge: Supporting the learning of all students. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 14(4), 389-410.

Young, M. D., & Crow, G. M. (2017). Handbook of research on the education of school leaders (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Zepeda, S. J. (2013). Professional development: What works (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.



A Research-Informed Design for Preparing Principals: What We Could Do Differently and Why It Might Work

This paper explores an alternative principal development program that combines the development of shared leadership and individual leaders as schools pursue their learning-improvement agendas.

Bellamy, T. (2015). A Research-Informed Design for Preparing Principals: What We Could Do Differently and Why It Might Work Retrieved from ../../uploads/docs/2015WingSummitTB.pdf.


Data Mining

What areas do principals express as needing additional support?
This analysis examines principal's need for additional support and training based upon the North Carolina Working Conditions Survey.
States, J. (2014). What areas do principals express as needing additional support? Retrieved from what-areas-do-principals.



A Research-Informed Design for Preparing Principals: What We Could Do Differently and Why It Might Work
This paper explores an alternative principal development program that combines the development of shared leadership and individual leaders as schools pursue their learning-improvement agendas.
Bellamy, T. (2015). A Research-Informed Design for Preparing Principals: What We Could Do Differently and Why It Might Work [Powerpoint Slides]. Retrieved from 2015-wing-presentation-tom-bellamy.
Now What? The Current State of Principal Preparation, Evaluation, and Support
This paper examines the current state of principal development in the context of best practices, including: evidence-based curriculum, well-trained instructors, effective coaching, and ongoing feedback and support.
Keyworth, R. (2015). Now What? The Current State of Principal Preparation, Evaluation, and Support [Powerpoint Slides]. Retrieved from 2015-calaba-presentation-randy-keyworth.
Principal Leadership and Why It Matters
This paper outlines what we know from both the research and the field in terms of principal leadership. It addresses the research and implementation challenges of developing effective principals.
McNulty, B. (2015). Principal Leadership and Why It Matters [Powerpoint Slides]. Retrieved from 2015-wing-presentation-brian-mcnulty.
Principals as Agents of Change
The purpose of this paper is to examine the role of principals in building quality schools. The presentation analyzes those critical skills required of an effective principal.
States, J. (2012). Principals as Agents of Change [Powerpoint Slides]. Retrieved from 2012-aba-presentation-jack-states.
Evaluating Principals: Balancing Accountability with Professional Growth

The goal of this paper is to provide policymakers with recommendations for the design and implementation of strong principal development and evaluation systems. States and local school systems that pursue these ideas can use principal evaluation to drive a powerful vision of principal effectiveness and, by consequence, improve outcomes for all students.

(2010). Evaluating Principals: Balancing Accountability with Professional Growth. New Leaders for New Schools.

Principal Evaluation Rubric

Overview New Leaders has recently published a new principal evaluation model. It includes seven modules: (1) Overview of the New Leaders Principal Evaluation Model, (2) The Principal Evaluation Rubric, (3) Setting a Principal Practice Goal + Strategic Planning, (4) Identifying Evidence, (5) Direct Observation of Principal Practice, (6) Collecting and Mapping Evidence to the Principal Practice Rubric, and (7) Providing Actionable Feedback.

(2012). Putting Principal Evaluation into Practice. New Leaders

Putting Principal Evaluation into Practice

Overview New Leaders has recently published a new principal evaluation model. It includes seven modules: (1) Overview of the New Leaders Principal Evaluation Model, (2) The Principal Evaluation Rubric, (3) Setting a Principal Practice Goal + Strategic Planning, (4) Identifying Evidence, (5) Direct Observation of Principal Practice, (6) Collecting and Mapping Evidence to the Principal Practice Rubric, and (7) Providing Actionable Feedback.

(2012). Putting Principal Evaluation into Practice. New Leaders

A Framework for Principal Talent Management

The Bush Institute’s new studies look at effective ways to evaluate principal preparation and describe policies to get, support, and keep great principals.

