Principals are the primary agents of change in schools, and their effectiveness as leaders plays a key role in improving student achievement, a new report from New Leaders finds. The report, Change Agents: How States Can Develop Effective School Leaders, encourages states to develop a pipeline for attracting and retaining educational leaders and a high-quality system for licensing and relicensing principals.
“As the leader of a school, the principal plays a vital role in setting expectations for teachers and students. All around the country, school leaders are doing incredible jobs turning around low-performing schools and ensuring that students graduate ready for college and career, but there are still not enough of these effective individuals,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, on New Leaders’s report. “If states are serious about ensuring that all students meet the high standards set by the Common Core State Standards, they must also get serious about school leadership, including principal preparation, licensure, and professional learning opportunities.”
The key to states building a strong pipeline of excellent leaders is a high-quality principal preparation program, the report finds. According to results from a recent survey of principals, 96 percent felt on-the-job experience was more beneficial than their graduate programs. The majority of states rely on weak curriculum and credit hours to award certificates and accreditations. A strong preparation program, the report notes, includes a rigorous selection process, high-quality curriculum paired with clinical work in an authentic setting, and continuous program review and improvement. In a strong preparation program, “there is no magic number of courses or seat-time requirements; instead candidates should be expected to accomplish necessary tasks,” the report reads.
Programs also need a systematic process for collaboration with districts, educators, and interested stakeholders. “In order to meet the needs of districts, preparation programs must be aware of the needs of the field,” the report cautions.
In addition, states use various and sometimes multiple entities to approve principal preparation programs for accreditation. The report recommends that states develop one clear program approval system that uses research-based best practices for principal preparation. When it comes time to renew programs, the approval system should measure placement and retention rates, district satisfaction, leadership effectiveness, and impact on student outcomes for states to ensure that the principals entering the system are meeting the state’s needs.
“A robust program approval process can help states raise the expectations for the quality of principal preparation programs and develop a pipeline of principals who get results for students,” the report finds.
The second part of the critical process for developing a deep pipeline of qualified principals is improving licensure systems. The report reveals that the standards the majority of states use to license principals do not include a demonstration of job readiness and are not strongly correlated with effectiveness on the job. In fact, only six states consider any effectiveness data when renewing principal licenses.
“Most state licensure systems lack rigor, are not closely aligned to the expectations for principals, and are disconnected from job performance,” the report notes.
In expanding the pipeline of potential principals, states need to consider removing existing barriers, such as a required master’s degree. States should work to bring new talent into the system and develop already existing talent within the system, the report explains.
“Now is the time for states to take action to improve their own processes for principal preparation and licensure in order to get the best candidates into our schools,” the report reads. “This policy drive towards a focus on outcomes will create the needed change agents and also develop the necessary knowledge base all states can use to get better over time.”
The complete report is available at