We are facing an impending crisis in the nation’s principal pipeline, and the way we license principals is making it worse. This is especially true if a would-be principal is enrolled in a distance education program offered by a college or university outside their state. It is difficult for aspiring school administrators to know in advance if their home state will accept the program they are considering or the license they have earned.
We could not be experiencing this problem at a worse time. Principals, like teachers, are struggling and accelerating their plans to leave their roles in the wake of the pandemic. This is on top of the pre-pandemic trend in which 50 percent of school leaders were leaving in their third year. Schools in communities experiencing high poverty suffer the most.
With only 40 to 50 percent of assistant principals becoming principals, the nation needs more educators willing to become administrators. To help fill these gaps, we need to streamline school principal licensure across state lines.
This issue seems to be particularly acute for Black and Hispanic educators, who are underrepresented in principalship and systemically delayed in being promoted. In a survey of Black and Hispanic teachers, 52 percent suggested allowing licensure across state lines as a key tactic to diversify the profession (there is limited data on principals’ attitudes on this issue).
Expanding the school administrator pipeline is critical. Research shows that when a school has a Black leader, students do better and more Black teachers get hired and stay on the job.
As a consultant and educator licensure professional, I have seen firsthand how complicated it can be for aspiring leaders trained in one state to become licensed in another. I recall an interaction with an education student who had been offered a pathway to a school leadership position. She was excited by the offer, but wanted to ensure that she would be able to become licensed in that state before committing. Despite documenting how her program of study matched the requirements listed on the state’s website, she could not get confirmation from the state’s licensing board that her program would meet the state’s requirements. This experience left her agonizing between completing her current program or starting another program approved by the state offering the leadership pathway.
Licensure across state lines is complicated not only for principal candidates but also for licensing boards and principal preparation program providers. Boards and providers know that the requirements a candidate needs to meet to become licensed in their home state can change before the student ends the program. This makes them reluctant to confirm for candidates in advance whether an out-of-state program meets their state’s standards for licensure.
We must change our approach to credentialing school leaders trained or licensed outside of the state in which they hope to work.
I recall one year in which, over a six-month period, requirements in seven states where many of our students were located changed, requiring us to reevaluate whether a path to licensure still existed for our students in those states.
The current system does not serve aspiring principals, administrator preparation programs or state licensing boards well. We must change our approach to credentialing school leaders trained or licensed outside of the state in which they reside.
One critical step that we can take is to create a more straightforward pathway for licenses earned in one state to transfer to another. Here, we can take a cue from policies developed for teachers. The recently launched Interstate Teacher Mobility Compact creates reciprocity between participating states and reduces barriers to employment. We need a similar agreement for principals. Policymakers should act now to develop a compact for principal licensure, leveraging the Interstate Teacher Mobility Compact as a guide.
Additionally, licensing boards and principal preparation program providers must take action to ensure that students know when they enroll if a program meets their home state’s requirements. Minimally, providers must allocate more internal or consulting capacity to review changing licensure requirements in other states. Often, program providers only employ one staff person to oversee licensure-related work for multiple educator preparation programs. When standards change, it is incredibly difficult for staff to keep pace. States should have clear language (as in Tennessee and Rhode Island) describing the requirements that in-state and out-of-state program completers must meet to be licensed.
A small number of states, like South Carolina, go even further. They allow education students, before enrolling in an out-of-state program, to request a review of the program to clarify whether it is expected to meet South Carolina’s requirements. Initiatives like this should be expanded and, potentially, opened to preparation program providers.
This is not an argument that we should have lower standards for licensure. It is a plea that we remove barriers to candidates who have enrolled in, or received a principal license from, a quality administrator preparation program outside of the state in which they hope to work.
Having an effective school leader is one of the highest-leverage investments we can make in a K-12 school. Failure to take proactive steps to widen the principal pipeline will significantly affect the supply of school administrators in this country. Policymakers, licensing boards and principal preparation program providers must act now to ensure an ample and equitable workforce of school leaders prepared to serve this nation’s schools.
Leopold Richardson is the principal consultant at Asher Ambrose, a strategic leadership and education consultancy, and former senior regulatory affairs, accreditation and certification professional.
This story about school principal licensure was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.