As expectations of student achievement continue to rise, schools need effective leaders capable of moving all stakeholders forward, together.

Illinois’ adoption of a separate and more rigorous endorsement for principals provided a large step in this direction, said Professor Linda Lyman and Associate Professor Neil Sappington, who serve in Illinois State University’s Department of Educational Administration and Foundations (EAF). They were part of the team that redesigned Illinois State’s cohort-model graduate program leading to endorsement in the positions of principal, assistant principal, or similar roles.

“As it was previously conceived,” said Lyman, “the Type 75 program requirements for educating principals and assistant principals in Illinois were no longer adequate for 21st-century learning.”

Lyman and Sappington explained that the changes to the endorsement requirements are part of the state’s effort to improve school leadership preparation. However, they believe it is the introduction of a principal-specific endorsement, not the raising of requirements, that provided them with the greatest opportunity to enhance the department’s approach to principal preparation. The move eliminated the general administrative credential, thereby refining the career intentions of those who enroll in Illinois State’s program.

The first student cohort and faculty members of the Department of Educational Administration and Foundations' redesigned principal preparation program.

The first student cohort and faculty members of the Department of Educational Administration and Foundations’ redesigned principal preparation program. (Top row, left to right) Neil Sappington, Jennifer McCoy, Jamie Hartrich, Christine Paxson, Patricia Valente, Brad Hutchison (Bottom row, left to right) Linda Lyman, Matt Heid, Brian Swanson, John Bierbaum, and Stacie France.

“On average, only four candidates in our old 25-person cohorts were interested in becoming principals or assistant principals,” Sappington said. By comparison, all eight of the candidates admitted into the program’s first cohort in the fall 2013 aspire to be principals.”

The sense of purpose that is shared by candidates is also reflected in the program’s new features. This includes the addition of a mentorship that is established between each candidate and their school’s principal. These administrators support candidates’ learning and development every step of the way. They provide access to their day-to-day administrative operations and decision making, and entrust candidates to lead their school in projects directly related to the program’s course work.

“The principal is involved in each of their assignments, and candidates get an up close and personal look at what the role is all about,” Lyman said.

Securing the ongoing support of the school principals is integral to the program’s extensive field experiences, which are embedded throughout the first two years of course work. This work provides a dynamic relationship between practice and scholarship.

Each semester, the aspiring administrators engage their schools’ personnel in leadership initiatives. The principal’s role is to evaluate each project proposal, offer insight, and serve as a resource through its completion.

“Our assessment of candidates through field experiences is fairly revolutionary and somewhat akin to student teaching,” said Lyman. “Instead of waiting to introduce them to practicum in their third year in the program, candidates have in-school experiences almost immediately.”

Principal preparation program coordinator Brad Hutchison talks with a student about the challenges of educational leadership.

Principal preparation program coordinator Brad Hutchison talks with student Brian Swanson about the challenges of educational leadership.

Early in the program, Lyman assigns a field experience project called a “cultural change experiment.” Candidates identify an aspect of the school culture in their building that could be improved. After developing a plan, each candidate reviews the approach with the principal and carries it out. For example, one candidate may be engaged in work to foster more collaboration during faculty meetings, while another calls for increased teacher-parent communication to promote students’ personal accountability.

Emphasis is also placed on how finance relates to school improvement. Brad Hutchison, ’80, ’85  the program’s coordinator and a former superintendent of the Olympia Community Unit School District, requires candidates to work closely with their school’s business managers. The purpose of this relationship is to develop an intimate picture of the difficulties principals go through to secure funding and to prioritize budget items. At the semester’s end, candidates share their experiences.

“There was passion in their presentations because it was their school, and there often wasn’t money for things they knew needed to be done, including staff development,” Hutchison said. “They began to gain a deeper appreciation for the work a principal or assistant principal is faced with. They acknowledge that this work is not easy and that there is a lot of heavy lifting in leadership.”

Developing principals who serve as the instructional leader within schools is a top priority for the program’s course work and field experiences. Sappington, who has previously served in the roles of principal and superintendent, explained that managing a building used to be the most important aspect of being a principal. Now, administrators must be knowledgeable of effective instructional techniques and understand how to use data to improve student achievement.

“The emphasis is on closing the achievement gap and ensuring all students can learn,” he said. “This is absolutely necessary to prepare them for an informational-based society and economy as opposed to an industrial society.”

Sappington and Lyman challenge candidates to lead “learning enriched schools” that develop learners rather than “test factory schools.” The program extinguishes the outdated conception that schools are places where students come to learn and adults are simply there to supervise that learning. To understand what a culture of learning can look like, the aspiring administrators learn how to critically examine school improvement plans and professional development agendas. This includes evaluating the approach taken by their current institution, and seeking feedback on its effectiveness.

Associate Professor Neil Sappington talks with one of his students about initiating cultural change in schools.

Associate Professor Neil Sappington (right) talks with student Patricia Valente about initiating cultural change in schools.

“School improvement and professional development have to have a symbiotic relationship that is closely measured,” Sappington said. “The goal is to develop a learning enriched school environment that’s developing all learners.”

However, this work cannot be done in a vacuum. The creation of an effective school plan requires teamwork. The practice of cultivating the voices and expertise of faculty and school groups through distributed leadership is interwoven throughout the program.

“The whole concept of distributed leadership is that 20 minds are better than one,” Sappington said.

He explained that through distributed leadership, principals must facilitate a collaborative learning environment where all stakeholders recognize that they are necessary and valuable contributors to the work that will move a school forward.

“You can’t just mandate urgency for change,” Lyman said. “There has to be a process where everybody is involved in understanding why something needs to be different.”

This holistic program is dedicated to developing every aspect of leadership needed for the complex role of the school principal. Candidates even learn how to effectively communicate to their audiences through coaching on public speaking. As part of their development, candidates deliver a presentation to a community group pertaining to an emerging trend that will impact schools. The goal is to encourage the audience to action that will help mitigate negative outcomes.

“By speaking in ways that are invitational, candidates engage school staff, parents, or community leaders in dialogue that promotes collaboration,” Lyman said. “When they attempt to communicate the excitement about innovation, change, and learning, audiences must recognize their need to be a part of the process.”

Reflecting on the purpose of the redesign, Lyman points out that the intention is to ensure that the leaders the University prepares will serve the needs of all students in the 21st Century. The situation is not like it was 20 years ago. Today, the skills needed for college success are the same skills needed for success in the world of work.

“We’ve moved into the information age and beyond in many ways because of the leaps in knowledge in many fields,” she said. “Our schools cannot be organized as they were during the industrial era. Today’s kids need to be taught differently, and it is the principal’s obligation to help get schools there.”

The impact of these forward-thinking leaders will be felt in 2016, when the first cohort of the redesigned model will enter the field.