Principal Preparation Program Improvement: What Role Can Partnerships Play?

In 2016, The Wallace Foundation launched the University Principal Preparation Initiative (UPPI), which guided 7 university programs through an intense, collaborative, multi-year effort toward improvement. A key aspect of this initiative was its focus on establishing and sustaining deep partnerships in support of developing high-quality educational leaders. Those partnerships included programs themselves, school districts, state agencies, and mentor programs from universities that had already engaged in their own redesigns.

A recent report from RANDRedesigning University Principal Preparation Programs: A Systemic Approach for Change and Sustainability, showcases longitudinal lessons from UPPI. Here, we highlight the report’s findings on program partnerships, including the advantageous outcomes and implementation considerations of this challenging but rewarding work.

Key Stakeholders as Partners

District Partners: Each program partnered with at least three school district or consortium partners in their local area. Those partners had several important impacts on redesign and implementation. For instance, districts increased their involvement in identifying promising candidates for preparation programs and had a greater role in selecting applicants over time. Districts also helped tailor clinical experiences to candidates’ specific interests and needs.

State Agencies: Programs partnered with state-level groups such as state departments of education and credentialing bodies. State partners provided expertise, served on steering committees, and provided an overall supportive environment for partners to envision and implement their work.

Mentor Programs: Each program selected their own mentor program that had already been through a redesign process. Mentor programs usually resided in different geographical areas of the US, but their contributions were many. They provided crucial contributions such as serving on steering committees, consulting about redesign, and sharing strategies and resources that worked well during their own redesign efforts.

Strategies for Success

UPPI employed several pivotal strategies to help partners support each other and grow together. From the beginning of program redesign, partners collectively envisioned their goals for redesign and how those efforts might look in practice. RAND found that different partnerships within UPPI generally took similar approaches in that envisioning and design work. However, those partnerships took different paths to implementing their updated programs based on each location’s context and needs.

UPPI also contributed to the depth and longevity of partnerships. Participating programs experienced deeper collaboration among stakeholders than those who did not participate. For instance, districts that participated as UPPI partners had a greater role in both designing and implementing program designs. Over time, partnerships evolved to support the realities of day-to-day implementation in each setting, and UPPI programs took steps to institutionalize connections, setting the stage for greater sustainability.

Challenges and Strategies to Address Them

Although collaborative work can be fruitful, sustained coordination of that work is labor-, time-, and expertise-intensive. All UPPI programs noted that the time needed for redesign was an ongoing challenge, and partners with small staffs found limited time especially challenging. Even coordinating schedules for meetings and collaborative work time was difficult. Some partnerships used nights and weekends to solve scheduling issues, and some used grant money to fund buyouts of faculty time who were directly engaged in redesign work.

As with most education-related endeavors, turnover among every type of partner was a major factor in partnerships. Turnover was particularly challenging at the university program level. Partnerships attempted to mitigate these effects by cross-training participants for multiple tasks and layers of responsibility. They also leveraged thorough documentation of objectives, processes, timelines, and achievements.

At times, competing visions and priorities among partners was also a challenge. Partners navigated those issues by working to form strong relationships with solid communication. In some cases, preparation programs chose to partner with districts that they already had ties to. Programs that built new relationships noted that the process of building trust took time. Overall, programs found success in repeatedly, collectively revisiting program values and assessing how redesign efforts—including partnerships—were aligned with those values.

To learn more about UPPI, read the RAND report.