Principal preparation means getting staff “school-ready.” While training programs often focus on knowledge, the University of Connecticut (UConn), with aid from The Wallace Foundation’s University Principal Preparation Initiative (UPPI), has found that practical leadership activities over time are equally important.

Wallace UPPI

The Wallace Foundation launched the UPPI in July 2016. UConn was one of seven universities selected to participate in the four-year project, which aims to generate lessons learned for the field to find a better way to prepare leaders for the principalship. Specifically, each participating university agreed to redesign its preparation program according to the following charge:

  • Develop and implement high-quality courses of study and supportive organization conditions at universities where future principals receive their preservice training.
  • Foster collaborations between each university and its partner school districts.
  • Develop state policies about program accreditation and principal licensure to promote higher-quality training statewide.

Rethinking the clinical experience was an essential part of our restructuring at UConn. We have learned important lessons from our work over several years to better prepare school leadership candidates with the knowledge, skill, and judgment that school districts want to hire.

Ground Your Why in Evidence

If there is one thing the UConn team has learned by participating in UPPI, it is to ground outcome monitoring and improvement planning in facts. It sounds obvious, but before UPPI, we relied on commonly held perception and mythology as our benchmarks. We were the flagship principal preparation program at the flagship public university in our state. Enrollment was steady—at least 95 percent of every graduating cohort in the previous five years passed the state certification exam and completed the program on time, and alumni satisfaction with their preparation experience was quite high. We were comfortable with our success narrative and did not feel a sense of urgency to do more than make changes at the margins.

Completing a self-assessment for UPPI that analyzed baseline quality measures forced us to examine evidence and face what was legitimately working and what was not. The most significant—and stinging—takeaway was that we could not speak with confidence to our graduates’ level of practical competence in core leadership domains such as instructional leadership, talent management, and organizational leadership. We accordingly started our redesign process by defining project-based tasks that serve as the core assessments for our students’ applied knowledge, skill, and judgment by doing authentic principalship work.

Although we were confident the new core assessments would provide reliable data on our students’ competence in the areas of instructional leadership, talent management, and organizational leadership, we wanted to ensure that our UConn Administrator Preparation Program (UCAPP) leaders met the standard of school-ready leaders that The Council of Chief State School Officers defined in “Our Responsibility, Our Promise: Transforming Educator Preparation and Entry to the Profession.” Enter the Building Ranks™ Diagnostic of Educational Leadership Practice.

The Building Ranks diagnostic is a standards-based assessment that allows aspiring and practicing principals to demonstrate their proficiency in two domains of effective school leadership—Building Culture and Leading Learning. The diagnostic identifies areas of strength and areas of growth in the application of knowledge, skill, and judgment. Having our UCAPP leaders complete the diagnostic serves our why, as it helps us determine how well we are doing to prepare school-ready leaders.

Be Clear About the ‘What’ and the ‘How’ Will Follow

Even with a clearly defined and well-grounded why for our redesign, we understood that redesigning the process would not be sufficient to realizing substantive improvement. Cohesive initiatives and work processes must also align with performance priorities. In the Wallace UPPI initiative, we describe performance priorities as the what and the improvement initiatives and work processes as the how.

Beginning with the end in mind, how do aspirant leaders develop practical competence in instructional leadership, talent management, and organizational leadership? We concluded that leadership learning for the principalship requires engagement in authentic and meaningful leadership activities over time. With clarity about what our students should do, we focused on how to structure the holistic program of study experience.

Being thoughtful about our why and what helped us realize we would have to operate fundamentally differently to realize the potential of our redesign. Superficial changes to our recruitment and admissions process, coursework, internship, data use, and partnerships with school districts would not support the development of school-ready leaders who apply knowledge, skill, and judgment appropriately to support teacher and student success. Our practical theory of action for how we would support leadership learning through engagement in authentic and meaningful leadership activities turned on two processes—assessment and coaching.

