Addressing School Principal Preparation at the State Level


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While states battle turnover in school leadership, policymakers are working to increase the number of highly trained, quality principals across their states. In the midst of a changing education landscape, state policymakers are exploring ways to ensure school leaders are equipped to guide today’s students and teachers.  

Our recently updated 50-State Comparison on School Principals compiles approaches states are taking to better prepare, recruit and retain principals. Below, we examine some key findings and new additions to the database that highlight how policymakers are considering these issues.  

 State Standards for Principals 

Past iterations of our 50-State Comparison identified that state standards for principal performance and preparation were essentially universal. Research indicates that positive school outcomes can be bolstered by principals who:  

  • Engage in instructionally focused interactions with teachers. 
  • Build a positive school climate. 
  • Manage personnel and resources strategically.  

We found that state standards often align with these qualities and noted a growing emphasis on incorporating equitable practices and cultural responsiveness into measures of leadership performance.  

The update also includes information on certification requirements for school principals licensed out of state. While the interstate teacher mobility compact provides reciprocity for licensed teachers moving between states, no such reciprocity exists at the national or regional level for school leaders. Without reciprocity agreements, some states allow out-of-state applicants to be held to the same standards as in-state principal candidates while others have adopted specific requirements for out-of-state candidates. 

 Certification for Assistant Principals 

In our update, we wanted to examine the role of state policy in addressing the role of assistant principals, so we looked at which states have a specific certification for the role of assistant principal. At least eight states have outlined a specific process for individuals to attain certification to be an assistant principal. Forty states simply require assistant principals to attain the same certification as a principal.  

Despite this type of role growing in popularity, the lack of an individual certification process mirrors findings from the Wallace Foundation that show that assistant principals often serve in roles that lack definition. These positions are often a stepping stone toward principal roles without explicitly preparing individuals for that role.  

 Mentorship Programs 

This update includes a new data point on mentorship opportunities for new or upcoming principals because, according to a 2018 study from Southeast Missouri State University, “mentoring has been identified as one of the most effective ways to enhance the leadership skills of new principals.” However, this area has not been studied conclusively. While hour requirements or specific components of mentorship may vary, more than half of states have established a mentorship program. States approaches to mentorship vary. Some states assign support teams or principal partners to work with a candidate during induction, some offer supervision from a mentor principal or superintendent within the new role, and others require mentorship during required clinical experience or internships.  

 Financial Incentives 

Because we know that teacher compensation is a consideration for retaining teachers, we wanted to look at financial incentive tools policymakers are using to retain principals. We found that seven states have recruitment or retention bonuses available for principals. A 2021 survey from the National Association of Secondary School Principals found that 38% of principals were considering leaving their roles in the next three years. The survey found that while compensation was not the first concern of principals, 52% of principals surveyed said they somewhat agree that they were paid fairly for their work and 19% strongly agreed with that statement.  

While we often discuss the tools that it takes to address teacher recruitment and retention, the conversation about principals’ compensation is often left to the side. While this may not fully explain what work might be taking place at the local level, it points to a potential area of exploration for states looking to retain principals. 

Like teachers, school principal and assistant principal preparedness can affect student outcomes and school culture. As inequitable distributions of high-quality principals persist, state policymakers will continue to address issues along the principal pipeline. 

Author profile

As a policy researcher, Lauren provides quality research on a variety of education topics. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, Lauren earned a master’s degree in Public Policy from the University of Michigan. Before attending graduate school, Lauren spent four years teaching and three years working with a community-based neighborhood center in Denver. Lauren strongly believes in the importance of creating education policies that allow all children to excel.

Author profile
Senior Policy Analyst at Education Commission of the States |

As a policy analyst, Zeke tracks legislation related to statewide longitudinal data systems, school safety and postsecondary campus safety. He has been with Education Commission of the States since 2014. Zeke has a passion for local politics and enjoys following the varied policy approaches of city and state leaders.

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