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A Baker’s Dozen for Principal Preparation Programs

Module by: Emily Smallwood, Michael Jazzar. E-mail the authors

Summary: Educational administrator preparation programs have been under attack for inadequate program quality. Despite these charges, there are embedded critical skills numbering thirteen, or a baker’s dozen. These skills throughout each the principal preparation programs establish a foundation for the effective preparing of effective administrators. In addition, the bakers dozen drive programmatic decisions providing future educational leaders with opportunities to connect their knowledge base through carefully designed experiences woven into the academic program.

The Baker’s Dozen for Principal Preparation

Today’s reforms in preparation programs of educational administrators were propelled into motion by the National Council on Excellence in Educational Administration (NCEEA) in 1987. The NCEEA faulted educational administrator preparation programs for having numerous deficiencies including an ineffective alignment of preparation programs to job demands of educational administrators.

Responding to the NCEEA’s recommendations, the National Policy Board for Educational Administration (NPBEA) in 1989 echoed the sentiments of NCEEA (Griffiths, Stout, & Forsyth, 1988; Murphy, 1992; Murphy & Hallinger, 1987). The University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) launched a series of case studies that explored the dynamics of changing traditional preparation programs into experimental training models (Milstein, 1992; Murphy, 1992, 1993). A continuous stream of responses resulted over the ensuing years (Peterson & Finn, 1985; Heller, Conway, & Jacobsen, 1988; Muse & Thomas, 1991; Protheroe, 1998; Murphy & Forsyth, 1999; Young & Petersen, 2002).

The Changing R’s

Since the mid 1980’s, noteworthy efforts have been taken to define the knowledge base in educational administration and to create standards for use in administrator preparation programs (Donmoyer, 1999; Donmoyer, Imber, & Scheurich, 1995). The National Policy Board for Educational Administration (NPBEA) and its many membership organizations have attempted to define standards. Two membership organizations of NPBEA, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) and the National Association of Secondary School Principals have developed competency inventories for use in the professional development of principals.

In the mid 1990’s, the University Council of Educational Administration invited scholars from across the Nation to define the knowledge base in educational administration. Although considered a risky initiative purporting to delimit the field of study, the University Council of Educational Administration’s summit was fruitful in bearing a system of documents entitled Primis.

Close on the heels of the knowledge-based Primis, members of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), a national non-profit school leadership organization, labored extensively to strengthen preparation programs in school leadership. In 1996, with assistance from twenty-four state agencies and various professional associations, the CCSSO’s Interstate School Leaders Licensure Council (ISLLC) developed six Standards for School Leaders designed to guide principal performance (Green, 2001). The six ISLLC Standards represent a core of knowledge, dispositions, and performances that lead to effective leadership and enhanced educational outcomes (Green, 2001). The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and the National Policy Board (NPB) have adopted the six ISLLC Standards for School Leaders as the basis for their own Standards for Advanced Programs in Educational Leadership – the standards used to accredit educational leadership programs in many colleges and universities across the nation. Johnny Biles, an elementary school principal in Gaston County, feels that “the development of model standards and assessments for school leaders will help to ‘raise the bar’ within our profession.”

In retrospect of the noble efforts put forth for educational leadership preparation program improvements to-date, directors of educational administrator preparation programs have continued their search for significant program improvements. Despite these efforts, many preparation programs continue to lack the curricular coherence, rigor, pedagogy, and structure to provide the kinds of knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed to produce a large supply of exceptional school and district leaders (Jackson & Kelley, 2002). Tracy Hagar, a principal fellow at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte emphasizes the importance of coursework. “Principal Preparation programs should include rigorous coursework that will prepare a student to be a principal anywhere in the state they are attending the university.” The quest for enhanced knowledge, skills and dispositions to improve educational leadership preparation programs continues.

A Pause for The Cause

Before moving on to the review of several unique educational leadership preparation programs, it is important to point out that defining the deep knowledge and understanding of preparation programs is found within the identifying of critical skills and dispositions. Questions of critical skills and dispositions as grounded in preparation programs are frequently raised by program directors, faculty and students. Furthermore, educational leadership preparation programs are numerous and diverse in many ways; however, the more preparation programs that are studied, the more skills and dispositions effective preparation programs seem to have in common in a rudimentary sense. Gina Carter, principal fellow at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, describes a principal preparation program. “A principal fellow program should be challenging, comprehensive, and practical. It should be challenging so that we will be mentally prepared for the rigors of the work world and comprehensive so that we are ‘grounded’ in the field. What I mean is we should have a good foundation.”

Preparing Tomorrow’s School Leaders Today!

