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School & District Management Opinion

U.S. Needs More Top-Notch School Leaders and Here’s What it Will Take

By Marc Tucker — October 19, 2017 9 min read
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NCEE came to the conclusion almost 20 years ago that school leadership development is the most efficient driver of comprehensive school reform available. As the old saw has it, none of us had ever seen a great school led by an incompetent principal, but many had seen poor schools turned around by great principals. We spent a lot of time and money creating a program for the development of serving school principals based on the best research anywhere on leadership, combined with the best research on instruction and related subjects. As a result of that investment, our National Institute for School Leadership (NISL) has now trained over 12,000 school leaders in some 27 states.

It has been a great success. When we started, we never imagined that, with an investment of less than $8,925 per principal trained, we would see measurable gains in student achievement solely as a result of that investment. But studies by RAND Corporation, Johns Hopkins University and Old Dominion University showed statistically significant gains for students in many schools in different parts of the United States.

The program really took off when Dave Driscoll, then Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts, asked NISL to train the principals in that states’ schools as a key part of his strategy for implementing the now-famous Massachusetts Education Reform Act. A growing number of states have since done the same thing. NISL is now the largest developer of school leaders in the United States.

When we started NISL, most countries did not have special programs for training school leaders. Their schools were typically much smaller than ours. They called school leaders “heads,” meaning head teachers, because their principals typically continued to teach. They did not have a movement to turn their school leaders into instructional leaders. Their heads were selected because they were already highly skilled at instruction and admired by their faculty as excellent teachers. They received little or no instruction in how to lead and manage.

But that was close to 20 years ago. The countries all over the world that are far ahead of the U.S. in student achievement now typically see school leadership very differently than they used to. They have been busy over the last few decades redesigning their education systems. They realized that they needed a way to drive those new designs down into the fabric of every school. And they realized that there was no better way to do that than to pay much more attention than they had in the past to the development of their school leaders.

So, we decided that it was time for us to catch up with these developments. The signature of our whole organization is the attention we pay to the strategies, policies and practices used by the countries with the best-performing education systems. Surely, if we did this in every other area, we should do it in the area of school leadership too. We needed to see how the top-performing countries were selecting, developing, advancing and supporting their school leaders. The goal was partly to share that information, like all the other information we gain from international benchmarking, with policymakers and practitioners everywhere, but also to make sure that we ourselves were functioning at the leading edge of the state of the art on leadership.

So, we asked Ben Jensen, CEO of Learning First, a research and consulting organization based in Melbourne, Australia to do an international comparative study of the way the top-performing countries develop their school leaders. His report, Preparing to Lead: Lessons in Principal Development from High-Performing Education Systems, is now available from our Center on International Education Benchmarking.

Jensen and his team looked at principal development in Hong Kong, Ontario, Singapore and Shanghai.

You can find the full report and view our virtual release event with leaders from these high-performing systems here. Jensen’s findings are vital, but perhaps not surprising. Whereas, in the United States, school districts typically do little or nothing to groom teachers for leadership roles in schools, and wait for teachers to volunteer for school leadership openings, the top performers put a lot of effort into shaping the pool from which future leaders are selected. They do this by giving promising teachers a deliberately selected series of opportunities to lead teams of teachers. These teams are developing curriculum, carefully crafting engaging lessons, improving formative assessment and conducting action research. Of course, this system of leadership development depends in turn on creating schools in which teachers can be organized into teams for doing these things and giving them time to do it.

In countries that have formalized career ladder systems, future principals are first expected to become highly competent teachers. Part of that process involves observing expert teachers and being critiqued by them. Part of it involves being a member of teams with very different kinds of assignments, in which they learn a lot from the more experienced teachers, but also make their own contributions. Only when they can show that they are first-rate teachers are they allowed to go to the next step, which involves opportunities to lead teacher teams and to mentor teachers with less experience and expertise. And then they are often expected to lead teams that use formal action research techniques to improve curriculum, instruction and many other key school functions. In some of these countries, teachers write research papers on their action projects and publish them in refereed journals. These papers often come to the attention of key figures in the system outside the school. In Singapore and other countries, school leaders are expected to identify teachers with unusual potential as leaders and groom them for development. These teachers are often given special opportunities to go to schools in other parts of the country or to go abroad to expand their experience and develop other lenses for analyzing education and pick up effective instructional ideas that they can share with their colleagues when they get back to their own school.

