Next Gen Principal Prep: Blended, Personalized, Competency-based

The current system of preparing U.S. schools and system leaders is broken. Candidates self-identify, pay for required degrees often made up of random coursework, and don’t benefit from jobs that develop relevant leadership skills. Educating School Leaders, Arthur Levine said, “Many of the university-based programs designed to prepare the next generation of educational leaders are engaged in a counterproductive ‘race to the bottom,’ in which they compete for students by lowering admission standards, watering down coursework, and offering faster and less demanding degrees.”
Last week, we considered the question, “What do principals need to know and be able to do?” in the first blog in this series. It was suggested that the leadership challenge has moved from technical to adaptive requiring a diverse set of skills.
When we surveyed leading alternative leadership development providers, they described pathways with 10 common attributes:

  1. Proactive identification of potential leaders
  2. Coherent designs focused on student achievement
  3. Sequence of varied and valuable leadership experiences
  4. Blended learning opportunities, both personalized and cohort-based
  5. Competency-based progression based recognized job requirements
  6. Differentiated pathways with opportunities to specialize
  7. Strong tracking systems for individual learning plans
  8. Commitment/contribution from hiring entities and prospective leaders
  9. Clear and aligned incentives
  10. Accountable providers funded and accredited based on outcomes.

It’s conceivable that these attributes could be incorporated into degree programs, but it is clear that preparation and licensure could also occur on alternative routes.  What is clear is a focus on intentional design of a personalized sequence of learning opportunities and work experiences to effectively prepare school leaders–whether within or outside the context of a degree program.
Experience matters. Serving as an assistant principal–with the typical focus on student discipline–is often completely inadequate training to be a principal. Similarly, the principal to superintendent track is insufficient preparation.
Like military leadership development, districts and networks should identify promising talent, provide broadening experiences, on-the-job training, and more candid feedback. Leading school or districtwide improvement projects can provide much more relevant experience. Hillsborough County Public Schools follows this model. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia held just about every job in the central office, “I had a number of jobs that crossed over divisions: instructional, nontraditional programs, summer school, elementary, high school, transportation, food service, data, assessment, and facilities,” said Elia.
Like Leadership Public Schools, districts can distribute innovation projects among schools giving a large number of teacher leaders valuable project-based collaborative leadership experiences. As noted in Improving Conditions & Careers, blended learning environments, extended reach strategies, and a more dynamic education sector all provide expanded leadership development opportunities and pathways.
Like learning experiences for entrepreneurs at tech trainer General Assembly, high quality on-the-job training (online and blended) should be available from experts and with talented peers.
Respondents also mentioned the need for ongoing principal peer interactions. A preparation program can get a principal started on a pathway of development as an education leader. As we’re beginning to see in engineering and medicine, we’ll see education providers begin Powering Lifelong Learning Relationships. Imagine an individual development plan and professional learning community powered by apps that were automatically updated for new policies, best practices and new tools.
It’s exciting and encouraging to see some of the folks training high performing leaders thinking about blended personalized learning for leaders–not just students. It suggests the potential for more efficient and effective replacements for the system of courses, credits, and credentials. However, enacting these ten attributes at scale would require new state policies governing licensure.
Licensure. It’s widely apparent that the current system of licensure for educators does not work. It is expensive for educators and yields a high percentage of type I & II errors (i.e., letting the wrong people teach and keeping the right people out).
Some argue that, like the independent school sector, licensure should not be required. Some Canadian provinces just require a teaching certificate to become a principal. Some states do not require a license for superintendents (and that’s how I got in).
There may be a few rebel red states that could scrap state licensure altogether, but most will only change when there is a viable replacement alternative. There appears to be three alternatives:

  • Performance-based: Digital Learning Now suggests that teachers should be granted certification after several years of demonstrated performance–principal certification could work the same way. Schools, districts, and networks should have the ability to work with any organization they choose to craft leadership development pathways. School leaders should earn reciprocal certification based on demonstrated performance.
  • Competency-based: Another option is a “show what you know” system. Accounting, law, and real estate are licensed by exam. Doctors and pilots are required to pass multiple assessments and demonstrate proficiency under supervision. More dynamic job clusters are beginning to use other competency-signaling strategies including badges, references, and portfolios.
  • Authorization-based: Today, licensure is granted by state accredited institutions of higher education, but states could require existing providers to re-apply for accreditation under a new system of time bound performance contracts tied to specific outcomes and invite new providers to apply. A system of authorized/accredited providers could use a variety of competency-based strategies to award licensure.

New Leaders has been training leaders for high performing schools for 13 years. In Improving Principal Preparation with their blended Leadership Practice Improvement (LPI) program they outlined their rationale for the third approach because, “States have the opportunity to rethink the approval process for these programs, the criteria for approval, and the monitoring systems to guarantee that programs continue to deliver highly prepared school leaders.”
At the Bush Institute, the Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) is working with the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins on a framework to evaluate principal preparation programs. Like New Leaders, AREL recommends, “States should monitor principal preparation program outcome data and hold programs accountable for producing effective principals.” That means program approval must be outcome-based and providers with weak outcomes lose the ability to license principals. (EdTrust made a similar recommendation for teacher preparation programs.)
It’s time to rethink leadership preparation in education. The linear model is obsolete, expensive, and time consuming. It’s time for new pathways and new partnerships that prepare leaders for the schools our young people deserve. New models of preparation must be about matching leadership to the next generation environment where they will serve.
For more on EdLeader development, see Preparing Principals: Consider the Adaptive Challenge.
This is the second of three posts on principal preparation and development.  If you have thoughts about what principals should know and be able to do and how they should be prepared, please leave a comment, we’d love to hear from you.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Duane Dickey

Spot on observations!
Just as the skills for educators in the classroom need to change dramatically from the "sage on the stage" to facilitator of learning, the skills needed for an administrator to successfully guide a 21st century school need to change if we want public education to be relevant in the future.
One of my favorite quotes that I strife to live by:
"I never stopped trying to be qualified for the job."-
Darwin Smith-CEO of Kimberly Clark for over 20 years (guided his company to become the world's largest paper company)


Tom Vander Ark

Thanks Duane. There are days I feel less competent than I did 10 years ago given all the new developments. I appreciate Darwin's sentiment.

Dave Brown

I randomly stumbled on this article this morning. It still seems relevant. How is your thinking on the topic evolving?

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