Principal Preparation and Development: Highly Regulated or Loosely Structured?

Bruce Barnett provides a helpful typology for examining school leadership development around the world. Professor Barnett also highlights the trends of governments requiring qualifications for school leaders and the importance of offering professional learning opportunities. Paula


Over the past 20 years, I have had the good fortune to visit and work with educators outside the United States, particularly in Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. During my international travels, I have worked with numerous school leaders, teachers, and members of professional associations and university faculty to deliver a variety of programs focusing on mentoring and coaching, reflective practice, and team development.

One of my most personally and professionally rewarding international experiences was collaborating with Gary O’Mahony and Ian Miller of the Australian Principals Centre to develop and deliver the SAGEMentoring Programme. This two-day leadership development program was sponsored by the Victorian Department of Education and various Regional Education Offices throughout the state of Victoria. We also worked with principals in Lutheran Schools in Queensland and South Australia. During the operation of the program from 2000-2007, we trained over 1000 principals to become mentors for new principals in their school systems (Barnett, 2001; Barnett, O’Mahony, & Miller, 2002).

This experience in Australia, coupled with my time in other countries, exposed me to approaches to school leadership development occurring in a variety of cultural contexts. On one hand, I came to appreciate that offering quality professional development programs for school administrators is definitely becoming a much higher priority, and many educational systems are providing resources to allow practicing administrators to participate in these programs.

On the other hand, I also realized not nearly the same level of attention is devoted to formally preparing aspiring principals in other countries as in the USA. The predominant school leadership preparation model in the USA requires aspiring principals to complete advanced-level coursework often leading to a master’s degree, pass a state-administered test, participate in an induction program provided by their employing school district, and complete a specified number of hours of professional development in order to maintain their license or certificate. Outside the USA, mandatory certification systems operated for short time periods in England and Scotland in the past decade; recently, Malaysia (Jones et al, 2015) and Indonesia (Sumintono et al, 2015) have implemented mandatory certification requirements. Nevertheless, most nations have no formal pre-qualification training requirements for educators seeking to become principals or required professional development once they start serving in the role.

Therefore, my curiosity about the variability of preparing and developing principals around the world has led me to ponder several questions:

  1. What practices and policies focus on preparing and developing school principals?
  2. What trends are evolving in the preparation and development of school principals?

Practices and Policies

My review of school leadership preparation requirements suggests there is a continuum of systems addressing school leadership and development:

  • Tightly regulated systems. Principal candidates must complete formal requirements from an authorized provider (e.g., university, local education authority). In Singapore, for example, potential leaders are identified early in their career, engage in a variety of leadership tasks, and complete interviews and assessment center tasks before determining their eligibility to engage in the principal accreditation system (Gurr & Drysdale, 2017).
  • Moderately regulated systems. Preservice school leadership programs are available and sponsored by government agencies; however, they are not mandatory to be eligible for principalship positions (e.g., Australia, New Zealand, Sweden). Induction programs are offered for new principals, some of which are required (e.g., Austria, Czech Republic) (Moller & Schratz, 2008).
  • Loosely regulated systems. Preparation programs or experiences for aspiring school leaders are sparse or non-existent. Professional development is offered for practicing principals, although offerings are infrequent, require long distance travel, and participants costs are not covered (e.g., Africa, Asia, Mexico, Central and South America) (Lumby, Crow, & Pashiardis, 2008).

There also is great variability in how educational systems determine if principal candidates are prepared to take on the role. In their review of the processes used for identifying and assessing the readiness of aspiring principals for the principalship in Australia and 11 other countries, Gurr and Drysdale (2017) discovered several trends. First, although most systems require principals to come from the teaching ranks, some systems require candidates to possess demonstrated leadership experience, have served as senior teachers, and/or have completed a specified qualification process. Second, most principalship candidates self-select for the position; some systems encourage mentoring, nominations, or recommendations from superiors. Very few nations tightly regulate eligibility for potential principal candidates (e.g., Singapore), some countries require candidates to complete an approved certification program to be eligible for principal vacancies (USA, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Scotland beginning in 2019), while many others have few restrictions on who can apply for principalships. Finally, some systems, especially those that require certification, assess candidates’ qualifications based on pre-determined national or local professional standards, and more countries are establishing standards and competencies for principals (e.g., Hong Kong, Russia, New Zealand).

International Trends

Because of the important role principals play in improving the learning conditions for students (see Paula Cordeiro’s March 8, 2018 post, “Girls’ Education Goes Beyond Getting Girls into School” and Tony Townsend’s March 14, 2018 blog, “Leading Literacy Learning: Sharing Leadership at its Best” for good examples), more attention is being devoted to preparing and developing principals. Despite the fact that many countries have a loosely regulated system for identifying, preparing, and developing school leaders, there is growing evidence that these conditions are changing. For instance, Huber’s (2008) analysis of leadership development patterns in 15 countries across Europe, Asia, Australasia, and North America revealed that: (a) preparatory qualification programs are being offered more frequently, (b) more training programs are being developed to explore the challenges and realities of the principalship and its responsibilities, (c) leadership development is shifting from administrative and legal issues to communication, cooperation, leadership, change, and continuous improvement, and (d) workplace learning experiences are increasing (e.g., mentoring, internships), rather than relying only on course-based learning.