A Framework for Principal Talent Management. (2016). Dallas, Texas: George W. Bush Institute. Retrieved from

A New Approach to Principal Preparation: Innovative Programs Share Their Practices and Lessons Learned

This paper examines a number of promising principal preparation programs to identify lessons for improving the impact of principals on student perrmance.

A new approach to principal preparation: Innovative programs share their practices and lessons learned. Rainwater Leadership Alliance, 2010.

Change Agents: How States Can Develop Effective School Leaders

This report highlights the very important role that states play in cultivating principal leadership talent. This paper speaks concern about improving human resources management at the state and district levels, doing quality control at the entry requirements, and give states tools and strategies to re-frame policies to bolster the principal talent pipeline. 

Change Agents: How States Can Develop Effective School Leaders. (2013). New York: New Leaders. Retrieved from  

Research Findings to Support effective Educational policymaking: Evidence& Action Steps for State, District & Local Policymakers

This paper offer a number of research findings and action steps drawn from policies and practices that have been shown to be critical to the success of educational reforms at the local, district and state levels.

Research Findings to Support effective Educational policymaking: Evidence& Action Steps for State, District & Local Policymakers. (2009). New York: The Wallace Foundation. Retrieved from:

Principal Talent Management According to the Evidence: A Review of the Literature

This literature review aims to provide district leaders with an understanding of the research and best evidence regarding the components of effective principal talent management systems.

American Institutes for Research & George W. Bush Institute’s. (2016). Principal Talent Management According to the Evidence: A Review of the Literature. Retrieved from

A Policymaker’s Guide: Research-Based Policy for Principal Preparation Program Approval and Licensure

Intended as a formative assessment tool, this guide provides detailed, individual state profiles and state-to-state comparisons of 8 policy areas and 21 policy criteria that support the development of effective leaders.

Anderson, E., & Reynolds, A. L. (2015). A policymaker’s guide: Research-based policy for principal preparation program approval and licensure. Charlottesville, VA: University Council for Educational Administration.

Obtaining Validation from Graduates on a Restructured Principal Preparation Program

This study used within-program comparison of follow-up survey responses from two sets of program graduates from a university-based leadership preparation program to determine differences in program features and outcome measures.

Ballenger, J., Alford, B., McCune, S. L., & McCune, E. D. (2010). Obtaining validation from graduates on a restructured principal preparation program. Jsl Vol 19-N5, 19 533.

Progress Over a Decade in Preparing More Effective School Principals

Over the past 10 years, the Southern Regional Education Board has helped states and public universities across the region evaluate their state policies for preparing school principals who are leaders of instruction. This benchmark report reviews the past decade and looks at 10 learning-centered leadership indicators to gauge how far states have come and how far they need to go in selecting, preparing and supporting leaders of change.

Bottoms, G., Egelson, P., & Bussey, L. H. (2012). Progress over a decade in preparing more effective school principals. Atlanta, GA: Southern Regional Education Board.

What Do We Know About Principal Preparation, Licensure Requirements, and Professional Development for School Leaders?

CEELO reviewed data on 21 states’ principal licensure requirements, conducted structured interviews with experts on principal preparation and professional development in 7 states, and spoke with staff at the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Institute for School Leadership.

Brown, K. C., Squires, J., Connors-Tadros, L., & Horowitz, M. (2014). What do we know about principal preparation, licensure requirements, and professional development for school leaders. New Brunswick, NJ: Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes.

An Analysis of Principal Preparation Programs at Pennsylvania State Schools

This study examined principal preparation programs within the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education to ascertain whether their programs were structured in a way that would equip principal candidates with the leadership roles deemed essential for 21st century school leadership.

Burks, Karlin. (2014). An Analysis of Principal Preparation Programs at Pennsylvania State Schools. Seton Hall University Dissertations and Theses (ETDs) Paper 1934.

Principal Concerns: Leadership Data and Strategies for States.

This report tells policymakers what metrics they must track in order to make the best decisions regarding the supply and training of school leaders.

