Feb 27 2017

Supporting Principals’ Learning: Key Features of Effective Programs

Improving student achievement requires strong school leadership. In the wake of the Every Student Succeeds Act, many states are implementing education initiatives related to curriculum, instruction, accountability, and social and emotional learning, which all require substantial principal expertise. Principals also play a critical role in addressing widespread teacher shortages by creating school environments that attract and retain competent teachers. The most effective principals assume a range of responsibilities, including setting direction, developing people, redesigning the organization, and leading instruction.

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. These include:

Organizational partnerships that support learning

  1. Close collaboration between programs and school districts. High-quality programs partner with school districts in a mutually beneficial blend of research and practice.
  2. Purposeful and targeted recruitment. High-quality programs recruit teachers with leadership potential to enter the principalship, ideally from the communities they plan to serve.

Programs structured to support learning

  1. Cohorts of principal candidates. High-quality preparation programs structure learning and courses to be carried out in collaboration amongst a small group of peers.
  2. Networks of practicing principals. High-quality in-service learning utilizes professional learning communities where school leaders learn together on the job.

Meaningful and authentic learning opportunities

  1. Problem-based learning opportunities. High-quality programs use context-specific problems to connect coursework and practice to enrich candidates’ skill development.
  2. Field-based internships and coaching by an expert. High-quality programs support principals’ development through internships and on-the-job coaching by strong and supportive leaders.

Learning opportunities focused on what matters

  1. Strong focus on improving schoolwide instruction. High-quality programs have curricula focused on instruction and school improvement.
  2. Attention to creating collegial organizations. High-quality programs prepare educators to create environments where teachers, staff, and students engage in continual learning and improvement.
  3. Using data for change. High-quality programs train educators to use data and collective inquiry to identify problems and address needs, in collaboration with staff, parents, and community organizations.

Financial investments in high-quality principal training yields substantial benefits in student achievement, as well as teacher quality and retention. States can invest in high-quality principals by using federal funds in ESSA for teacher and school leader development in addition to state funds. By supporting effective preparation and development programs, policymakers can to increase the odds that students are in schools led by well-prepared principals.


Supporting Principals’ Learning: Key Features of Effective Programs by Leib Sutcher, Anne Podolsky, and Danny Espinoza is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was supported by grants from the Stuart Foundation and the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the Sandler Foundation.