Learn What It Takes to Become a California School Principal

Portrait of smiling female school principal standing in the corridor of a building

Visionary leaders have the ability to recognize the world as it exists and subsequently perceive what it could become. They also know how to plan and implement a course of action that will deliver positive results and affect real change. A variety of professions require the unique skills and abilities of a visionary leader, but perhaps one of the most important is the role of a school principal in California.

Separate and unequal: California public schools

As the highest populated state in the countryadding over 300,000 residents in 2017 alone — California public schools educate 6.2 million students. California’s population creates budgetary challenges when it comes to supporting K-12 education, and researchers agree that funding level shortages have a direct impact on the success of school performance. Although the state’s voters approved a minimum level of funding from state and local property tax, their per student rate is still lower than the national average.

A 2018 study presented key findings that further explain some of California’s education challenges. The study discusses the spirit of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) — enacted in the 2013-14 California Budget — which changed the way California allocates funds to local school districts to address underperforming districts. What researchers found is that California actually collects meaningful data each year pertaining to resource allocation, education readiness, and outcomes. Yet, basic issues resulting from a lack of funding are not addressed due to a poor incentive for policymakers and educators to prioritize them.

The study further discovered:

  • The blueprint toward equity in California schools requires an understanding of three concepts: access, opportunity, and need;
  • In the decade since its first report, California has made limited progress and disadvantaged students continue to fall behind;
  • Rural schools are faced with unique challenges: clear disparities in comparison to suburban peers, unqualified teachers (high-poverty schools are twice as likely to employ teachers on emergency credentials), and lack of early learning programs;
  • Funding levels are inadequate and teacher pension debt will likely lead to further cuts;
  • Educational facilities are run-down and state capital projects are inequitable; and
  • There is a lack of accountability at all levels.

All of this points to the critical certainty that California needs principals who are willing and able to be visionary leaders and make changes happen.

Being the change: California’s compelling call for effective principals

Each year, we hear that California’s teacher shortage crisis is heavily impacting a new county. Whether it’s the result of ongoing housing shortages or unaffordable cost-of-living, or due to location displacement following a tragic fire, California is consistently scrambling to find qualified teachers to fill their public school classrooms.

Teachers, though, are not the only roles left empty. There is also a demand for California school principals. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) reports that California had 20,700 principal positions in 2016, and this number is expected to grow by 1,730 over the next decade, with a job growth rate of 8 percent per year.

It’s clear that having adequate teachers is unquestionably the most important factor in student achievement. However, researchers agree that while the connection between students and principals is not equally as strong as that of students and teachers, when it comes to student achievement, data strongly suggests principals matter.

For example, given what researchers know about the overwhelmingly positive impact an effective mentor can have on an adolescent, California public school principals have the chance to change the course of a child’s life by being active and involved. This is especially true in communities where racial bias strongly exists.

Principals also play an integral role in the recruitment, support, and retention of qualified teachers. Principals that are in charge of California’s rural public schools are regularly left with inadequate resources and subsequently faced with difficult administrative decisions. A 2017 survey revealed that two-thirds of the principals serving in underprivileged schools were forced to leave teaching positions vacant or hire individuals into teaching positions that were not fully qualified. And research shows teachers indicate that the support of a good principal can make or break their decision to continue teaching.

Thus, having charismatic, talented, and uplifting principals could be the difference in a California child’s education.

Visionary attributes: Qualities of an exceptional California principal

Principals in California — especially those tasked with making changes within disadvantaged schools and communities — must be resilient and willing to take calculated risks. Visionary California principals must be comfortable with shortcomings and able to push forward toward the higher goal.

Effective principals are exceptional communicators and active listeners that follow interactions with action-oriented, organized steps toward improvement. Regardless of the perceived validity, visionary principals are able to say that they’ve considered all options brought forth by colleagues, parents, and students.

California principals that have proven to be successful are also willing to take full responsibility for their vision and goals. Knowing that everyone involved is ultimately there to perform specific tasks and jobs, good principals know that any breakdown in the process falls under their leadership, and it’s their job to fix it.

How to become a school principal in California

If you’ve considered the potential to lead outside the lines and become a school principal, the process toward principal certification and licensure in California is relatively straightforward. Aside from the certification and licensing process, most California schools prefer, if not require, that educational administrators hold a master’s degree. According to the DOL, the majority of California school principals have a master’s degree, or higher, and 14 percent hold a doctoral or professional degree.

California’s credentialing process is two-tiered: the first, a “preliminary credential” and the second, a “clear credential.”

First step: Preliminary credential

To obtain the Administrative Services Preliminary Credential, you must first ensure that you’ve satisfied the necessary requirements of holding a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution and that you’ve completed or are planning to pursue one of the following options:

Following those requirements, you’ll then need to complete one of the following:

You’ll also be required to pass the basic skills requirement exam and provide proof of five years of full-time experience. Finally, with verification of a tentative appointment as a California school principal or administrator, you’ll be eligible to obtain the Administrative Services Preliminary Credential.

Second step: Clear credential

You can apply for an Administrative Services Clear Credential once you’ve obtained at least two years of successful experience in a full-time administrative position in a California school. While you only need two years of experience to apply for the clear credential, the preliminary credential will remain active for five years. The final steps in obtaining a clear credential are to complete an administrative services induction program and secure a sponsored recommendation.

Obtaining a clear credential means that you are qualified to apply for any school principal position in California.

Alternative step: Out-of-state experience

California allows school administrators from out-of-state to apply for a California credential. The Out-of-State Administrator Applicant process is available to school administrators who have completed an administrator certification and licensing program that is Commission-approved.

Attend Mills College and become a school principal in California

Mills understands what’s at stake in California public schools. Time is moving quickly, and each moment that passes contributes to a mass of missed opportunities. Leadership is the key to true and lasting change, and Mills can set you up with the infinite possibility to transform lives.

The online MA in Educational Leadership at Mills College prepares students for programmatic leadership. You’ll learn how to organize teams and implement change that will create a learning environment where teachers and students can thrive. The program is offered completely online, so you can have the flexibility you need in your personal and professional life while pursuing your graduate degree.

Take the first step and learn more about the online MA in Educational Leadership so you can dismantle the product of the past and create something brand new.


World Atlas: The 50 US States Ranked By Population

California Department of Finance: 2018 Demographic Report Press Release

California Department of Education: Enrollment/Number of Schools by Grade Span & Type

Public Policy Institute of California: K-12 Education

California Department of Finance: K-12 Education, 2018 Enacted Budget

Getting Down to Facts II: Education Equity in California

Legislative Analyst's Office: An Overview of the Local Control Funding Formula

Bakersfield Now: Teacher shortage reaches Kern County school districts

ABC7News: San Mateo County schools resort to extreme measures amid teacher shortage

Huffpost: In California, A County Of Children Without Schools

The Sacramento Bee: Paradise High School principal resigns, unable to find housing after Camp Fire

U.S. Department of Labor: California Education Administrators, Elementary and Secondary School

RAND: Teachers Matter: Understanding Teachers' Impact on Student Achievement

CALDER Policymakers Council: What Do We Know About the Importance of Principals for Student Achievement

American Journal of Community Psychology: Does Natural Mentoring Matter? A Multilevel Meta‐analysis on the Association Between Natural Mentoring and Youth Outcomes

Learning Policy Institute: Teacher Shortages in California: Status, Sources, and Potential Solutions

Commission on Teacher Credentialing

Capital Public Radio: California's Test Scores Are So Stagnant, It Could Take A Generation To Close The Achievement Gap