This Foundation Is Doubling Down on Its Quest for Better School Principals

While many ed funders concentrate on programs designed to improve the preparation and effectiveness of classroom teachers, the Wallace Foundation mainly focuses its efforts on the men and women who supervise those teachers and the buildings in which they work: school principals. A new $47 million Wallace initiative takes aim at the way in which universities prepare future principals.

The funder's attention on the role of school leaders is appropriate. Research shows that of all in-school factors driving student achievement, leadership by a school principal is second only to effective teachers in the classrooms. Unfortunately, Wallace-funded research suggests that many universities do not do a good job of preparing people for the role of principal.

According to these studies, school districts are not satisfied with the quality of programs that prepare principals, and many universities believe their programs need improvement. There appears to be a pressing need for programs to better reflect the work of principals. University respondents agreed that coursework should include case studies, role playing exercises and simulations that address situations principals face in elementary and secondary schools across the country. Yet, 40 percent of respondents conceded their programs do not include these elements. University policies are one culprit. University structures and bureaucracies can hinder change, and tend toward programs that employ research-oriented faculty members, many of whom have never served as principals.

The need expressed in these studies for improvements in principal training programs, coupled with recent changes in U.S. education policy, presented an opportune moment for Wallace to take its school leadership work a step further. Through the five-year, $47 million University Preparation Program Initiative, the funder will invite 24 applicant universities in 10 states that have taken steps to improve principal preparation policies and thus appear open to strengthening their programs. The 24 universities include public and private institutions, including five historically black colleges and universities.

After a review of applications, Wallace will select up to six institutions for participation. The selected universities will be asked to redesign their principal education programs over a four-year period, building into that work a set of strong courses and clinical experiences for aspiring school leaders. The funder plans to choose the six universities by fall of 2016.

The Wallace program will also pair the chosen universities with leading principal preparation programs to help guide their efforts in ensuring their programs and course offerings meet the needs of school districts. Districts themselves will be asked to develop and use data systems to monitor how well the graduates of principal preparation programs perform on the job.

At the state level, Wallace will ask policymakers to examine their policies regarding principal preparation, particularly examining whether these policies promote or hinder strong principal preparation. The recent passage of the latest version of federal education law may facilitate this part of the work. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) represents a marked departure from its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, by shifting greater authority and discretion from the federal level to the states.

This initiative represents the logical next step in Wallace's strategy to improve the quality of school leadership. After investing millions to understand what effective principal leadership looks like, the funder is now looking to encourage the universities that train principals to ensure their programs reflect these characteristics. In a larger sense, this work by Wallace complements the work supported by other funders toward improving classroom instruction and teacher effectiveness.