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Principal academy professional learning model — November 2020


What does the research say about the effectiveness of the principal academy professional learning model? What aspects of principal academies work well, what works less well? Does effectiveness vary by principal experience level (i.e., aspiring, new, experienced, etc.)?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and resources on the effectiveness of principal academy professional learning models. The sources we searched included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Access to the full articles is free unless indicated otherwise.

Research References

American Institutes for Research. (2020). Designing leadership academies for principal professional learning. Author. Full text available from

From the abstract: “A leadership academy is a formal professional learning opportunity for current school leaders, focused on augmenting knowledge and skills, increasing specialization, and refreshing leadership practices. States interested in supporting leadership academies through federal or other funding sources can look to current models of leadership academies to inform design and implementation decisions. This resource shares insights from a review of 10 current state and regional leadership academies, including trends in their design. The purpose of this resource is to help states better understand how to design and implement state leadership academies to support school improvement. This resource includes three main sections: (1) Review of the Evidence Around Leadership Academies; (2) Trends in Leadership Academy Design and Content; and (3) Considerations for Implementing and Sustaining Leadership Academies.”

Baker, J. A., & Bloom, G. S. (2017). Growing support for principals: Principal supervisors collaborate and problem solve in learning communities. Learning Professional, 38(2), 61–65. Abstract available from

From the abstract: “Many principal supervisors in the United States work in relative isolation and experience no professional development designed to support them. Over the past four years, the role of principal supervisor in Long Beach Unified School District in California has shifted from compliance and at-a-distance supervision practices to a deeply rooted coaching orientation, support for addressing student achievement issues, and a focus on quality instruction in every classroom. To ensure that every principal receives support from a skilled principal supervisor equipped to coach effectively and provide targeted support, the district created a professional learning community (PLC) for principal supervisors. At the heart of the principal supervisor PLC is the district’s lab day. Lab day gives principal supervisors the chance to practice blended coaching and their supervisory decision making in an authentic and active environment, using peer and expert feedback throughout the session. In addition to a focus on blended coaching, lab day gives principal supervisors time to collaborate and problem solve with other principal supervisors about their work with individual principals. Through case study analysis, principal supervisors share their successes and offer ideas to one another, often resulting in significant rethinking of their work with their supervisees. Long Beach has experimented with variations in the lab day model and shared the model with the 14 districts participating in The Wallace Foundation’s Principal Supervisor Initiative, resulting in experimentation by 13 other school districts as part of the national Principal Supervisor Initiative professional learning community. This article provides an itinerary of Long Beach United School District’s Principal Supervisor Lab Day. Based on the district’s experience with the Principal Supervisor Lab Day, the authors offer suggestions for characteristics that should be present across all configurations of the lab day. Lab days and the principal supervisor community of practice are clearly having a positive impact on the culture among principal supervisors and in the relationship between principals and principal supervisors. Recent data show that, even as expectations for principal performance are rising through clearer and more consistent implementation of the principal evaluation rubric, principal performance is improving.”

Boren, D. M., Hallam, P. R., Ray, N. C., Gill, C. L., & Li, K. (2017). Examining effective principal professional development through a university-district sponsored principals academy. Educational Practice and Theory, 39(2), 87–106. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “Principal leadership is second only to teacher quality among the most important school-related factors influencing student achievement. As leadership for learning in schools becomes increasingly complex and challenging, principals at every career stage will need better preparation, support, and training. One effective approach to continuous principal improvement is for districts to partner with universities in bringing principals together for professional development in ‘institutes’ or ‘academies.’ Employing a basic mixed methods approach, we examined the effectiveness of one long-standing principal institute, the Brigham Young University Principals Academy, a closely coordinated effort between five partnership school districts and the university to support principals. Our analysis revealed four dominant themes that may guide districts and universities as they seek to improve their coordinated efforts to support principals throughout their careers.”

Fusarelli, B. C., Fusarelli, L. D., & Drake, T. A. (2019). NC State’s principal leadership academies: Context, challenges, and promising practices. Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 14(1), 11–30. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “Developing effective educational leaders is fundamentally and irrevocably an interpersonal, relational process—one that requires face-to-face contact, deep thought, deliberation, reflection, engagement, and interaction. It requires cultivation of the habits of heart, mind, and soul. For nearly a decade, the faculty at North Carolina State University (NCSU) have focused on dramatically improving principal preparation. This article explores the initial design of the program, its key features and how they have evolved, processes established for continuous improvement, major challenges faced and approaches to addressing these challenges, and recent program initiatives.”

Gurley, D. K., Anast-May, L., & Lee, H. T. (2015). Developing instructional leaders through Assistant Principals’ Academy: A partnership for success. Education and Urban Society, 47(2), 207–241. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “This article describes findings from a single-case qualitative study of a unique 2-year professional development academy for practicing assistant principals designed and implemented in partnership between school district personnel and university educational leadership faculty members. The study was conducted based on the theoretical framework of instructional leadership developed by Murphy. Academy participants reported an increase in instructional leadership skills, the development of an institutional perspective, key collaborative and networking skills, and growth in confidence in their ability to conceptualize the role and to act as successful principals. District leaders indicated that program goals to develop a cadre of assistant principals who are ready to assume instructional and managerial leadership roles as principals had been met.”