Although most professional development of principals continues to be conducted through numerous university-based programs, six principal preparation programs were investigated in this study. One such program involves Halifax County Schools (North Carolina), East Carolina University, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. This principal preparation program recruits teachers from the ranks of the school district – those with the most promise as future principals. The program combines administrative theory with role playing, reflection groups, internship training on the job, and mentoring of candidates with experienced administrators to provide feedback and guidance (Peel, 1998).

Another selected principal preparation program involves St. John’s University and the New York City Board of Education. In partnership, both entities select cohorts of approximately thirty candidates from low-performing schools. The program combines research, theory, and field-based solving of problems (Zellner & Erlandson, 1997). The schools in which the candidates work are transformed into research sites for study of the doctorate in educational leadership by the candidates while training as future educational leaders.

The School Leadership Initiative at Texas A&M has also established a clear focus for their educational leadership preparation and training program. The primary goals of this leadership program are to accomplish the following:

  • enhance principal preparation and professional development
  • develop schools as on-site leadership laboratories
  • use school laboratories as training grounds for future principals
  • develop teaching oriented principals of what is called “leader of leaders”

The Texas A&M program is based to a large degree upon the recommendations of the National Association of Secondary School Principal’s publication “Developing School Leaders.”

In 1994, the North Carolina General Assembly began the North Carolina Principal Fellows Program, a merit-based scholarship program funded by the State. Funding is provided for two years of full-time study in the amount of $20,000 per year for recipients of the scholarship loan to achieve the Master of School Administration (MSA) degree. Principal Fellows are required to practice at an approved site in North Carolina as a full-time school-based administrator for four years. Six hundred Principal Fellows have graduated from the program representing ninety-one school districts across the state. Lee Casey, a member of Cohort 11 of the Principal Fellows Program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, lives by this quote, “To whom much is given; much is required.”

The Kalamazoo (Michigan) Regional Educational Service Center and Western Michigan University have formed the Southwest Michigan Educational Leadership Consortium to work with the high-need schools and school districts in southwest Michigan to improve school leadership and ultimately student achievement. The partnership conducts a Leadership Academy for aspiring principals and current principals to develop and strengthen school leadership.

Project ISAIL: Improving Student Achievement through Instructional Leadership is a partnership between the University of North Carolina in Charlotte and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System. The focus of this partnership is the improvement of instructional leadership and collaboration skills of second and third year principals and their assistant principals to improve teacher retention and student achievement.

Program investigations

Criterion sampling was employed by the researchers to select the six principal preparation programs. After all, criterion sampling is the selection of programs that are similar in experience, perspective and outlook. A close investigation of the six educational leadership preparation programs ensued. Data on each program were collected through phone interviews with program administrators, document collection and review. The researchers followed up their telephone interviews with visitations to the six principal preparation program sites and took copious notes. Summaries were constructed and shared with program administrators for authentication. The methods of this study were similar to the methodologies as implemented in Exceptional and Innovative Programs in Educational Leadership (Kelley & Peterson, 2000) that also investigated six principal preparation programs.

A Baker’s Dozen for Principal Preparation

As each educational leadership preparation program was investigated, data analyzed and comparisons established; a baker’s dozen, or thirteen,critical skills emerged. The baker’s dozen were affirmed by principal preparation program directors as vital to raising the competence level of future school leaders. In addition, the bakers dozen were viewed in the context of potential to provide the foundation for future course work, training, and successful entry into educational administration.

The baker’s dozen are interwoven throughout all researched principal preparation programs. These baker’s dozen are critical because most participants begin principal preparation programs with limited leadership experience and these may very well be the nucleus for successful leadership providing aspiring principals with the awareness of skills and a foundation for building the skills necessary for effective leadership. The baker’s dozen, together with what the participants additionally learn in quality principal preparation programs; contain the potential to raise the competence level of aspiring principals; a discussion of which follows.

Administrative duties and responsibilities. The duties and responsibilities of principals and assistant principals are aligned to course modules. In addition, discussions with school leaders involving “time spent on major tasks” are required as part of the principal preparation programs. David Miller, a current Masters of School Administration student and principal fellow explains what he has learned so far. “We are expected to be the instructional leaders of a school, but we are also the managers of the school trying to facilitate a positive climate and an effective learning environment for students.” Dot Lodge, a middle school principal with Gaston County Schools, NC, shares her experiences “ Most of the courses I took dealt with instructional leadership, which is good, but not what you begin with. Law, logistics, discipline issues, supervision of instruction, and public relations were covered in a far more cursory manner, and are the day to day business of administration.” Respondents were in agreement that very little time was spent on this issue during their principal preparation programs.