Campbell, C., & Gross, B. (2012). Principal Concerns: Leadership Data and Strategies for States. Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Barriers to Strategic Leadership in Education

The concept of strategic leadership has been in the discourse of corporate governance and
management but in recent days, strategic leadership has become a concept in education
literature. Strategic leadership is also relevant in education more especially in a PK-12
educational setting.

Cobbinah, J. E. (2020). Barriers to Strategic Leadership in Education. In Strategic Leadership in PK-12 Settings (pp. 82-93). IGI Global.

Developing District-wide Expertise in Leaders’ Ability to Analyze and Improve Instructional Practice

This manuscript reports on two district’s efforts to improve the instructional leadership of principals, and lead teacher coaches in collaboration with an external support provider.

Copland, M. A., & Blum, D. (2007). Developing District-wide Expertise in Leaders’ Ability to Analyze and Improve Instructional Practice.

Rethinking Leadership: The Changing Role of Principal Supervisors

This report consists of two parts: a survey of 67 public school systems district staff serving as principal supervisors and on-site analysis of six districts pre-service training and support systems for new principals.

Corcoran, A., et al. (2013). Rethinking Leadership: The Changing Role of Principal Supervisors. The Wallace Foundation.

The Nature of Leadership Development

This book provides insight into the streams that are driving leadership theory and practice today. The Nature of Leadership, Second Edition provides students with an updated and complete yet concise handbook that solidifies and integrates the vast and disparate leadership literature.

Day, D., Antonakis, J. (2012). The Nature of Leadership. SAGE.

Virtual classrooms: STAR simulator building virtual environments for teacher training in effective classroom management

The focus of this project is to create research in teacher education that positively impacts teacher recruitment, preparation and retention in urban environments. The novel approach we are using to attack this problem is that of capturing, analyzing, synthesizing and simulating human interactions in Mixed Reality (part real, part synthetic) environments, thereby creating training/screening settings that are realistic and yet do not put actual children at risk.

Dieker, L., Hynes, M., Stapleton, C., & Hughes, C. (2007). Virtual classrooms: STAR simulator. New Learning Technology SALT4, 1-22.

The Effectiveness of Principal Training and Formal Principal Mentoring Programs

The purpose of this study was to determine principals' perceptions of how effective mentoring programs and university-based principal preparation programs are in developing the skills necessary to carry out the 13 critical success factors identified by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). A review of the literature addressed what it means to be an effective principal and what an effective mentoring program should look like.

Dodson, R. B. (2006). The Effectiveness of Principal Training and Formal Principal Mentoring Programs.

Exploring the Nature of Implementation of Principal Professional Development Programs: What are Mechanisms for School Change?

This paper explores the implementation of a professional development program (PDP) for school principals. Two methods for measuring fidelity of implementation of the PDP are examined

exploring the nature of implementatiion

The Principal Internship: How Can We Get It Right?

In this report, the Southern Regional Education Board evaluates some 60 internship programs within its states and finds them lacking in a number of ways, including failing to provide real experiences in leadership. It urges policymakers, universities and school districts to create apprenticeships that better prepare aspiring principals for the demands they will face.

Fry, B., Bottoms, G., & O’neill, K. (2005). The principal internship: How can we get it right. Atlanta, GA: Southern Regional Education Board.

Schools Can’t Wait: Accelerating The Redesign of University Principal Preparation Programs

This report of 22 universities principal preparation programs identifies weaknesses in the training and offers recommendations for states to address the problems.

Fry, B., et al. (2006). Schools Can’t Wait: Accelerating The Redesign of University Principal Preparation Programs. Southern Regional Education Board.

Do principal preparation programs influence student achievement through the building of teacher-team qualifications by the principal? An exploratory analysis

This study examined elementary school principal preparation programs to identify which program characteristics produced principals who were able to build well-qualified teams of teachers and improve student performance.

Fuller, E., Young, M., & Baker, B. D. (2010). Do principal preparation programs influence student achievement through the building of teacher-team qualifications by the principal? An exploratory analysis. Educational Administration Quarterly, 0011000010378613.