Hallam, P. R., & Boren, D. M. (2019). Examining a university-multiple district sponsored academy from the perspective of principal supervisors. AASA Journal of Scholarship & Practice, 16(1), 4–19. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Many universities partner with school districts in providing professional development for school leaders through a principal’s academy. Since 2002, Brigham Young University and five local districts, representing approximately one-third of all of the students in the state of Utah, have sponsored the BYU Principals Academy to meet the professional development needs throughout the five-district area. While previous research has focused on understanding the experiences and perceptions of academy participants, this qualitative study explored the views of participants’ district supervisors, collected during a focus group experience. Participants were asked how the academy had impacted the district, how it could better meet districts’ needs, how the university and districts could more effectively partner, and how its effectiveness could be accurately evaluated. Findings indicated the need for more intentional partnering between the university and districts: with recommendations to sharpen and clarify the program focus, co-create desired learning outcomes, and strengthen university-district communication”

Hindman, J., Rozzelle, J., Ball, R., & Fahey, J. (2015). Visible leading: Principal academy connects and empowers principals. Journal of Staff Development, 36(4), 18–22. Abstract available from

From the abstract: “The School-University Research Network (SURN) Principal Academy at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, has a mission to build a leadership development program that increases principals’ instructional knowledge and develops mentor principals to sustain the program. The academy is designed to connect and empower principals to improve their instructional leadership and relationship building skills. Such professional learning results in high impact teaching and student learning by: (1) Developing knowledge of effective teaching and learning strategies; (2) Increasing formative feedback that supports teacher reflection and distributive leadership in professional learning communities; (3) Providing multi-year cohort support for participating principals; (4) Recruiting a cadre of expert, veteran principals to mentor early-career principals; and (5) Disseminating project findings through digital/electronic media and division, regional, state, and international conferences. This article describes the two-year program which consists of professional learning days, intersession activities, coaching, and mentors using John Hattie’s Visible Learning (2009) as one of the research foundations and leadership techniques. Four leadership actions that drive the SURN Principal Academy are: (1) Build relationships and a community of practice; (2) Observe for and talk more about learning than teaching; (3) Provide targeted feedback; and (4) Empower stakeholders to assess impact. John Fahey provides a Superintendent’s perspective after three principals in his school district participated in the SURN Academy; and Rachel Ball offers a principal’s outlook on her own participation in the academy. An observation tool to record occurrences of high- and low-yield practices is also included.”

Howley, A., Chadwick, K., & Howley, C. (2002). Networking for the nuts and bolts: The ironies of professional development for rural principals. Research in Rural Education, 17(3), 171–187. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Mentorship programs are a promising approach to the professional development needs of new principals. The Southeastern Regional Principals’ Academy provides professional development and collegial support for early-career principals in the primarily rural schools of southeast Ohio. For its 1999–2001 pilot program, 19 principals were organized into study groups at 4 sites. At each site, an experienced principal served as mentor to a group of entry-level administrators, each of whom also selected a coach for day-to-day assistance. Groups had considerable latitude in selecting issues to explore, but all groups addressed the data collection and analysis needed to complete a state-mandated portfolio. Findings from participant surveys and focus group interviews suggest that early-career principals in rural Appalachian Ohio valued professional development options made available to them, particularly when activities focused on practical administrative issues and involved interaction with mentors and peers. The Academy seems to have reduced rural principals’ isolation through the establishment of networks with experienced mentor principals, peers from nearby districts, and a statewide group of colleagues. Participants valued the support of mentors, the structure of study group meetings, and study group discussions of practical problems. However, participants saw little value in the portfolio activities, thought it inappropriate to expect beginning principals to sponsor data-driven school reform, and did not see a need for an explicit rural focus for their professional development.”

REL West note: Although this article was published in 2002, we include it here because of its relevance to the request.

Marcos, T., Witmer, M., Foland, R., Vouga, R., & Wise, D. (2011). The principal’s academy: A collaborative California university initiative on congruence of principal training to urban school leadership practice. Journal of Urban Learning, Teaching, and Research, 7, 86–96. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Purposively selected urban California superintendents and assistant superintendents participated in surveys and interviews which examined their views about the impact California university Tier I school leadership preparation programs have on overall preparedness for the position, effectiveness of job performance, longevity, transference of skills gained to professional staff development within the school site, and student achievement within their districts. Superintendents reported that Tier I candidates are academically well prepared for overall school leadership and candidates emerge with strong instructional leadership and management skills. It was recommended by superintendents that The Principal’s Academy teach aspiring administrators to be courageous, relational, and know self, to optimally meet the demands of urban school administration. Superintendents recommended field experience enhancement through collaboratively designed internships with real data and prescribed site-based experiences.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used:

[(Principal OR “principals academy” OR “instructional leadership” OR “administrator education”) AND (program OR model) AND (evaluation OR effectiveness OR success)]

[(Principal OR “principals academy” OR “instructional leadership” OR “administrator education”) AND (“experienced principal” OR “novice principal”) AND (evaluation OR effectiveness OR success)]

Databases and Resources

We searched Google Scholar and ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.