In his weekly message, Illinois Superintendent Christopher Koch last week announced an award to the State of Illinois by the Education Commission of the States (ECS) for outstanding work in principal preparation policy.  Accepting the award for the state were Superintendent Koch, Illinois Board of Higher Education Executive Director James Applegate, and Illinois State University’s Erika Hunt.

ECS is but the latest example of national attention to Illinois policy work in principal preparation.  As Superintendent Koch points out in his message, the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the Council of Chief State School officers are among those who have recognized Illinois for this important work. And it doesn’t stop there. Professional and policy organizations such as the University Council for Education Administration, the Council of the Great City Schools, and the Bush Institute’s Alliance to Reform Education Leadership have all recognized Illinois for exemplary partnerships between school districts and school leader preparation programs.  In addition, stories in Education Week and on PBS, and professional publications such as District Administration, have brought further attention to Illinois. Meanwhile, a growing list of states, including Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Vermont have invited Illinois representatives to work with them on their own leadership development initiatives.

The intensified focus on Illinois results in part from a changing national climate for principal preparation. As expectations for PreK-12 student learning have increased over the past decade, so have expectations of principals as instructional leaders. And as expectations for principals have risen, so have expectations for school leader preparation programs. After a series of national critiques of school leader preparation in the first decade of the century, we have seen increased action at the local, state and national levels to improve school leader preparation and development.  In short, the discourse on school leader preparation has moved from the language of critique to a language of possibility and, now, to a language of demonstration.  Illinois is one of those states to demonstrate that we can do better.

What about Illinois has attracted attention from researchers, policy groups and state agencies around the nation? Innovative programs in Chicago and in downstate Illinois are part of the reason but, in addition,  the 2010 passage of  Public Act 096-0903 has drawn particular notice. Taking full effect this year, the law has several key features that make Illinois stand out:

  • First and foremost is a change of the general administrative certificate to a PreK-12 principal endorsement focused specifically on preparing principals as instructional leaders for preschool through high school settings, rather than on administrators for a wide range of positions from dean to athletic director.
  • Second, this new PreK-12 endorsement requires genuine working partnerships between principal preparation programs and the school districts that are most directly affected by the principals that preparation programs produce.
  • Third, preparation programs have to produce evidence of selectivity in admission of candidates to their programs,  which is a sharp departure from prevailing practice.
  • Fourth is a new emphasis on the quality and depth of school-based school leader preparation so that principals can learn to lead by leading.  Because practice by itself does not make perfect, the new law requires extensive assessment of principal candidates in their field-based experiences.
  • Finally, and for some observers most important of all, the new law holds programs accountable for collecting data on their results. Program/district partnerships are expected to work collaboratively to demonstrate and improve program effectiveness.

While these are promising developments for Illinois, the results are not yet in:  we don’t yet know that the new leadership preparation policies and partnerships in the state will necessarily lead to improvements in student learning.  To the contrary, we know from organizational change theory that systems are by their nature resistant to change and will revert to pre-change ways of doing things if the changes are not nurtured, evaluated, and re-shaped to meet conditions on the ground.  Recognizing that change needs to be nurtured over time, Wallace Foundation is now funding a new Illinois School Leadership Advisory Council (ISLAC), developed by the Illinois State Board of Education, the Board of Higher Education, Advance Illinois, and Illinois State University, with broad representation from educators throughout the state.   ISLAC is expected to provide an ongoing forum for continuous improvement of Illinois school leader policy and practice, with the success of PreK-12 students in Illinois schools as its central goal.  I have the great privilege of co-chairing this group with Dr. Diane Rutledge, Chair of the Illinois Large Unit District Association and former Superintendent of Springfield, Illinois Public Schools. Illinois is not resting on its laurels, and we are looking forward to the work ahead.