Opinion: If we're going to strengthen our schools, we need to strengthen their leadership

Closing ceremony of a headteachers training held in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo by: Education International / CC BY-NC

“Schooling without learning is a wasted opportunity. More than that, it is a great injustice.” The World Bank’s 2018 World Development Report, released last week shows that while countries have made great progress in enrolling students into school, they have not made similar advancements in students’ learning. World over, a vast majority of children are in school but not learning. We concur with the WDR’s finding that a common factor of underperforming education systems is a lack of school-level skilled management that pulls together students, teachers, and other school inputs.

A growing body of research shows the role that school leaders play at influencing student outcomes. After studying headmasters in India and abroad, Stanford University Professor Nick Bloom and his colleagues recently wrote that a one-point increase on their scoring of school management practices is associated with a 10 percent increase in student performance. McKinsey & Company’s global review cites that a school principal — just one person — accounts for 25 percent of the impact that schools have on student learning.

Industry worldwide has invested in training their management cadre. Unfortunately, in most low- and middle-income countries’ education systems, teachers are promoted to become heads of schools and do not receive much training for their new roles. The WDR highlights how this underinvestment in school leaders has led to poor management capacity in schools. The leadership quality in the education sector is far outpaced by the leadership quality in the manufacturing sector, particularly in low-income countries. We are not surprised, then, that schools are failing their children. As the WDR states, “In countries ranging from Brazil and India to Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the management capacity of school principals significantly and robustly relates to student performance — even after controlling for a variety of student and school characteristics.” It is time for education systems to focus seriously on the critical role of school leadership as a means of improving their schools.

Most countries today have taken an ad-hoc approach to identifying and training their school leaders. Improving school leader quality will require a three-fold approach to leadership development that encompasses merit-based selection, needs-based training, and outcomes-related assessment.

First, only those leaders who have demonstrated strong interest and potential should be selected for the role of head of school. School leaders are appointed in many public systems based on seniority of tenure and not aptitude or interest in the position. In the burgeoning low-fee private school sector, entrepreneurs who may have limited teaching background are starting and leading schools. In both cases, there is little systematic identification of successful qualities of school leaders. Countries such as Malaysia and South Africa have introduced a qualification rubric for their school leaders, and we need to look at strengthening and spreading these models to other countries. A few states in India have proposed eligibility tests for school principals, but consistent implementation remains a challenge.

Second, leaders must be supported through strong pre- and in-service training and support. According to the WDR, training principals in how to improve the teacher-learner interaction —  by “providing feedback to teachers on lesson plans, action plans to improve student performance, and classroom behavior” — has “a large impact on student learning.”

Countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia have rolled out large pre-service training programs for their school leaders. Our experience in India — backed by research on best practices in the United States done by the Wallace Foundation — shows that on-the-job training for school leaders, supported by peer networks and regular coaching, is the most effective way to prepare school leaders. The WDR highlights the Jamaican government’s investment in such training for its leaders, showing that “training can improve the quality of school management.”

Third, school leaders must have defined roles and systems of accountability that result in improved learning outcomes. This is a complex issue, as the impact of the school leader may seem hard to quantify within the multivariate environment of a school system. The WDR states that school leaders are a potentially critical tool to improve student learning, because they have the ability to improve teacher quality and the use of school resources. “Effective leadership means having school principals who are actively involved in helping teachers solve problems, including by providing instructional advice. It also means having principals who set goals with teachers to prioritize and achieve high levels of learning. These factors are associated with the highest levels of student learning, and they confirm that effective school leadership improves the quality of teacher-learner interactions.”

Yet very few school systems recognize or track their school leaders progress toward these actions that are known to improve student learning. Additionally, academic research in this area has mostly focused on the Global North, and there is a pressing need for such accountability systems to be adapted for the needs of developing countries. One emerging example is the Indian government’s recent introduction of a school standards and evaluation framework (Shaala Siddhi) used to evaluate the performance of a school. We hope to encourage the government to define the role of the leader as actions that lead to improvement on the parameters of this framework.

Finally, we believe that there is a strong need for a global ecosystem around school leadership training. We need researchers, government education officials, school leaders, unions, philanthropies, private companies, and civil society organizations who are working on this issue to come together, share learnings, and find impactful ways of improving school leadership. We find little systematic knowledge of school leadership development models in the global south, and programs are developing in isolation from each other, rather than collaboratively in ways that advance the field.

As the pressing need to improve the quality of learning leads to a range of efforts, we must ensure that our frontline leaders in education are qualified and trained for their roles. We cannot continue down the path of assuming school leaders will naturally understand the complex nature of their jobs and excel at them. Let us bring one of the best practices of the business world to the education space to ensure that our schools indeed are vibrant hubs of learning for children.

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About the authors

  • Azad

    Azad Oommen

    Azad Oommen is a co-founder of Global School Leaders (GSL), an organization that works to incubate, connect and support organizations that train school leaders to improve the learning of students from underserved communities around the world. Prior to GSL, Azad was the founding executive director of the Central Square Foundation, an Indian venture philanthropy fund that invests in organizations looking to improve the quality of student learning.
  • Gayatri

    Gayatri Lobo

    Gayatri Lobo is currently the CEO of the India School Leadership Institute (ISLI), an organization that develops school leaders who drive high-performing schools that commit to academic achievement and character development of children from underserved communities in India. Gayatri brings to ISLI a mix of strategy consulting and education experience, having worked most recently as a senior project manager at Dalberg Global Development Advisors.
  • Sameer

    Sameer Sampat

    Sameer Sampat is a co-founder of Global School Leaders (GSL), an organization that works to incubate, connect and support organizations that train school leaders to improve the learning of students from under-served communities around the world. Prior to GSL, Sameer was the India School Leadership Institute’s first CEO. He also worked as a project manager and research analyst with the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University where he designed, implemented, and evaluated interventions to close the racial achievement gap found in the United States.