School Leadership Matters: Illinois leading reforms in principal preparation


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This is a guest blog post by James Applegate, Executive Director, Illinois Board of Higher Education and Janet Holt, Executive Director, Illinois Education Research Council.

Since the 2005 Levine report that garnered much attention across the country and called for widespread reform in educational leadership, Illinois is one of only a few states which adopted comprehensive reforms  with a major redesign of principal preparation program requirements, according to a report from the Wallace Foundation. However, a growing body of research clearly shows that effective school and district leadership is second only to teacher quality in improving student outcomes. Additionally, research indicates real turn around in failing schools never occurs without such strong leadership.

Illinois stands out as a leader that passed sweeping educational leadership reforms in 2010 (PA 096-0903), after substantial study and stakeholder feedback. These reforms were fully implemented by June 2014. For these comprehensive reforms, Illinois received Education Commission of the States’ 2014 Frank Newman Award for State Innovation.

Since all Illinois’ educational leaders programs have been revised to comply with this new statute, the Illinois Education Research Council (IERC) and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research  have studied the implementation to find out how the new model for principal preparation is taking shape in a study funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and the Wallace Foundation. The innovations that have been rolled out were identified and bumps in the road were determined. This work has resulted in two reports (IERC 2015-3; IERC 2016-2) and a policy brief. Highlighted here is: what changed, how the implementation is progressing and the implications for Illinois moving forward or for other states engaging in such reform.

What changed?

The key features of this change in principal preparation was a shift from a general administrative certificate (Type 75 certificate) to a focused endorsement for principals and assistant principals. Along with this, came other important changes:

  • A strong emphasis on preparing instructional leaders.
  • Ensuring that every prepared school leader had preparation in special populations: early childhood, English language learners and students with disabilities.
  • A more selective admissions process to ensure that candidates were truly interested in being principals, not just wanting to get general administrative preparation or have the credential to “move up the pay scale.”
  • More formal partnerships with school districts for program delivery AND design.
  • Mentorship by highly qualified principal mentors.
  • An extensive internship experience that requires the candidate to demonstrate mastery of many competencies. The new internship experience is a move away from a more observational role to one in which the candidates are leading instructional activities.

How is implementation progressing?

Overall, our two-year study found that implementation is progressing well. There was a positive regard for the new changes, despite the intensive redesign many programs underwent. One program representative summarized the policy change this way, “[The new policy is] significantly transforming our expectations for clinical experience of principal preparation programs. You cannot learn to lead by reading about it. And yet our programs were largely based on that presumption. And have been roundly criticized for that…What we’re seeing in this new legislation is a much increased attention to the quality of the clinical experience or the field experience that people are having so that they can learn to lead by leading and getting appropriate feedback on that.(IERC 2015-3, p. 25). Additionally, 70 percent of the program coordinators agreed that candidates were somewhat or substantially stronger after the redesign. As highlighted in the reports of this two-year study, the major implementation changes were:

  • Strengthened K-12 – higher education partnerships for the internship and in some high-level partnerships, a deeper collaboration in which districts are involved in all aspects of the design and delivery of the program.
  • A laser focus on instructional leadership emphasized throughout the program.
  • A stronger and more authentic internship experience.
  • A greater emphasis on leadership experience with special populations.

Bumps in the road

As noted in the study findings, there has been a shift from preparing a large quantity of administrator candidates to preparing highquality principal candidates. As a result some programs had trouble making enrollments with the more selective admissions process and the specific focus on the principalship. One program has been suspended because of low enrollments. Future efforts must expand the practice of monitoring the supply and demand for leaders within and across regions to assist programs in recruiting and graduating students aligned with future demand. Illinois made changes in their rules since implementing the reforms to address this issue, including relaxing the candidate eligibility rules to be inclusive to those with a Type 73 certification (i.e., school support personnel). But there will likely be a need for other policy changes in the future.

Another area of concern for many programs is the shift away from organization and fiscal management. As one department chair noted “In the move to focus on the principal as instructional leader, it has neglected the managerial functions that principals have to deal with on a day-to-day basis to survive and keep their doors open. …You have to know how to get your walkways shoveled, your roofs fixed, how to get salt out, how to mark your fields, how to have heating and ventilation systems working.” (IERC 2016-2 p. 42). Although, most stakeholders endorse the importance of a strong focus on instructional leadership, policy changes may need to be made to balance this focus with preparation on the operational and finance side of the principalship.

What does the future hold?

As the program evolves new ideas are emerging to increase quality and impact. An idea proposed by the Illinois School Leadership Advisory Council, for regional hubs to connect districts and preparation programs is supported by the results of the IERC study. The intensity and quality of district-university partnerships vary widely. Limitations prevented richer partnerships in some areas because of geography, lack of resources and pre-existing relationships. A focus on monitoring regional school leadership needs and supply and connecting preparation programs to districts in need through a regional network might be of value, especially in a state with both large urban centers and extensive rural areas.

Many programs found the statute inflexible and with too strong of an emphasis on compliance, rather than performance. The new statue is based on a competency model in which programs must demonstrate that their graduates have specific experiences necessary for school leadership. However, programs are advocating for a more flexible approach that allows candidates to tailor their experiences to their needs and an outcomes-based accountability system. The question moving forward is how to adapt the rules to strike a balance between the strong requirements that brought about this substantial shift that many regard as very positive while providing the flexibility to allow districts to tailor the requirements to their candidates. This must be done without allowing gradual erosion of quality and backslide to earlier, more lax standards.

As the redesigned programs mature and more graduates enter the field, there also are plans to track outcomes for the school leaders who work in the field and their impact on student outcomes. These are, of course, the ultimate ends the reforms are designed to serve.

Finally, reports from the field indicate that graduates of these improved programs are highly sought after, especially by schools and districts focused on improvement. If these new leaders succeed as we expect them to, it is likely many will move into district and state leadership positions. That we hope, will magnify the impact of these reforms on school performance and students outcomes across the state.

As with any major reform, it takes a strong initiative to bring about change, but there is often a maturation process that plays out over time as the reforms are incrementally modified to adapt and provide some flexibility. Illinois is undergoing this process but our early investigation of the implementation of these reforms indicates that there are some excellent models of district-university partnerships that are thriving in this new environment that are highlighted in our final report (IERC 2016 – 2). School leadership programs within Illinois and across the U.S. might benefit from taking the opportunity to learn from these redesigned programs and their approach to producing high-quality and diverse educational leaders.

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