How Principals Learn to Lead: The Comparative Influence of On-the-Job Experiences, Administrator Credential Programs, and the ISLLC Standards in the Development of Leadership Expertise among Urban Public School Principals

This study examines the influence of administrator credential programs, on-the-job experiences, and the standards in the development of urban public school principals.

Fultz, M. Assessing the Relationship Between Administrator Preparation Programs and Job Performance.

Using State-Level Policy Levers to Promote Principal Quality

Effective school leaders, particularly principals, are associated with better outcomes for students and schools. Principals help set school vision and culture, which support teacher effectiveness and ultimately can help improve student achievement.

Gates, S. M., Woo, A., Xenakis, L., Wang, E. L., Herman, R., Andrew, M., & Todd, I. (2020). Using State-Level Policy Levers to Promote Principal Quality: Lessons from Seven States Partnering with Principal Preparation Programs and Districts. RAND Principal Preparation Series. Volume 2. Research Report. RR-A413-1. RAND Corporation. PO Box 2138, Santa Monica, CA 90407-2138.

Developing Leaders: The Importance--and the Challenges--of Evaluating Principal Preparation Programs

The authors have been evaluating the impact of five principal preparation programs in the United States on student outcomes. This information should be considered as one aspect of preparation program improvement and accountability. The study team lays out its recommendations in this policy paper. 

George W. Bush Institute & Education Reform Initiative. (2016). Developing Leaders: The Importance--and the Challenges--of Evaluating Principal Preparation Programs, Retrieved from

What Districts Know--and Need to Know--about Their Principals

This paper highlights the limitations of district-level data on principals encountered during data collection for a study on principal preparation programs. 

George W. Bush Institute & Education Reform Initiative. (2016). What Districts Know--and Need to Know--about Their Principals. Retrieved from

Following the Leaders: an Analysis of Graduate Effectiveness from Five Principal Preparation Programs

With this current study, the Bush Institute sought to go beyond sharing information about best practices in principal preparation and connect information about program graduates to student outcomes. Specifically, this study evaluated the impact of five Alliance to Reform Education Leadership Network programs on student achievement. 

George W. Bush Institute & American Institutes for Research. (2016) Following the Leaders: an Analysis of Graduate Effectiveness from Five Principal Preparation Programs. Retrieved from

Developing Leaders: The Importance—and the Challenges—of Evaluating Principal Preparation Programs

The role of today's principal is changing, as is the principal workforce. The new generation of principals is younger with less teaching experience, and is more mobile, working more hours, and experiencing more job stress. Understanding how to better prepare new leaders for the role of principal is an urgent policy concern.

George W. Bush Institute, Education Reform Initiative, (2016). Developing Leaders: The Importance—and the Challenges—of Evaluating Principal Preparation Programs. Retrieved from

Chock Full of Data: How School Districts Are Building Leader Tracking Systems to Support Principal Pipelines. Stories from the Field

This Story From the Field examines how Denver and five other school districts have constructed and are using these systems as they seek to better train, hire and support school principals.

Gill, J. (2016). Chock Full of Data: How School Districts Are Building Leader Tracking Systems to Support Principal Pipelines. Stories from the Field. Wallace Foundation.

Simulation and the need for practice in teacher preparation.

Recognizing the power of high quality practice in teacher preparation, a web-based simulation called Cook School District was designed to allow teacher candidates to practice the skills necessary to connect their teaching to the learning of all children employing the framework of teacher work samples (TWS). Pilot study data comparing simulation users' abilities to analyze hypothetical teaching scenarios, interviews, and reflective writing in real work samples suggest that the simulation plays a role in helping candidates become more aware of, and able to perform, several critical skills necessary to effectively connect teacher actions to the learning of each student.

Girod, M., & Girod, G. R. (2008). Simulation and the need for practice in teacher preparation. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education16(3), 307-337.

Principals Younger and Freer, but Raise Doubts in the Schools

An analysis by The New York Times of the city’s signature report-card system shows that schools run by graduates of the celebrated New York City Leadership Academy — which the mayor created and helped raise more than $80 million for — have not done as well as those led by experienced principals or new principals who came through traditional routes.

