A case study of the impact of a university-based preparation program on the thinking and reported practices of pre K–12 principals
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To become a school administrator in New York State one had to graduate with a minimum of 33 hours of graduate coursework from a state approved administrative preparation program. The specific requirements within the coursework were left in large part to the discretion of the university. New York State was not alone in its certification process. Moreover, since the passage of the No Child Left Behind legislation in 2002, student achievement as measured in state assessment data increased the accountability of all educators, including school principals. At the same time, critics of administrative preparation claimed that there was a shortage of applicants for administrative positions and that those who did apply lacked the qualities that were needed to successfully run schools. With these issues in mind, the first purpose of this case study was to examine whether or not what was studied in a university-based administrative preparation program reportedly impacted the professional thinking and practices of preK-12 principals who graduated from two consecutive cohorts from a university-based preparation program (in this case the University at Buffalo's Leadership Initiative For Tomorrow's Leaders [LIFTS] program). Connected with this first research focus was a second purpose of examining whether or not there were other experiences and/or learning opportunities that impacted the thinking and reported practices of the principals who graduated from this particular program. To explore these questions, each of six principals were interviewed twice using a semi-structured interview protocol. Additionally, documents from the program were analyzed to determine (a) the intentions of the program and (b) if those intentions were aligned with the data collected during the interviews. Eight overarching themes emerged from the data. These included five themes related to the learning connected to the formal, university-based preparation program, i.e., learning: (1) connected to the curriculum, (2) as a cohort, (3) from the professors and practitioner-professors, (4) affiliated with the internship, and (5) how to negotiate contextual realities on-the-job. The final three themes were connected to learning for other experiences outside of the formal, university-based leadership preparation program, i.e., learning: (6) via resources in the field (a-people, b-texts, c-organizations), (7) through teacher leadership, and (8) from non-exemplary administrators. Evidence emerged which suggested that even though students were exposed to nearly identical preparation methods and experiences, how the information was thought about and reportedly practiced was located in areas outside of the control of the program, itself, such as the context of the working environment of the leader, the predisposition of the leader, etc. This confirmed the literature which argued that learning was contextual and that leaders were born leaders. On the other hand, there was a wealth of data that emerged which suggested that there were specific and universal preparation experiences that were considered and reportedly employed by all, or the majority of, the principals. This data, in fact, confirmed that leaders, in addition to being born, can also be made. As a final point, this research study found evidence of the value of preparing school leaders in a strategically designed, collaborative program that differed from the more traditional model most often cited in the literature for its lack of true preparation and relevance to the actual work of school leaders. One of the strongest influences of the formal preparation on thinking and practice was the fulltime internship, of which five of the six participants completed. This experience acted as a natural and seamless link between preparation and practice and was universally touted as highly influential. Moreover, since there were experiences that occurred outside of their formal preparation that impacted their work, the data analyzed for this study found that teachers who were thinking about a future in administration, administrators who were targeting teachers for leadership, and/or universities who were seeking educators who show leadership potential could actively create opportunities to increase a teacher's exposure to leadership by offering teachers informal leadership positions and exposing teachers to formal administrators.