‘Does anybody know where I can find a good school principal?’

11/19/2010  |  STEVEN R. STAPLES

Master’s Cohort Model

The question was asked in a group of Hampton Roads area school superintendents and brought only sighs of frustration and negative nods. The problem was one shared by many local school superintendents; a shrinking number of high quality candidates for critical school leadership posts. And it’s not just a problem in Hampton Roads, VA. In fact, a recent study sponsored by the Northeast Regional Elementary School Principals’ Council, found that 36 percent of principals in nine northeastern states plan to retire within the next five years So the problem isn’t likely to disappear in the short term future.

The question led to a discussion of the growing shortage of high quality people interested and willing to accept the challenging task of leading education at the building level. It’s a thankless job that brings pressure to meet accountability demands, high expectations from parents and the community, a changing student body demographic that requires instructional adjustments, and exhausted or stressed staff members looking for assistance and support.

It’s little wonder that there is a shortage of people anxious to accept such a demanding job! Many of the superintendents in the group, like their counterparts in the northeastern study, could already forecast multiple administrative openings in their school divisions as a core group of current school leaders prepared for retirement over the next few years. After several minutes of maddening discussion, the group decided to stop complaining and seek solutions.

The Idea

Discussion in the group eventually led to considerations to “grow your own” school leaders from within each school division. Superintendents felt that they had many excellent potential school leaders already employed, but they were simply inexperienced, or unprepared for the new roles. William and Mary faculty members in the group suggested a means to prepare these future leaders for the school-based openings just ahead on the horizon.

They outlined a proposal to provide graduate classes in a user-friendly environment tailored to prepare current teachers for positions of building level leadership. Required courses would be provided in a compacted timeframe for graduate study that met all state requirements for administrative licensure while allowing participants to maintain their current teaching posts. The goal was to establish a ready pipeline of quality candidates for upcoming administrative vacancies. Thus began the Master’s Cohort Program at William and Mary.

Program Description

The Cohort Program provides Virginia administrative licensure and a Master’s Degree to part-time students in only two years. It is a 36-hour graduate level program that culminates with a supervised internship experience in an authentic K-12 setting. Students take two courses each semester and summer. Courses meet in “back-to-back” formats on a single weekday to minimize trips to the campus. Weekend class sessions are also used to reduce the number of weeknight class meetings that might interfere with school-related activities and programs. The courses are taught by regular or clinical William and Mary faculty and provide the same curriculum and quality found in any William and Mary program. The Cohort moves through a pre-determined order of courses during their two years of study. They are registered as a group and take classes together throughout the program. In most cases, only cohort members are assigned to each class.

Student Selection

Potential students for the Cohort are identified by each local superintendent through their own internal selection process. This allows superintendents to encourage promising young potential leaders already on staff and teaching in their schools, to consider seeking administrative licensure. Many of the candidates that eventually enroll in the program say they had not thought about possible administrative careers but the gentle nudge of encouragement from the big boss motivated them to explore the possibility. Before submitting an application for admission, selected participants from each division attend an information session (on released time provided by the division) to view an outline of the program and ask any questions before making a commitment. It’s the first time the cohort meets together as a group and it’s always an energy-filled session. William and Mary faculty meet the candidates, explain the cohort process and clarify the academic expectations in the program. Previous cohort graduates provide a panel presentation on the benefits, challenges, and their impressions of the cohort experience. After the information session, interested candidates may apply for acceptance to William and Mary through the regular admissions process. Once the group is admitted, a William and Mary faculty member is assigned as an adviser and main point of contact for the entire group. This adviser handles registration for the group and helps orient them to the program and their initial classes.

Benefits of the Model

The model has numerous positive aspects for students, William and Mary, and local school divisions:

Cohort students save money. As part of the cohort agreement, William and Mary provides a 33 percent discount on tuition to all cohort members. The local school division pays 33 percent of the tuition costs and the students pay the other 33 percent. So, cohort students earn their Master’s degree and administrative licensure at one-third the cost of a regular program!

Superintendents keep promising leaders. Local school divisions require cohort members to commit to remaining in their current school division for three or more years after earning the degree. That commitment more than justifies the tuition support by the school division since it reduces the possibility that a promising young leader would bolt for”greener pastures” in a neighboring division. It also insures high quality, in-house candidates for future administrative openings.

William and Mary maintains a high quality enrollment in graduate level programs, providing faculty members with teaching and research opportunities as well as maintaining solid relationships with local K-12 school divisions. The reduced tuition is partially offset by designating one school division as the fiscal agent for billing and processing all cohort members. The single billing point simplifies the payment and registration process, saving staff time for William and Mary. The division that serves as the group fiscal agent handles collections from other participating divisions in the cohort program. Many allow the cohort participants to use payroll deductions to cover their own portion of the tuition costs.

The program is a richer experience for students and faculty. Students in the cohort teach in a variety of settings and bring different perspectives and different challenges into their classroom work. Teachers in the cohort could be working in the only middle school in a rural school division of less than 1500 students or in an urban setting of 35,000 plus students with multiple schools at all levels. That diversity allows them to explore classroom topics from multiple viewpoints, creating a richer learning experience and stronger preparation for their work as school leaders.

 Students develop a support network of peers that continues long after graduation and into their work careers. Previous cohort members continue to collaborate on shared problems and incidents even across school division lines. The sense of teamwork established during the cohort lasts long after their cohort experience has ended.

There are quality candidates for administrative vacancies. Graduating members in the cohort typically move into an administrative post within two years of completing the program. In the most recent class of 15 graduating cohort members three have already moved into administrative roles for the current school year. The rest are targeted for vacancies anticipated in the next two years.

Next Steps

The tremendous success of the Master’s Cohort Model inspired the faculty at William and Mary to take the next step; a non-traditional approach to earning the doctorate degree for K-12 leadership! This summer, William and Mary is preparing to welcome the first cohort in the new Executive Ed.D. program. This graduate level program builds on the concepts of the Masters Cohort program by offering a doctorate degree in only two and one-half years. Students in the Executive Ed.D. move through the Program of Study as a cohort, with all classes offered in weekend and summer session formats. Distance learning components will also add to the convenience of the program for admitted students. The Executive Ed.D. program is designed to meet the needs of working professionals in the field as it addresses another leadership gap; school superintendents and high level central office posts in local school divisions or policy level posts in state/national organizations. For more information on the new Executive Ed.D. program, check out the website at: http://wm.edu/academics/eppl/degrees/ga/exedd/index.php.


Superintendents in the Hampton Roads area continue to utilize the William and Mary Master’s Cohort program to prepare their next generation of school leaders. The fifth cohort group began their first classes this Fall semester just as the fourth cohort group was enjoying their Celebratory Reception to recognize their successful completion of the program.

The cohort partnership has led to other ideas for additional collaborations including a series of “Superintendent Seminars” on topics selected by local school division leaders and a workshop series on improving the math skills of middle school teachers. But, perhaps most importantly, the cohort program has allowed local school divisions to answer their original question, “Does anybody know where I can find a good school principal?” with a resounding YES! There are candidates already prepared right in their own school divisions.

Steven R. Staples is with the School of Education faculty at The College of William and Mary. For more information, visit http://wm.edu.

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