Gootman, E., Gebeloff, R. (2009). Principals Younger and Freer, but Raise Doubts in the Schools. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Considerations of administrative licensure, provider type, and leadership quality: Recommendations for research, policy, and practice

This article reviews U.S. administrative licensure regulations, focusing on type of school leader licensure, provider types, and leadership quality. Licensure obtained through university-based and alternative routes is examined.

Hackmann, D. G. (2016). Considerations of administrative licensure, provider type, and leadership quality: Recommendations for research, policy, and practice. Journal of Research on Leadership Education11(1), 43-67.

Principal Evaluation Handbook

New Leaders has recently published a new principal evaluation model. It includes seven modules: (1) Overview of the New Leaders Principal Evaluation Model, (2) The Principal Evaluation Rubric, (3) Setting a Principal Practice Goal + Strategic Planning, (4) Identifying Evidence, (5) Direct Observation of Principal Practice, (6) Collecting and Mapping Evidence to the Principal Practice Rubric, and (7) Providing Actionable Feedback.

Leaders, N. (2012). New leaders principal evaluation handbook. New York: Author.

Ontario Leadership Framework 2012 with a discussion of the research foundations.

For purposes of the Ontario Leadership Framework (OLF), leadership is defined as the exercise of influence on organizational members and diverse stakeholders toward the identification and achievement of the organization’s vision and goals. For aspiring leaders, this framework provides important insights about what they will need to learn to be successful. Those already exercising leadership will find the framework a useful tool for self-reflection and self-assessment.

Leithwood, K. (2012). Ontario Leadership Framework 2012 with a discussion of the research foundations. Ottawa, Canada: Institute for Education Leadership.

Leadership coaching in an induction program for novice principals: A 3-year study

This article presents results from a study of leadership coaches who worked with novice principals in a university-based induction program for a 3-year period.

Lochmiller, C. R. (2014). Leadership coaching in an induction program for novice principals: A 3-year study. Journal of Research on Leadership Education9(1), 59–84.

Improving University Principal Preparation Programs: Five Themes from the Field

This publication seeks to help answer those questions by bringing together findings from four reports commissioned by The Wallace Foundation to inform its development of a potential new initiative regarding university-based principal training.

Mendels, P. (2016). Improving University Principal Preparation Programs: Five Themes from the Field. Wallace Foundation.

Pre-Service Preparation: Building a Strong Supply of Effective Future Leaders

There are a number of vehicles federal policymakers can use to create or encourage effective leadership policies. Throughout this series we will describe an ideal policy and then suggest potential vehicles policymakers could use to pursue that policy.

New Leaders. (2014). Pre-Service Preparation: Building a Strong Supply of Effective Future Leaders. Retrieved from

Taking Charge of Principal Preparation-A Guide to NYC Leadership Academy's Aspiring Principals Program

This report provides an overview of NYCLA’s flagship principal preparation program. Intended to help others involved in principal preparation think through important elements of principal preparation, including candidate selection, developing experiential learning opportunities, and funding, staffing and sustaining the program, the guide shares NYCLA’s successes and lessons learned during the 11 years we have delivered the Aspiring Principals Program in New York City, as well as through our work with various state and district partners nationally to adapt the program.

NYC Leadership Academy (2014). Taking Charge of Principal Preparation-A Guide to NYC Leadership Academy's Aspiring Principals Program.  Retrieved from

Ready to Lead: Designing Residencies for Better Principal Preparation

Ready to Lead presents the collective expertise of educators engaged in building or conducting research on principal residency designs across the United States, and answers the call for greater clarity on principal residency design.

NYC Leadership Academy & American Institutes for Research. (2016). Ready to Lead: Designing Residencies for Better Principal Preparation. Retrieved from

Promising Practices in Approving and Renewing Principal Preparation Programs

This report outlines steps States can take to strengthen the approval and renewal processes of their principal preparation programs.