While these international trends are neither universal nor have been adopted in many nations, they do suggest an increasing realization of the need to provide professional support for educators who aspire to and become school principals.

Even tightly regulated systems, like in the USA, changes in the preparation and development of school leaders are occurring. For example, research has identified the important features of effective principal preparation (Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012; Orr & Orphanos, 2011). However, many programs do not implement these features because of high costs and lack of resources, and most state policy makers have not created legislative policies supported by these research findings (Anderson & Reynolds, 2015).

In addition, an increasing number of principal preparation providers besides universities have surfaced, such as non-profit organizations, school districts, and charter schools (Tozer, Zavitkovsky, Whalen, & Martinez, 2015) as well as a host of on-line programs. This situation has created far more certified administrators than positions exist. Consider these statistics from two states:

  • In Illinois, there are just under 3000 practicing principals, slightly more than 400 new principals are hired each year, with over 44,000 certified candidates (Haller & Hunt, 2016)
  • In Texas, where over 8000 principals are employed, there are about 800 vacancies per year, and preparation programs produce over 2500 certified master’s degree candidates annually (Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 2018).

In order to regulate the number of university preparation programs and utilize state resources more efficiently, a number of states, including Ohio, North Carolina, and Illinois, required universities programs to reapply for program approval, resulting in a reduced number of approved providers.

What does the future hold for school leadership preparation and development? Clearly, there is growing interest by policymakers and professional associations around the world to raise the quality of principal preparation and development. Although pre-qualification requirements for the principalship may never reach the same level as for teacher certification, my sense is that there is growing momentum to ensure principal candidates are better prepared for the role and supported once they take on the job. I am heartened by the growing recognition that aspiring and practicing principals deserve the professional support, guidance, and resources needed to improve their capacity to influence school improvement and learning.

I welcome your comments and suggestions regarding how educational systems and providers around the world are addressing leadership preparation and development.

Meet Dr. Barnett

Anderson, E., & Reynolds, A. (2015). A policymaker’s guide: Research-based policy for principal preparation program approval and licensure. Charlottesville, VA: University Council for Educational Administration.
Barnett, B. (2001). Mentoring for practising and aspiring school leaders: The “SAGE” model. Australian Principals Centre Monograph, No. 4. Hawthorne, Victoria: APC.
Barnett, B., O’Mahony, G., & Miller, I. (2002). The promise of mentoring. Prime Focus, 29, 23-26.
Davis, S., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2012). Innovative principal preparation programs: What works and how we know. Planning and Changing, 43(1/2), 25-45.
Gurr, D., & Drysdale, L. (2017). Aspiring principals capstone assessment processes. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Graduate School of Education.
Haller, A., & Hunt, E. (2016). Statewide data on supply and demand of principals after policy changes to principal preparation in Illinois. Normal IL: Center for the Study of Education Policy, Illinois State University.
Huber, S. G. (2008). School development and school leader development: New learning opportunities for school leaders and their schools. In J. Lumby, G. Crow, & P. Pashiardis (Eds.), International handbook on the preparation and development of school leaders (pp. 163-175). New York: Routledge.

Jones, M., Adams, D., Joo, M. T. H., Muniandy, V., Perera, C. J., & Harris, A. (2015). Contemporary challenges and changes: Principals’ leadership practices in Malaysia. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 35(3), 353-365.

Lumby, J., Crow, G., & Pashiardis, P. (2008) (Eds.). International handbook on the preparation and development of school leaders. New York: Routledge.
Moller, J., & Schratz, M. (2008). Leadership development in Europe. In J. Lumby, G. Crow, & P. Pashiardis (Eds.), International handbook on the preparation and development of school leaders (pp. 341-366). New York: Routledge.
Orr, M. T., & Orphanos, S. (2011). Graduate level preparation influences the effectiveness of school leaders: A comparison of the outcomes of exemplary and conventional leadership preparation programs for principals. Educational Administration Quarterly, 47(1), 18-70.
Sumintono, B., Sheyoputri, E. Y. A., Jiang, N., Misbach, I. H., & Jumintono (2015). Becoming a principal in Indonesia: Possibility, pitfalls and potential, Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 35(3), 342-352.
Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (2018). Retrieved from:
Tozer, S., Zavitkosky, P., Whalen, S., & Martinez, P. (2015). Change agency in our own backyards: Meeting the challenges of next-generation program in school leadership preparation. In M. Khalifa, N. W. Arnold, A. F. Osanloo, & C. M. Grant (Eds.), Handbook of urban educational leadership (pp. 480-495). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.



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