Principal preparation panned

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When Arthur Levine set out to study principal preparation programs at universities around the country, he expected to find problems.

“Things were worse than I imagined, in all ways,” says Levine, president of Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Programs for education administrators “range from inadequate to appalling,” he reports, with a largely irrelevant curriculum, too many part-time faculty, and low standards for admissions and graduation. The result, writes Levine, is programs, “that fail to prepare school leaders for their jobs.”

Levine and his research team will not identify the 25 colleges of education in their national sample.

But officials at Chicago Public Schools agree that local principal preparation programs are part of the national problem. Last year, the district toughened its requirements for aspiring principals, judging that many who had earned the state-required administrator credentials remained underprepared.

Principals need to know how to lead change and improve teaching at their schools, explains Nancy Laho, chief officer of principal preparation and development for CPS. University coursework may address those leadership goals theoretically, but seldom prepares future principals to carry them out in practice, she explains.

‘A race to the bottom’

Levine and his team of investigators rated 25 education administration programs on nine criteria such as whether it used a curriculum that integrates theory and practice, whether its faculty included academics and practicing school administrators and whether it regularly assessed its own strengths and weaknesses.

They also conducted surveys of roughly 2,000 faculty members, 5,000 alumni and 800 principals from education schools around the country.

Of the university programs studied, Levine had praise only for two: the University of Wisconsin and Peabody College at Vanderbilt University. What stood out, he says, was their relatively high admissions standards—based on standardized test scores, grades and the percentage of applicants admitted—high-caliber faculty, practical coursework and high expectations for student performance. Lesser programs, says the report, offered a slew of survey-type courses such as research methodology and adolescent development, and didn’t have courses that addressed the realities of leading a school.

Most programs also lacked quality internships to provide aspiring leaders with practical experience.

Only two out of 25 required that internships occur in a school other than the one where the student already worked. In some cases, the report says, aspiring principals could be mentored by unsuccessful principals.

Many programs for education administrators are little more than “cash cows,” or “graduate degree credit dispensers,” Levine’s report charges, that enroll high numbers of students who only want to get a bump up in the salary ladder by earning master’s degree credits. “This can only be described as a race to the bottom,” he concludes. “A competition among school leadership programs to produce more degrees faster, easier and more cheaply.”

To better prepare its own principal corps, CPS toughened its requirements last February. After the new rules went into effect, the number of candidates on the principal eligibility list shrunk from about 500 names to 350.

Aspiring principals now must compile a lengthy portfolio to demonstrate their competencies in a variety of areas and outline their experience.

For example, candidates need to show they can develop teacher leadership within a school and use data such as student test results to improve instruction. Previously, says Laho, candidates had to complete an internship, “but there were no standards applied to it.”

Still, Laho insists that the Illinois State Board of Education and local universities need to toughen their requirements for aspiring principals.

She serves on a statewide committee, funded through the Wallace Foundation, that is exploring ways to stiffen coursework requirements for a Type 75, the state’s administrative certificate. Laho also suggests that universities begin tracking graduates of administrator programs “to see if they’re able to effect change in schools.”

To obtain a Type 75, candidates must have at least two years of teaching experience and a master’s degree, they must pass a basic skills and an administrator’s test, and they must complete a state-approved educational administration program.

However, the quality of those university-based administration programs varies widely.

The Type 75 master’s degree program at Northeastern Illinois University is typical of university-based programs. Most students in Northeastern’s program for education administrators are teachers who take evening or weekend classes and complete two required internships at the school where they’re teaching.

The internships require students to spend 100 hours on leadership activities such as planning a parent night, or working on the school improvement team, says Diane Ehrlich, associate chair of Northeastern’s Educational Leadership and Development Department. But the internships do not provide an opportunity for students to gain experience leading a school.

By contrast, the UIC doctorate program, which is endorsed by CPS, is a full-time, three-year program that combines coursework with internships, mentoring and coaching, designed to create principals who are capable of transforming urban schools. At the end of the first year, qualified students are able to enter the CPS principal eligibility pool.

Vincent Iturralde was a teacher at Pickard Elementary two years ago when he decided to enter the UIC doctoral program. Iturralde already had a master’s degree and a Type 75 certificate, but he felt he needed more preparation. He quit his teaching job, entered the doctoral program and started an internship at Pickard, shadowing the principal, taking on some of her duties, and getting help from a mentor who visited weekly. The second year of the program, he worked in one of the district’s area instructional offices as a curriculum coordinator. Then this winter, he was named principal of Tarkington Elementary, a new contract school slated to open this fall.

“The thing I like best about the program is they stay with you,” says Iturralde. “I’ll have a coach assisting me in the running of the school.”

Study praised, criticized

When UIC was developing its Urban Education Leadership program, it investigated other principal preparation programs across the country and found only about a half dozen that, “came close to what we thought was needed,” says Peter Martinez, director of UIC’s Center for School Leadership. Levine’s report is “right on the money,” he adds.

Most university-based programs are designed for students who are looking to get a master’s degree so they can earn a higher salary, he notes. “So they decide to get a [degree] in administration, but they don’t have any particular interest in leading a school,” he explains. “The notion that they’re now qualified to lead a school is ludicrous.”

To ensure that the right people are trained as school leaders, two things have to happen, Martinez suggests. “The state has to change the certification process, and schools of education have to ask themselves, ‘What does it take to make a principal?'”

Ehrlich of Northeastern agrees with some of the criticisms in Levine’s report. She says that her department is looking at redesigning its coursework.

Norma Salazar, the chair of Chicago State University’s Educational Leadership Department, was more critical of the report, noting that it examined only 25 programs in depth.

“I don’t think he did a very thorough job,” she says.

She feels confident that students in Chicago State’s program are “well-prepared” because the program is accredited by the National Council for Teacher Education and requires a 220-hour administrative internship.

Salazar acknowledges that sometimes students do internships under principals who are not successful themselves, but she doesn’t think it’s a problem. “You can learn in a bad environment—you can learn what not to do,” she explains.

Nationally, Levine’s study has been criticized by several education groups, including the University Council for Educational Administration and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

The latter issued a statement calling the report “flawed,” and suggests that principal preparation programs will respond if school districts “raise their expectations and standards.”

Other professional groups, including the elementary and secondary school principals’ organizations, were more supportive. Those two groups issued a joint statement noting that the study “confirms much of what school leaders have said for decades.”

However, the groups criticized the study for painting “all preparation programs with the same brush.” Programs that are accredited by the National Council for Teacher Education do a good job of preparing principals, the groups say, but only 41 percent of 500 university-based programs choose to be accredited.

Levine says he expected his strongly worded report to draw more criticism from educators. The reason it hasn’t, he says, is because “they believe there’s a real problem.”

Jody Temkin is a Catalyst contributing editor. E-mail her at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.