Study Snapshot: Alternative Principal Preparation Pathways: North Carolina’s Regional Leadership Academies

For Immediate Release: April 15, 2018

Tony Pals,
(202) 238-3235, (202) 288-9333 (cell)

Collin Boylin,
(202) 238-3233, (860) 490-8326 (cell)

Study Snapshot: Alternative Principal Preparation Pathways: North Carolina's Regional Leadership Academies


Study: “Alternative Principal Preparation Pathways: North Carolina’s Regional Leadership Academies”
Authors: Gary Henry (Vanderbilt University), Samantha L. Viano (Vanderbilt University)

This study will be presented at the 2018 AERA Annual Meeting 

Date/Time: Sunday, April 15, 2:45 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.

Main Finding:

  • Graduates of North Carolina’s alternative certification programs for school leaders—Regional Leadership Academies (RLA)—have relatively high placement rates and are taking administrator positions in low-performing schools with high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students. At the same time, they are no more effective, and possibly less so, than principals and assistant principals from traditional licensure programs. The cost of producing an RLA graduate is twice that of traditional programs.


  • In recent years, accelerated, intensive programs designed to identify and train high-performing administrators have grown, serving as alternatives to traditional master’s programs.
  • Recognizing the need for effective leaders in chronically low-performing schools, educational leaders in North Carolina funded the Regional Leadership Academies (RLAs) through the federal Race to the Top funding competition. The RLAs partnered with several school districts, many of which were rural, that clustered within three geographic areas in North Carolina. They collaborated with nearby universities to create alternative one- or two-year certification programs for school administrators.
  • For recruitment and selection, the RLA-affiliated school districts identify and nominate candidates who are recognized for their potential to be high-quality principals. The practice stands in contrast to more traditional certification through graduate degree training, which relies on self-motivation and individual ambition.
  • The RLA programs come at a significant cost. Producing each RLA participant costs about $110,000, according to prior research, more than double the cost of traditional principal licensure programs.
  • For the study, the authors used data provided by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction for school years 2011–12 through 2016–17.
  • The authors found that out of a total of 189 RLA graduates from all three Race to the Top cohorts, 28 percent were principals and 42 percent were assistant principals in the 2016–17 school year. They also found that RLA graduates worked in schools that were significantly more disadvantaged than the average school in North Carolina, with high rates of students who were economically disadvantaged, around 70 percent on average. Over half of RLA graduates worked at schools that received Title I federal financial assistance.
  • The authors also found that RLA graduates mostly performed at the same level on their superintendent-rated administrator evaluation as their non-RLA peers. Of the seven leadership competencies on which administrators are evaluated, the only significant difference was on “human resource leadership,” on which RLA graduates who became assistant principals fared worse, on average.
  • “If the districts that partnered with the RLA programs did so because of a shortage of administrators overall or in high-needs schools, specifically, then the RLA programs appear to have been successful,” said study co-author Gary Henry, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University. “However, our results also indicate that RLA graduates as administrators are no more effective and possibly less effective than other administrators.”
  • “Considering the high cost of the RLA program, the results in this study indicate that programs aiming to replicate the RLA model need to seriously consider how to improve the effectiveness of their graduates, not solely focusing on the placement rates,” said Henry.

To request a copy of the full paper, or to talk to study authors, please contact AERA Communications: Tony Pals, Director of Communications,, cell: (202) 288-9333; Collin Boylin, Communications Associate,, cell: (860) 490-8326

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The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.