All of this happens before teachers aspiring to be school principals are given any formal training in school leadership. When they do get that training, it is geared to the structure and design of the system in which they work. That sounds like an obvious point, but it is not. These countries have spent decades redesigning their systems for high performance. The current designs have specific features that school leaders are supposed to implement and maintain, features very different from American schools. Teachers, for example, spend much less time in front of a classroom of students than American teachers do and much more time tutoring, working with small groups of students and working with other teachers in teams to improve every aspect of the school’s operations, using research methods to make sure that what they are doing is based on good research and also to make sure, using data, that what they are doing is in fact contributing to improved student performance. School leaders are expected to organize and support all of that activity.

As explained above, the school leaders are expected to constantly identify potential leaders among the teachers and to orchestrate a series of experiences that will develop that potential. Because the school depends on the work of many teams, the principal is expected to organize those teams, distribute the work of the teams, and make sure that work is of high quality and focused on real problems the school needs to solve or improvements the school could make. The principal also makes sure that the work of each team is synchronized with the work of the others into a smoothly functioning organization. Much of this sounds, in a way, mechanical, but it is not. None of it works unless the school leader has a strong moral compass, is able to create an environment in which students feel loved and supported, is able to build a school that has high expectations for every student, and provides the help each student needs to achieve those standards. That takes very strong commitment and a high level of morale on the part of every faculty member.

One of the most important characteristics of these systems is the strong support the school leaders get after they become school principals. They, too, get mentors. They, too, are routinely judged on the basis of their potential for leadership positions further up in the district hierarchy and given all kinds of opportunities to grow and develop in different kinds of assignments. They, too, get a chance to visit other countries and to attend graduate-level programs exposing them to whole new subjects and disciplines that will stretch them intellectually. In many of these systems, the school leader ladder does not end with the principal’s position. There is often a position above that is sometimes referred to as “master principal,” referring to a principal who is expected to mentor other principals and to take under their wing principals whose schools are in trouble. In some systems, the formal career ladder goes up from principal to master principal to what we might call regional district leader all the way to the top, in a series of steps each of which is associated with its own formal training program.

In our country, there is hardly any connection at all between the school district’s policies on these matters and what the graduate schools of education do. In many of the top-performing countries, the schools and the graduate schools of education essentially report to the same ministry of education and the ministry makes sure that what the graduate school of education is doing closely supports what the ministry expects the schools and school districts to do. They do not run graduate programs for school leaders that mainly consist of school law, school finance and stories told by retired school superintendents about their days in the saddle. They are required to run programs for school leaders that are designed to provide and reinforce the particular skills and knowledge needed to run the kinds of schools and school systems the ministry has designed as a matter of policy—schools in which students from all walks of life are performing at much higher levels than students in the United States—in some nations two or three whole years ahead of the average American student.

The report finds that, while principal preparation programs in the top-performing countries differ in some important ways, all of them:

  1. Structure leadership development to reflect their vision for their schools
  2. Train leaders to manage the kinds of schools in which professional learning is not delivered in workshops but is built into the way the work is done every minute of every day
  3. Tie leadership development to real problems of practice that school leaders can influence, whether that learning is going on in a university classroom or as part of the work of organizing and managing teacher teams
  4. Run school leadership development programs that build skills for a dynamic work environment, one in which teachers are not isolated in their classrooms, but working collaboratively in ways that remind the observer of a good law firm or engineering practice
  5. Continue leadership development programs throughout a leader’s career

The countries that have well-developed, highly integrated systems for the identification, education, training, certification and support of potential leaders that look like this do not need free-standing organizations like our National Institute for School Leadership. But states and countries that do not have such systems do. Jensen’s report confirmed and extended our knowledge of how some of the best such systems work. We hope that knowledge will help you and your state.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.