School & District Management

Lack of School Leadership Seen as a Global Problem

By Lynn Olson — April 15, 2008 3 min read

A study to be released this week suggests that improving school leadership is a problem around the world, not just in the United States.

The study of 22 nations, conducted by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, found that the roles and responsibilities of school leaders have expanded dramatically in the past few decades. At the same time, the workforce of principals in many nations is nearing retirement, and a majority of countries studied reported difficulties in finding enough suitable job candidates.

An executive summary of the report, “Improving School Leadership: Policy and Practice,” was to be released at an April 14-15 conference on the topic in Copenhagen, sponsored by the OECD and the Danish Ministry of Education. The full report will be published in June.

It identifies four main policy levers that countries can use to improve the effectiveness of school leaders.

Many nations, it found, need to clarify the core roles and responsibilities of principals to provide a firmer foundation for recruitment, training, and evaluation efforts.

At the same time, they need to consider distributing leadership tasks beyond just the school leader. The report cites a growing body of research that suggests learning improves when teachers and others take on formal and informal leadership responsibilities.

The United States did not take part in the study.

Rising Demands

The study calls for better professional development for current school leaders and better preparation for future school leaders. In many countries, it notes, the only requirement for becoming a principal is teaching experience. Yet teaching does not guarantee individuals have the knowledge and skills needed to run a learning-centered school, particularly in today’s accountability-driven environment, it says.

“Ensuring that principals and those involved in leadership receive adequate training and preparation to develop the right skills is crucial for effective leadership,” the report says. Such training, it says, should be provided along a continuum, from initial preparation through ongoing training and support.

The study also found that countries should do more to make school leadership an attractive career.

Across participating nations, it found, negative job images, insufficient salaries relative to responsibilities, and inadequate attention to recruitment and succession planning have discouraged people from entering the profession.

“In many countries,” it says, “expectations and demands on school leaders have continuously increased, but the corresponding supports and incentives have not always been aligned with the new requirements.”

Solutions Within Reach

The good news, according to the study, is that the relatively small size of the principal workforce, when compared with the teaching profession, makes tackling such problems feasible.

“Developing the workforce of principals promises to be a highly cost-effective human-capital investment,” it argues, “as quality leadership can directly influence the motivations, attitudes, and behaviors of teachers and indirectly contribute to the improved learning of millions of children. The fact that such a small group of people can potentially have an impact on every student and teacher in the country makes principals a key policy lever for educational improvements.”

Michael Fullan, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and a special adviser on education to the premier of Ontario, commended the report for tackling such a central topic and “doing a very thorough job—well grounded in the literature and practice.

He said that principals need to “lead the way” in developing a collaborative culture among teachers that focuses on “ongoing, relentless improvement of instruction.”

The study is based on background reports provided by each participating country using a common framework and on a small number of case studies. Among the participants were Australia, Finland, France, New Zealand, South Korea, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Lack of School Leadership Seen as a Global Problem

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