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Developing Effective Principals: What Kind of Learning Matters?

Principal giving a student a high five in front of a parked bus.

Research suggests that strong school leadership is critical for shaping productive learning environments, supporting teachers, and influencing student outcomes. But what characteristics contribute to high-quality principal preparation programs and learning experiences? And to what extent do principals have opportunities to participate in these experiences? To understand the evidence regarding high-quality principal learning, researchers synthesized peer-reviewed scholarship from 2000 to 2021 that addresses principal preparation and development programs and examined survey results and statewide policies. Through this review, key findings, research implications, and policy implications related to principal preparation and training emerge.

Key Findings

  1. High-quality principal preparation and professional development programs are associated with positive principal, teacher, and student outcomes, ranging from principals’ feelings of preparedness and their engagement in more effective practices to stronger teacher retention and improved student achievement.

    Recent research confirms that principal learning programs that reflect practices such as authentic learning opportunities; critical content focused on developing instruction, people, and the organization, as well as managing change; collegial supports; and proactive recruitment can contribute to the development of principals’ leadership knowledge and skills. The literature illustrates the importance of field-based internships and problem-based learning opportunities. The efficacy of these opportunities is enhanced when they include an experienced mentor or coach who can provide support and guidance. A growing number of studies have linked principal learning to student achievement gains. Not all studies have found correlations, but many have experienced limitations in the research context (e.g., insufficient duration, inadequate controls, inappropriate comparison groups) or problems with implementation fidelity. Though the findings require careful interpretation, the consistency of the findings across a large number of studies provides reassurance about the overall conclusions we draw.

  2. An emerging focus on equity-oriented leadership has the potential to develop aspiring principals’ knowledge and skills to meet the needs of diverse learners.

    Recent literature also has explored programs designed to help principals meet the needs of diverse learners. Findings suggest that, through applied learning opportunities (e.g., action research, field-based projects) and reflective projects (e.g., cultural autobiographies, cross-cultural interviews, analytic journals), aspiring principals can deepen their understanding of the ways in which biases associated with race, class, language, disability, and other factors manifest in society and schools and how principals can work toward more equitable opportunities and outcomes.

  3. Access to preservice and in-service learning opportunities covering important content has been increasing for principals and is now widely available. However, access to important job-based learning opportunities (e.g., internships, applied learning, and mentoring or coaching) is still lacking.

    Most principals represented in survey data reported having at least minimal access to content related to leading instruction, managing change, developing people, shaping a positive school culture, and meeting the needs of diverse learners, and access to this content has increased over time. Principals certified in the past 10 years were more likely to report access to these areas of study than earlier-certified principals. Even with these improvements, a minority of principals nationally reported having had access to the authentic, job-based learning opportunities that the research has identified as being important to their development. Only 40% of principals reported having had an internship during their preparation that allowed them to take on real leadership responsibilities characteristic of a high-quality internship experience, and very few in-service principals reported having access to coaching or mentoring.

  4. Principals’ access to high-quality learning opportunities varies across states and by school poverty level, reflecting differences in state policies.

    Access to high-quality preparation and professional development differs across states and by school poverty level within states and nationally. Principals in low-poverty schools across the country were much more likely to report that they had learning opportunities in important areas compared to principals in high-poverty schools, and they were more likely to report that they experienced problem-based and cohort-based preparation. Likewise, principals serving high-poverty schools were less than half as likely as principals serving low-poverty schools to have access to an on-the-job mentor or coach. Across the country, most principals reported wanting more professional development in nearly all topics, but they also reported obstacles in pursuing learning opportunities, including a lack of time and insufficient money.

  5. Policies that support high-quality principal learning programs can make a difference. In states and districts that have overhauled standards and have used them to inform preparation, clinically rich learning opportunities, and assessment, evidence suggests that the quality of principal learning has improved.

    More state and local policymakers have adopted standards for principal licensing and program accreditation. These are important levers for improvement if they are infused throughout the relevant learning, supervision, and assessment systems. However, few states adopted other high-leverage policies, such as requiring a rigorous selection process, a clinically rich internship, district–university partnerships, or a performance-based assessment for licensure.

Research Implications

While synthesizing the body of scholarship on principal preparation contributes to stronger practices, it also reveals gaps in the available research and methodological weaknesses, informing to the following six recommendations for future research:

  1. Broaden the scope of research to include detailed descriptions of program content and pedagogical approaches so that there is greater knowledge about what principals have the opportunity to learn and what approaches make a difference in their practices.
  2. Account for principals’ prior experiences, for program recruitment and selection criteria, and for district context so that the design and outcomes of professional learning experiences can be better interpreted.
  3. Better define outcome measures, and include a broader spectrum of outcomes associated with principal practices as they influence school conditions to fill the large gap in the body of research between principals’ views of their training and changes in student achievement.
  4. Take a longitudinal view to allow potential effects to become visible and to provide a better understanding of the mechanisms by which principals’ knowledge and skills translate to their practices and their influences on staff and students.
  5. Pay attention to how programs are implemented so that research results can be more accurately interpreted and programs can be better designed.
  6. Use mixed methods skillfully to deepen understanding of the processes and effects, especially those that link program features to outcomes. For example, experimental designs can be strengthened by qualitative data about the program, its implementation, and the comparison group’s experiences. Case studies can combine interviews, observations, surveys, and outcome data to shed light on program offerings and how they develop principals’ knowledge and skills.

Policy Implications

Analyses of the policies that foster high-quality principal learning programs inform the following four policy recommendations:

  1. Develop and make better use of state licensing and program approval standards to support high-quality principal preparation and development. The stronger use of licensure and program approval standards can help ensure that programs align content with the knowledge principals need to produce positive school outcomes. Licensure and program approval standards can also require quality internships for aspiring principals and encourage applied learning opportunities, accompanied by expert coaching and mentoring for practicing principals.
  2. Invest in a statewide infrastructure for principal professional learning. Federal funds from the Every Student Succeeds Act Titles I and II (including the 3% state set-aside for leadership development initiatives) and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 can be used, along with state investments, to ensure principals have access to coordinated, high-quality, and sustained professional learning. Leadership academies and paid internships or residencies can start all principals off with strong skills.
  3. Encourage greater attention to equity both by addressing equity concerns in professional learning and by ensuring that principals who work in high-poverty schools and those with concentrations of students of color have access to high-quality preparation and professional development. This can be done by directing professional development resources to those schools or districts and underwriting high-quality preparation for prospective principals who will work in those schools.
  4. Undertake comprehensive policy reforms at both the state and local levels to build a robust pipeline of qualified school principals and a coherent system of development. Encourage districts, through competitive grants and/or technical assistance, to launch pipeline programs that find teachers with leadership potential and carry them along a pathway to becoming a principal, receiving strong mentoring and induction, and continuing with quality learning opportunities for veteran leaders that contribute to coherence in practice.

Moving forward, improved research can continue to build the field’s knowledge about how to best develop high-quality principals, and enhanced policies can create a principal learning system that, as a whole, will better serve principals and, ultimately, all children.

Developing effective principals: What kind of learning matters? by Linda Darling-Hammond, Marjorie E. Wechsler, Stephanie Levin, Melanie Leung-Gagné, and Steve Tozer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was supported by The Wallace Foundation. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler 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.