Student discipline. Student discipline is considered critical to a school leader’s success. Mindful of this, principal preparation programs instruct aspiring principals to discuss with current principals the basis for the school leaders’ decisions in school discipline. All principal preparation programs assign the reviewing of written policies that guide the school leaders in discipline. In addition, the reviewing of communications procedures used with the student, parent, and teacher are considered imperative investigatory skills for future principals. James Davis, a first year principal fellow at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte describes his program like this: “At this point in my program, I feel as though I have been offered the tools necessary to be an effective administrator in regards to discipline. The strategies have been those which I feel confident in using as a principal and they have been grounded in current research.”

Faculty and staff evaluation. With increased focus on accountability, faculty and staff evaluations are critical. To increase skills in evaluating teachers and support staff, principal candidates are asked to develop a list of crucial questions that relate to teacher evaluation. In addition, aspiring principals are assigned to discuss the teacher evaluation process with current principals. Reviewing appropriate forms, procedures, and documents that relate to teacher appraisal was a common investigatory skill considered very important. Will Gibson, a part time MSA student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte thinks that “this will be a major emphasis during our internship, and this makes sense because a component such as faculty and staff evaluation seems to lend itself to active, hands on learning approach.”

Attendance. Attendance procedural performance is considered critical to the success of principals. Investigatory skills here include the reviewing of the procedures for taking attendance and the discussing with principals the ramifications of discipline sanctions for attendance. Follow up discussions with principals regarding verification and parent contacts as related to attendance are required. Principal preparation programs encouraged principal candidates to discuss implications of students not attending school with social service agency officials as well. Alicia Carr, assistant principal at Page Elementary in Belmont, NC, Gaston County Schools, describes her experience as positive. “I felt very knowledgeable of attendance regulations as it relates to state/federal guidelines. Each school district has developed its own attendance regulations based on the information described in the state/federal guidelines. You get one understanding of what the state/federal expectations are but the local LEA’s are usually what govern you in individual schools.”

Conferencing. Following observations of parent conferences, aspiring principals are requested toanalyze the group dynamics, describe the administrator’s reaction to parents,and comment on the skills necessary for effective problem solving. In addition, aspiring principals are asked to describe the non-verbal indicators that define the parent’s mental state. Johnny Biles and Mark Fisher, both Gaston County, NC principals agree that this component was best learned through experience on the job.

Written communication. To enhance written communication skills, aspiring principals are asked to draft a letter to a parent outlining an incident that took place at school. In addition, principal preparation programs request principal candidates to develop a rationale for follow-up communication with parents, faculty, and staff. Dot Lodge’s principal preparation program did put an emphasis on written communication, and Mark Fisher’s experiences were very helpful to him as an administrator.

Faculty and staff improvement. Faculty and staff improvement is considered by principal program providers to be critical to the improving of student learning. Aspiring principals are instructed to research the components of the districts’ professional development plans. Following this research, discussions of the plan with a central office and a building level administrator are encouraged. Johnny Biles states, “Being well read is a must! By staying abreast of new trends and what is happening in education, not only in our country, but in other countries around the world helps.”

Special services. Providing effective leadership for all students and staff are challenges for particularly the new principal. Aspiring principals are assigned to interview special education teachers, regular teachers, counselors, administrators, and parents to gain diversified perspectives of ways to provide support for the needs of special education students. In addition, observations of IEP conferences and interviews of school leaders about the demands and challenges of special education are investigatory skills interwoven throughout principal preparation programs. Respondents felt that they learned about the legal aspects of the exceptional children’s programs. Lack of knowledge in this area could cause poorly trained principals to get into trouble.

Problem solving. In conjunction with the building level principal, aspiring principals are asked to identify a problem, collect data, and develop a possible resolution to address issues. Follow up activities to this investigatory skill instructed by principal preparation programs are writing reports describing how problems were solved, analyzing the problem solving process and describing the administrative skills needed to complete the charge. Will Gibson feels, “The empowerment the program has given me through a strong knowledge base has been the most effective tool towards making research-driven and educationally sound decisions.”

Finance and law. Principal candidates are assigned numerous and diverse investigatory skills under the disciplines of finance and law. Common investigatory skills include interviewing a principal on the school budgeting process, identifying the major challenges faced by principals in the budgeting process and discussing with principals the most significant legal challenges faced by building principals in their interactions with faculty, staff, and students. Gina Carter, a first year MSA student, had not had a course on school finance at the time of this article. With reference to educational law, Mystica Nelmes, a NC principal fellow reports that her most important lessons were learned in law class because “in today’s society we are being bombarded with all kinds of issues and as future administrators we need to know, learn, and understand the laws to protect us as educators and the students we serve.” Nichelle Cleaver, a second year MSA student/Principal Fellow and Assistant principal at Stanfield Elementary, asserts that “a Principal Preparation Program should include an Accountabilities class where students can learn more about the administrator’s role in budgeting and finance, No Child Left Behind, more interpretation of NC school law, special education and current policy law, etc. We had seminars that touched briefly on these topics, but I feel more in depth research, discussion, and collaborations would greatly benefit aspiring administrators.”

