Preparing Principals to Lead

The value of the principal in a school has been examined closely and well-articulated over the past 50 years. During that time, there has been a  move, from defining the principal as manager -- the person focused on policies, procedures, and the day-to-day operation of a school -- to viewing the principal as the instructional leader, resulting in a positive impact on school improvement (Hallinger, 2011).

The No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Acts reinforced school improvement efforts with a major focus on the role of the principal; and coupled with this, an increased focus on principal preparation programs. An ongoing and important discussion in the educational community now focuses on how to best prepare principals for the complex job they face each day.

The role of the school principal began as one of a manager; now it is a combination of management and transformational leadership, fostering continuous improvement through supporting teacher leadership and increasing professional capacity. Additionally, the school principal’s key responsibilities include developing a professional culture; creating an environment of relational trust; influencing teacher beliefs about students, and impacting curriculum and instruction.

The many complex roles of the principalship are sometimes referred to as “superhero,” where the principal is all things to all people.  The multiple roles of a principal have been described as an “omincompetence internalized by principals and reinforced by others in the school” (Carmichael, 2011, p. 58). How then does a progressive  principal preparation program prepare today’s leader for these complicated and complex expectations?

It is generally agreed that effective principal preparation programs have the following characteristics: research-based, coherence in curriculum, significant placement that embeds the learning into an authentic setting, and creating strong and direct connections within school districts (Darling-Hammond et al., 2007). Success as the principal who is focused on the future and keeping the 21st century student in mind, requires school leaders to have a clear understanding of the knowledge, skills and dispositions that foster continuous improvement.

It is imperative that principal preparation programs bridge the gap between theory and practice.  Leading today is more than managing. Leading today is transforming.

Commentary by Nan Parsons

Nan Parsons is UVEI's Associate Director for School Leadership and a member of the Program Faculty.  For other commentaries by Nan Parsons, see:}