It’s going to become much harder to get a principal’s license in Illinois.

The Illinois State Board of Education is expected to vote in May on rule changes aimed at strengthening the quality of school leaders by raising entrance requirements for preparation programs, making training more rigorous and revamping the certification exam. (A state legislative committee will then approve the rule change to make it law.)

Perhaps most significantly, prospective principals will have to complete longer internships that give them on-the-ground experience working in schools that serve a diverse student body.

Illinois is one of a number of states that are taking similar action to improve training for school leaders, one of the criteria for winning federal Race to the Top funds. Education officials here have been exploring ways to toughen licensing standards for a number of years.

Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education, says the changes are overdue and are needed to prepare candidates for the challenges of improving schools.

“The job has become harder, but the pathway to it did not become more supportive,” Radner says. “Now it will be.”

ISBE worked with the Illinois Board of Higher Education and representatives from 50 public and private institutions, including the University of Illinois at Chicago, Concordia University, and Northern Illinois University, to shape the new standards. Board leaders have told university officials to be ready to implement changes to principal preparation as early as fall 2011. 

Under the new rule, applicants to preparation programs will be required to have four years of teaching experience, up from just two years currently. They will also have to prove their teaching expertise and leadership skills through interviews and portfolios.

Making the application process more competitive will shrink the glut of candidates certified each year. “We are now preparing far more Type 75 candidates than there are principal and assistant principal vacancies in the state,” says Steve Tozer, coordinator of the doctoral program in urban education leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “We need to focus our resources on fewer candidates [and] prepare them more intensively.”

Preparation programs will have to refocus curricula to put more emphasis on subjects such as pre-kindergarten instruction, special education and serving students who are English-language learners, says ISBE Assistant Superintendent Linda Tomlinson.

Once coursework is finished, aspiring principals will complete a full-time, month-long residency under an experienced principal.

That residency is part of a required year-long internship, during which aspiring principals must log at least 200 additional hours working in one or more schools that are culturally and economically diverse and enroll students from preschool through grade 12.

Interns work on tasks such as attending meetings to set up learning plans for special education students; helping principals to hire, supervise, and evaluate teachers at all levels; and working with parents, boards and local school councils.

Finally, the current Type 75 exam on educational theory will be scrapped in favor of a new exam protocol with open-ended questions that ask candidates how they would handle various scenarios. During their internships, candidates will also complete three new assessments that test prospective principals’ knowledge of teacher hiring and professional development strategies, school management and budgeting, and and the process of using data to create a school improvement plan. 

“There’s a strong consensus throughout the state that the [current] exam is not very demanding,” Tozer says. “We know of a number of cases of people who have passed the exam without taking the coursework.” 

Some university educators are worried that the sweeping changes will shrink the pool of candidates. They also point out the steep price tag, since programs will have to offer smaller class sizes and more instruction from full-time faculty.

“We need full-time faculty to help plan and link courses, to best hold the integrity and conceptual framework of the program over time,” according to state board spokeswoman Mary Fergus. “We say a third of the program can be offered by adjunct professors, in an attempt to provide a good mix.”

Because of the requirement that admissions become more selective and competitive, Concordia’s program—the largest in the state—could lose up to half of its students, says Thomas Jandris, dean of the College of Graduate and Innovative Programs at Concordia University.

About 180 adjunct professors, who work in schools and teach most of Concordia’s classes, will lose their jobs, Jandris says. The school would have to hire about 30 full-time professors to comply with the rule change. Faculty costs would quadruple while tuition funds would plummet, he adds.

“There is no research that supports the claim that administrators serving as adjunct faculty are a detriment to educating principal candidates,” Jandris says. “In fact, there is research to support the opposite. It is important to us that students learn from current practitioners.”

Jandris agrees that training should change with the times, but fears that the costs may make it impossible for some private and faith-based institutions to offer principal certificate programs.

Clarice Berry, head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, suggests that the new requirements be piloted first because research about how best to prepare principals is inconclusive.

“It’s ambitious, very expensive, and it’s an experiment, because nobody has the answer as to how to get the best principals,” she says.

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