First things first, we had to rethink assessment. Before UPPI, our assessments consisted of end-of-course papers fitting of a graduate program at a research-intensive institution. Today, our core assessments are project-based tasks aligned to principalship work. Instead of academic papers with proposals for improvement that are never implemented, UCAPP leaders conduct an organizational improvement diagnosis, support a teacher through an instructional supervision cycle, facilitate a professional learning community, and lead an improvement initiative rooted in a problem of practice. Coursework content and assignments are aligned and scaffolded to support task completion, but students complete the tasks in a defined sequence over several months as part of the practicum.

Our pre-UPPI model for supervising the clinical experience supported a different learning experience and similarly had to evolve. We abandoned the one-supervisor-for-each-cohort design for one-on-one leadership coaching. Previously, the cohort supervisor read reflections, ensured completion of 540 internship hours over two years, and solved problems as needed for up to 15 students. Today, leadership coaches manage a caseload of six to seven interns, meeting regularly with them to support their planning to accomplish and learn from the four project-based core assessment tasks over the two years of the program.

Project-based assessment and leadership coaching matter to program outcomes, but they also matter to the preparation experience. Authentic assessments allow students space to practice and earn feedback about their performance. Leadership coaching promotes deeper leadership learning by supporting students to develop “principal mindsets,” or school leadership habits of mind, through a self-directed clinical experience.

What Principals Can Do to Support Candidates

University-district partnerships have been integral to the UCAPP principal preparation model for decades. Our work in UPPI has further strengthened our appreciation for the role district partners play in the preparation of school-ready leaders. The lessons learned and program changes discussed in this article have the potential to inform a better way to prepare principals, but universities cannot do it alone.

Practicing principals and assistant principals also play a critical role as internship mentors. Our UCAPP leaders tell us three mentorship actions matter most to a quality practicum experience.

  1. Give them time. Candidates in administrator preparation programs need release time to complete internship experiences. While some essential school leadership work can be done before or after school, much of what counts for building culture and leading learning—or even coordinating operations—happens during the school day. Scheduling and protection of release time opportunity is the most important form of support you can provide. Second, they regularly need your time to talk, ask questions, and seek advice. These things help aspiring leaders develop principal mindsets. These conversations do not have to be formal meetings. They can be walk-and-talks or informal chats. What matters most is the exchange of observations, ideas, and insights.
  2. Give them access and opportunity. Using the UCAPP core assessment tasks as an example, effective principal mentorship supports candidates to do authentic school leadership work, even if in a sheltered way. While having interns only complete management tasks such as cafeteria or bus duty gives them a practical sense of essential operations, it limits their leadership learning about the art and skill of instructional leadership, talent management, and organizational leadership. You can make available the resources and artifacts necessary to conduct an organizational audit to determine what initiatives are in place, what is working, and what are opportunities for improvement. Supporting completion of an instructional supervision cycle includes recommending or recruiting teachers who are willing to be observed and receive feedback from an aspiring leader. The task of facilitating a professional learning community can be supported by structuring the experience within the existing professional learning or improvement work of the school. Similarly, leading an improvement initiative is potentially more meaningful to both the candidate and the school if the problem of practice fits within the existing work, priorities, and structures of the school.
  3. Give them feedback. If candidates in administrator preparation programs received consistent support of time and opportunity alone, the practicum experience would be significantly enhanced across the field. However, in our experience, the most effective supporting principals and assistant principals also provide interns with feedback about their performance and dispositions. Our students have described this mentorship practice as “having their back.” Point out what you observed about their planning for or execution of a task that mattered to the outcome. Give them ideas for what to do differently next time. Point out soft skills or dispositions that you see will serve them well or might be blind spots needing attention. Most candidates receive such feedback well and make constructive use of it to grow as leaders.

UConn’s experience in UPPI is an example of what it takes for a university to adapt to the needs of the field to prepare principalship candidates more effectively. Improvement work is never done, and we look forward to learning more to better prepare capable school leaders for every school community and constituency.

Richard Gonzales, PhD, is an associate professor in residence and director of educational leadership preparation programs at the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education in Storrs, CT. He currently serves as project director for UConn’s $5.5 million University Principal Preparation Initiative project, funded by The Wallace Foundation. Email him at [email protected].