Developing Effective Principals Using Simulations

August 3, 2022

By Nick Kovalcik & Danielle Miller

A significant new research report from the Learning Policy Institute and The Wallace Foundation emphasizes the significance of federal, state, and district policies that foster the availability and quality of principal preparation and professional development programs as state leaders continue to consider the best use of federal funding to improve education in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the research, a school principal’s preparation and professional development affect their leadership effectiveness and are linked to good outcomes for teachers and students.

LPI’s study, Developing Effective Principals: What Kind of Learning Matters? Synthesizes peer-reviewed research on principal development and training programs from 2000 to 2021. In order to comprehend the extent to which principals have access to high-quality learning opportunities and the role that policies play in enhancing access, it also looks at survey results and statewide policies. The authors Linda Darling-Hammond, Marjorie E. Wechsler, Stephanie Levin, Melanie Leung-Gagné, and Steve Tozer. The study was an update of one conducted by Darling-Hammond in 2007 titled Preparing School Leaders for a Changing World.

Principal researcher for the study and president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, Linda Darling-Hammond, remarked, “It is a challenging moment to be a principal.” “However, principals who obtain top-notch training feel more prepared to handle the responsibilities in the real world and frequently work long hours. Additionally, they are better equipped to accommodate the demands of different students. This study demonstrates that investing in high-quality principal development benefits teachers and students in the schools they serve and principals themselves.

Peer-reviewed studies from 2000 to 2021 that addressed the characteristics of principal preparation and development programs and their connection to successful outcomes for principals, teachers, and students, or the lack thereof, were examined and synthesized by the writers for this study. The authors also examined survey data from national samples of principals affiliated with the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, as well as two statewide samples from California and North Carolina, to determine the extent to which principals have access to high-quality learning opportunities.

Among the main conclusions:

  • High-quality principal preparation and development programs can raise students’ academic progress, teacher retention and satisfaction, and principals’ emotions of preparedness.
  • High-quality principle learning initiatives share the following components: 
    • Strict recruitment 
    • Specific district-university collaborations 
    • Cohort organization 
    • A concentration on key concepts including managing change, directing instruction, developing people, creating a supportive school environment, and addressing the needs of various learners
  • It is also essential for the effectiveness of pre-service and in-service learning opportunities to give principals the chance to put what they learn into practice through work-based internships, applied learning, mentorship, or coaching.
  • The capacity of principals to serve the needs of learners from varied backgrounds may be enhanced by a particular emphasis on equity-oriented leadership. For principals to better understand how prejudices related to race, class, language, disability, and other variables exist in society and schools and how to strive toward more equitable opportunities and outcomes, applied learning opportunities and reflective projects are incredibly crucial.
  • As a result of variances in state policies, principals’ access to high-quality learning opportunities differs among states and by the level of school poverty.
  • High-quality principal learning programs can benefit from supportive policies. Evidence suggests that the standard of principal learning has increased in states and districts that have revised standards and used them to guide preparation, clinically rich learning opportunities, and evaluation.

Courtney Wall, Director of Principal Pipeline Initiatives at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, discusses how her school uses simulations in their Principal Pipeline Program.

Effective principals can influence how well students perform across their schools. According to Jody Spiro, director of education leadership at The Wallace Foundation, they must be adequately prepared and supported because they play such a significant role. “This research increases our awareness of the common components of high-quality principal learning opportunities and highlights the crucial role universities, districts, and states can play in collaboratively creating these programs and increasing their accessibility.”

The researchers discovered that during the previous ten years, there had been significantly enhanced access to high-quality learning, demonstrating a greater understanding of the crucial function of the principle. Although most principals in the country (77%) said, they had some internship, only 46% of those who had one said it had effectively prepared them for their first year in the job. According to LPI, only approximately half of principals who had internships had assumed leadership, facilitation, and decision-making roles characteristic of educational leaders. Additionally, a small percentage of in-service principals reported having access to coaching or mentoring, two crucial techniques for enhancing principal performance.

A measure of school poverty that also frequently reflects a school’s racial demography, school poverty impacted how many high-quality learning opportunities were available to principals in different states. Compared to principals in high-poverty schools, principals in low-poverty schools were significantly more likely to say they had access to crucial content and powerful teaching strategies. Most principals nationwide said they wanted further professional development in almost every area but encountered barriers, including a lack of time and money.

The following is essential advice for practitioners and policymakers: 

  • Create and implement guidelines for state licensing and program approval that will assist the development of excellent principals. 
  • Invest in a statewide infrastructure for principal professional learning to guarantee that principals have access to organized, excellent, and ongoing professional learning. State investments may be combined with federal funding from Every Student Succeeds Act Titles I and II (including the 3% state set aside for leadership development initiatives) and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. 
  • Encourage more focus on equity issues, particularly principal training and access to high-quality professional development in impoverished schools and districts.
  • Significant policy reforms should be implemented at the state and local levels to create extensive, coordinated pipelines of qualified school principals and an effective development system.

An entire school year’s worth of leadership issues is simulated in the simulations by presenting various scenarios. To construct a profile of the strengths and requirements of the learner, these scenarios call for decisions that are subsequently paired with consequences and assessed in the background. The immersive and interactive simulation stimulates more effective learning than is achievable with either earlier paper-and-pencil or discussion-based procedures because the content is pertinent and because of the particular choice-consequence sequences. The scenarios are integrated into a web-enabled framework that enables the delivery of personalized feedback catered to the precise decisions made by the learner and the collecting of various metrics related to both the learner’s performance and the learning framework itself. The use of simulations in hybrid (face-to-face instruction combined with digital teaching and learning) and individual anywhere, anytime learning is the way of the future in education.

Khairallah, Natalie. “High-Quality Principal Learning Programs Associated with Improved Outcomes – Ed Prep Matters: AACTE Blog.” Ed Prep Matters | AACTE Blog, 8 July 2022,

“Developing Effective Principals: What Kind of Learning Matters?” Wallace Foundation,