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Developing Educational Leaders in California: The 21st Century California School Leadership Academy

Two educators having a discussion outside of a school.

California has a notable history of investing in educational leaders’ professional learning. In 1983, the state launched the California School Leadership Academy (CSLA), which it funded until the academy was discontinued due to statewide budget cuts in 2003. Research showed that CSLA was a source of high-quality professional development. In 2019, the state legislature reinvested in leaders’ professional learning when it authorized the 21st Century California School Leadership Academy (21CSLA) to provide high-quality professional learning opportunities that are accessible and free of charge to California’s PreK–12 educational leaders, including central office leaders, site leaders, and teacher leaders.

The statewide program is administered by the 21CSLA State Center, housed at the University of California, Berkeley School of Education, in partnership with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Education and Information Studies and the California Subject Matter Project led by the University of California Office of the President. The professional learning is delivered through seven regional academies that offer three primary types of learning opportunities: communities of practice (i.e., cohorts of leaders in similar roles collaboratively working on problems of practice), localized professional learning (i.e., learning opportunities developed in response to regional need), and individualized coaching by trained coaches. 21CSLA is one of several lead agencies that compose the California Statewide System of Support, an important part of the state’s accountability and continuous improvement strategy that is designed to help local education agencies (LEAs) and their schools meet the needs of each student they serve.

The purpose of this study was to understand how 21CSLA is meeting the professional learning needs of educational leaders, how the academy fits within the broader state infrastructure for supporting educational improvement, and how state agencies can enable 21CSLA to contribute to an effective educational leader workforce. The study is based on a review of internal and external evaluation results; materials posted on California Department of Education (CDE), 21CSLA State Center, and regional academy websites; and interviews with regional academy leaders, State Center leaders, and internal and external program evaluators.

Early Evidence of Impact

Early evidence suggests that leaders value the opportunity to engage in 21CSLA professional learning and that doing so impacts their leadership practices. During the first grant cycle, the State Center commissioned two studies of 21CSLA implementation: (1) an impact evaluation conducted by RTI International that was intended to determine the effects of the initiative on student learning, and (2) an internal evaluation conducted by the Social Research Methodology Evaluation and Assessment Group at UCLA to understand the extent to which the technical assistance and support provided by the State Center is building capacity in regional academies. Findings from these evaluations show that regional academy offerings influenced participants’ knowledge, skills, and practices related to evidence-based practices, continuous improvement, and equity, and they influenced positive changes for schools, teachers, and students. Regional academy leaders also reported evidence that leaders are changing how they think about their work, their students, and their communities, particularly as these understandings relate to equity. Many participants repeatedly attend 21CSLA offerings and participate in multiple types of offerings, another indication that they value the learning opportunities provided by 21CSLA.


To further strengthen the ongoing development of educational leaders, state policymakers and agency leaders can continue to support and endorse 21CSLA.

California’s leaders stand to benefit from longevity in 21CSLA operations. The initiative’s early successes are encouraging, but the need for equity-centered professional learning among educational leaders is ongoing. 21CSLA has already begun to establish itself as a go-to organization for leadership support, and its attention and responsiveness to leaders’ needs ensure that the organization will evolve as leaders face new responsibilities and challenges. Sustained operation will allow the initiative to build a lattice of systems and services that meet the needs of California’s educational leaders.

Cross-agency communication strengthens the work of 21CSLA and other leadership initiatives. CDE, CCEE, and SBE should continue to operate as active collaborators with the State Center. State agency engagement has helped 21CSLA leaders and state agency leaders share knowledge and build trust. Clear communication channels also have facilitated the alignment of 21CSLA professional learning with state priorities and a common understanding of 21CSLA’s goals and related practices.

State agencies’ amplification of the work of 21CSLA could support the initiative’s reach and access. State agencies could further support 21CSLA’s efforts by amplifying its work to LEAs, school leaders, and external school support providers in newsletters and other communications. By doing so, they can increase awareness of 21CSLA professional learning opportunities and enable the initiative to reach more leaders.

Sharing of best practices and interagency alignment can be enhanced by further strengthening collaboration between 21CSLA and other Statewide System of Support entities. 21CSLA is a key component of California’s Statewide System of Support. The State Center and regional academies have established relationships with other state and local agencies in the System of Support, but levels of collaboration vary. State agencies are well positioned to encourage interagency collaboration that can support the development of complementary practices across agencies and allow for better sharing of existing resources and expertise.

In conclusion, 21CSLA already offers multiple evidence-based activities to develop leadership talent and is deepening its work to support greater access and quality. Moving forward, 21CSLA can fill other gaps in leadership development, such as building leadership teams, supporting leaders’ supervisors, and developing content knowledge to support school improvement. With its statewide reach and strong partnerships at the state and local levels, 21CSLA is well positioned to continue building a highly qualified leadership workforce across the state.

Developing Educational Leaders in California: The 21st Century California School Leadership Academy by Julie Fitz, Stephanie Levin, and Marjorie E. Wechsler is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was supported by the Stuart Foundation. Core operating support for LPI is provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, Skyline Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.