Group communications. Communications is cited by principal preparation program providers as a skill of great need for aspiring principals. Investigative skills include the discussing with faculty and staff their reactions to staff meetings; meeting with parents to gain an understanding of their views of education, delivery of services to students, and communication needs; and the planning of a staff meeting in conjunction with building principals. Mark Fisher, Gaston County NC Principal, was made aware of the importance of communications with different members of the school community when only half his faculty responded to memo.

Facility management. A principal’s role and responsibility in facility management needs clarification especially for aspiring principals. Hence, principal preparatory programs instruct principal candidates to enter discussions with principals as to school leaders’ responsibilities in facility management. Further investigatory skills include the interviewing of custodians on facility use, vandalism, abuse, and other similar issues. Johnny Biles, a Gaston County school principal, says, “This was a major topic and was even developed into a course in itself. I still have my notebook.”

Career planning and development. To provide aspiring principals with career planning and development awareness, principal preparation programs assign aspiring principals to discuss administrative career opportunities with principals and superintendents. Jeannie Jandrew, a first year Masters of School Administration student at UNC-Charlotte, had the opportunity to shadow a principal. “I feel that experience will help me become a better educational leader and feel more exposure in the field would benefit us.” In addition, principal preparation programs have facilitated the conducting of individualized career life planning appraisals. Aspiring principals are required by principal preparation programs to procure samples of professional vita (resumes).


The baker’s dozen positively impacts organizational change and workplace productivity! Aspiring principals need to develop a leadership platform based on the baker’s dozen. The bakers dozen provide the foundation for future course work, training, and successful entry into educational administration. Principals who assimilate the baker’s dozen into leadership and management routines are more likely to experience a rewarding and productive administrative career.

Policy implications.

The need for the increased alignment of principal preparation to the needs of principal performance did not occur overnight. Because of the critical challenges that school systems face, evaluations of principal preparation program relevance to principal performance continue. There are areas in which community leaders can exhibit control and factors that require time, coordination, planning, and long-term action. Many of the issues are organizational in nature and include interpersonal relationships, funding, governance, trust, stability, safety, and the principal’s job description and workload. The following policy recommendations should offer a beginning to providing principal preparation aligned to the needs of principal performance.

  • State Boards of Education need to take an active role in principal preparation reform. Research-based expectations that are clearly established and articulated by educational entities may have positive gains such as the basis of this investigation.
  • Boards of Education need to develop a new policy framework for school board and superintendent’s support of principal preparation. Board members must understand their role, responsibility, and the complexity of supporting principal preparation programs. Principal preparation needs to be stressed, barriers need to be reduced. There are no magic bullets. Creating a transformational school climate requires the board’s attitude, policy and governance.
  • Funding of principal preparation programs need to be adjusted. In addition, financial as well as other incentives for increasing the number of promising candidates into principal preparation programs are essential. However, attracting promising candidates is not as simple as increasing incentives because the reasons for the shrinking pool of principal candidates are interrelated and confounding (Grogan & Andrews, 2002).
  • Boards and superintendents must understand that their actions contribute to their respective reputations. Trust, credibility, and support must come from the board. With such intentions, boards and superintendents need to provide structure for principal preparation as well as all other school improvements.
  • School systems must actively market and recruit principals who successfully mastered arduous principal preparation studies. The plan should also include principal training programs, school-university leadership academies, internships, and other measures designed to recruit and retain quality principals.
  • Policy makers need to give considerable attention to the training and preparation of principals in order to ensure that they conceptually understand current research of preferred leadership practices so as not to delay educational reform. The concepts of instructional leadership need to be clearly understood and demonstrated by all educational leaders.

The eight recommendations represent a systematic approach to addressing principal preparation. There are no magic bullets. The investigation identified a number of factors of principal preparation and professional development. Anything less than a systematic and total reengineering will likely fall short!

The Last Word or Two

In summary, the educational leadership preparation programs reviewed here suggest opportunities for further strengthening of administrator leadership preparation elsewhere. Meaningful change requires all stakeholders to make a commitment to arduous program preparation aligned to actual performance needs – the baker’s dozen. These programs will require a significant investment of initial and ongoing resources to support program development, ongoing collaboration and mentorship, and connections to the field. Educational leadership preparation stakeholders need to succeed in developing focused and systemic change leading to improvements in administrator preparation programs.


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