Reform Support Network. (2014). Promising Practices in Approving and Renewing Principal Preparation Programs

Principal Professional Development: New Opportunities for a Renewed State Focus

This brief describes: (1) The need for more and better principal professional development to improve principal effectiveness, decrease principal turnover, and more equitably distribute successful principals across all schools; (2) The research on the importance of principals and how professional development can improve principals' effectiveness; and (3) Options and examples for leveraging current policies to revisit and refocus efforts concerning principal professional development.

Rowland, C. (2017). Principal Professional Development: New Opportunities for a Renewed State Focus. Education Policy Center at American Institutes for Research.

Supporting principals’ learning: Key features of effective programs.

Effective preparation and professional development programs build the capacity of principals to lead across their full range of responsibilities, fostering school environments where adults and students thrive. Research points to several key building blocks of strong preparation and development programs. 

Sutcher, L., Podolsky, A., & Espinoza, D. (2017). Supporting principals’ learning: Key features of effective programs. Retrieved from

Improving State Evaluation of Principal Preparation Programs

Intended for state officials involved in the assessment and approval of university and other programs to train future school principals, this report describes five design principles for effective program evaluation.

UCEA and New Leaders (2016). Improving state evaluation of principal preparation programs. Retrieved from:

The Cost-Effectiveness of Five Policies for Improving Student Achievement

This study compares the effect size and return on investment for rapid assessment, between, increased spending, voucher programs, charter schools, and increased accountability.

Yeh, S. S. (2007). The cost-effectiveness of five policies for improving student achievement. American Journal of Evaluation, 28(4), 416-436.

Impacts of New Leaders on Student Achievement in Oakland
This report presents our examination of impacts of principals trained by New Leaders on student achievement in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). For the last 10 years, New Leaders has partnered with OUSD in efforts to improve the recruitment and training of effective principals and school leaders. This report fills an important gap in the literature, as little research has been done looking at the impacts of principal training programs on student achievement.
Booker, K., Thomas, J. (2014). Impacts of New Leaders on Student Achievement in Oakland. Mathematica Policty Research
Gateways to the Principalship State Power to Improve the Quality of School Leaders
This paper analyzes state policies for principal preparation approval and certification in 16 states, eight of which are "lagging," and eight "leading" in efforts to ensure effective leaders.
Cheney, G. R., & Davis, J. (2011). Gateways to the Principalship: State Power to Improve the Quality of School Leaders. Center for American Progress.
School Principals and School Performance
This paper uses data from New York City to estimate how the characteristics of school principals relate to school performance, as measured by students' standardized exam scores and other outcomes. There is little evidence of any relationship between school performance and principal education and pre-principal work experience, but some evidence that experience as an assistant principal at the principal's current school is associated with higher performance among inexperienced principals.
Clark, D., Martorell, P., & Rockoff, J. (2009). School Principals and School Performance. Working Paper 38. National Center for Analysis of longitudinal data in Education research.
Measuring Principal Performance: How Rigorous Are Commonly Used Principal Performance Assessment Instruments?
This study reviewed eight publicly available formative assessments of principal performance, focusing on the tool’s approach, time requirement, content and construct validity, and reliability.
Condon, C., & Clifford, M. (2010). Measuring Principal Performance: How Rigorous Are Commonly Used Principal Performance Assessment Instruments? A Quality School Leadership Issue Brief. Learning Point Associates.
American Association for Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE)
AACTE represents more than 800 postsecondary institutions with educator preparation programs, providing support, policy leadership, and advocacy.
Center for Creative Leadership
The Center for Creative Leadership provides research, training, consultation, and support for schools to improve their leadership capacity.
Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE)
CPRE looks at issues of teacher compensation, school finance, and principal evaluation for PK20.
Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO)
CCSSO is a nonpartisan, nationwide, nonprofit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education in the states, provides leadership, advocacy, and technical assistance on major educational issues.
National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP)
NAESP is a professional organization serving elementary and middle school principals and other education leaders throughout the United States, Canada, and overseas.
National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP)
NASSP is a professional organization serving secondary school principals and other education leaders throughout the United States, Canada, and overseas.
New Leaders
New Leaders is a national nonprofit that develops transformational school leaders and designs effective leadership policies and practices for school systems across the country.
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