Developing Effective School Leaders: Perceptions of Participants in a District-Led Academy for Aspiring Principals

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Zapadka, Nicholas, Administration and Supervision - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Dexter, Sara, Cu-Leadshp Fndns & Pol Studies, University of Virginia

The growing complexity of the school principalship, coupled with high rates of national turnover in the position, has necessitated that school divisions support and develop the professional capacity of their current and aspiring building leaders. Yet as compared to research on professional learning experiences for teachers, the body of research surrounding the establishment of ongoing learning experiences for school principals is relatively small. That said, recent positive focus on the role of the “leadership pipeline”, as well as research demonstrating correlations between leadership practices and student learning outcomes (Leithwood, Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004), make the case for improving leadership development opportunities for those transitioning into administrative roles.

The purpose of this study was to conduct a first-run program evaluation of a large school division’s Aspiring Principals Cohort (APC). This annual professional development sequence admitted a cohort of elementary, middle, and high school level assistant principals from within the NOVA School District and provided sustained learning experiences geared toward readiness for the principalship. Three research questions guided the study and focused inquiry on different areas of this leadership development experience. These questions were investigated using a mixed methods approach. For the first research question, a pre- and post-APC leadership inventory was utilized to understand, at a macro level, the extent to which participants’ perceptions of their leadership capacity changed during the experience. This inventory was aligned to the Professional Standards for Education Leaders (PSEL, 2015). Surveys and semi-structured interviews were used to collect data for the second research question, which sought to understand participants’ perceptions of each individual learning experience in the APC. An observation protocol completed by the researcher collected data for the third research question, which sought to study the extent to which APC learning experiences were aligned to the PSEL (2015) standards.

The study’s conceptual framework supposed that the effectiveness of leadership development programs like the APC is contingent on two primary factors; the extent to which the program’s learning experiences were 1) aligned to established standards for educational leaders (PSEL, 2015), and 2) developed utilizing best practices for adult learning (Desimone & Garet, 2015). These factors formed the basis of the study’s data collection procedures and instrumentation. Data analysis demonstrated that participants found great value in the APC and that their perceptions of their leadership capacity increased in all areas during their participation. Data additionally showed that improvement in the APC could be possible in several areas.

Based on the study’s findings, four recommendations were presented to the school division: 1) Continue to provide staffing, resources, and time to engage aspiring principals in a cohort-based principal development program with participants from elementary, middle, and high levels; 2) Consider providing resources or conversation with APC facilitators that develops an understanding of best practices for participant-centered learning, and especially active, authentic, and collaborative experiences; 3) Consider further collaboration with high school division leadership, or a sitting high school principal, to ensure that learning activities are adequately differentiated for the needs of high school administrators; 4) Consider a more authentic structure for developing participant capacity in the area of school budget and finance.

Study findings also informed three action communication products shared with school division stakeholders. They included: 1) a briefing memo for division leadership that provided a concise summation of the study, including methods, findings, and recommendations; 2) a slideshow intended for face-to-face presentation to APC stakeholders who are responsible for the iterative improvement of the experience and who require a more in-depth understanding of findings and recommendations; 3) a professional learning resource intended for distribution to APC learning experience facilitators, which is based on the leadership development research of Desimone and Garet (2015).

EDD (Doctor of Education)
Leadership Development, Principal Development, PSEL, School Leadership
Issued Date: