Principals Who Know How to Improve Schools Are Essential: How Do We Get More of Them?

Last week I wrote about a principal, Sergio Garcia, who has led enormous improvement in his high school in Los Angeles County, where just about all of his students graduate -- most of them students of color or from low-income families.

I ended that post by asking the question: "If principals like Sergio Garcia are what we need to transform our schools, where are we going to get them?"

This is not a new question, nor does it have an easy answer.

Garcia -- and other principals who have led similar improvement - demonstrate that we have educators who know how to run schools where students from all backgrounds do well.

But when you look across all schools, you have to conclude that these principals are a relatively rare breed, which means that far too many students - particularly children of color and children from low-income families - will not learn at school the knowledge and skills needed to be prepared for life after high school.

This isn't because most principals don't work hard - in fact, on average they report working 59 hours a week. But too often they don't have the knowledge and skills necessary to improve schools and make them places that expand opportunities for all their students. After all, for many years principals were expected to manage crises, act as a buffer between teachers and parents, manage discipline, and - at the high school level - make sure the football team had a good season. As I heard one respected educational researcher say, "We used to think [principals] were interchangeable middle managers." In many ways, that's what principals were trained to be.

Now, principals are expected to be leaders of instruction and improvement, ensuring that all students and teachers learn and grow.

That's a big change in the job description and the field is not ready for it.

Certainly, the principal preparation programs at most universities are not ready for it, a fact that was recently highlighted by a report from The Wallace Foundation, which has poured a lot of resources into the question of the role of principals for more than a decade. The report, "Improving University Principal Preparation Programs," compiled information gathered by an association of superintendents, a research organization, and two organizations of principal preparation programs -- the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) and University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA).

The report's conclusion is a bit of an understatement: In providing principals "meticulous preparation for the job," the report said, "many of the 700 or so university-based [principal preparation] programs in the United States may be falling short."

Superintendents agree. Eighty percent of superintendents who responded to a survey by The School Superintendents Association (AASA) said that it is necessary to improve principal preparation. As the people who hire principals, they know.

The university preparation programs themselves agreed that they do not have a curriculum that would prepare principals to increase achievement in a school. And many had strong doubts that they were providing the kind of practical experiences prospective principals needed to do an adequate job.

So what to do?

Clearly, universities need to step up their game.

But universities are typically slow to change. And, like many public schools that they prepare principals for, they are not always organized to ensure the success of their students.

To shift their focus to what principals need to know and be able to do in order to lead academic success in schools, universities will need to engage in deep thinking about the curricula and practical experiences aspiring principals need, as well as about the support new principals need on the job.

All of which makes a new initiative by The Wallace Foundation interesting and hopeful. The foundation recently announced that it will put $47 million into working with up to six universities to improve their principal preparation programs.

The idea behind the grant is to develop "strong examples of how universities can upgrade their principal preparation programs, including better collaboration with school districts," said Jody Spiro, director of education leadership at The Wallace Foundation. "If this can be accomplished, we have the potential to accelerate widespread progress in preparing principals to lead schools across the country."

And with principals better prepared to lead, we might begin seeing some real improvements in schools.

Full disclosure: The Education Trust receives funding from The Wallace Foundation.