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April 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 7

School Leadership Around the World

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Great teachers and school leaders hold the key to America's children getting a first-rate education," noted U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (2010), "but we do a spotty job of preparing them." Few would disagree.
Study after study over the past 20 years has criticized the quality and relevance of principal preparation programs in the United States (Levine, 2005; Tucker & Codding, 2002). Admissions standards are low, clinical training and mentorship are inadequate, and little attention is paid to data or to ways of turning around low-performing schools. Principals themselves believe that the programs are too theoretical and that they're out of touch with the reality of running schools today. Many teachers enroll in the programs to get credits and master's degrees to obtain a salary boost rather than to become school leaders. States approve teacher and principal training programs without much question, and licensing and certification exams don't measure what's really important. In addition, most programs don't follow whether their graduates raise student achievement, serve in high-needs schools, or even stay in the profession.
At the same time, there's growing evidence that weak school leadership leads to poor school performance and high teacher turnover and that strong school leadership can lead to significant school improvement. Research has also shown that school leadership is second only to teaching in its effects on student learning (Leithwood, Louis, Anderson & Wahlstrom, 2004).
But despite all efforts to bring about improvement, few places in the United States have found a coherent way to develop great school leaders. How are other countries, especially countries that outperform the United States on international tests of student achievement, tackling this? What can U.S. educators learn that might sharpen our understanding and accelerate our efforts?

International Innovations

At the 2012 International Summit on the Teaching Profession, held in New York City, ministers of education and teacher union leaders from 23 high-performing or rapidly improving countries agreed that "leadership with a purpose" is central to raising student achievement (Asia Society, 2012). While countries are setting complex goals for education in the 21st century at the national or state level, they're simultaneously devolving more authority to schools for deciding how to meet these goals and holding schools more accountable for results. Let's look at what four countries are doing.

England's Leadership Strategies

England has focused on school leadership since 2000, when the government created the National College for School Leadership. The backdrop for the creation of the college was the 1988 Education Act, which gave England's 24,000 schools more autonomy over curriculum and budget than ever before. The National College created a competency framework that defined the skills that school heads need and designed a series of programs for aspiring principals, new principals, and senior leaders. Schools whose heads participated in these programs improved faster than other schools did (National College, 2010).
Over time, the National College evolved from providing national training programs to commissioning regional and local training providers. These providers used the competency framework but adapted training and support to the differing needs of increasingly autonomous schools. More recently, the college has shifted its emphasis from leadership development to a more explicit focus on leadership to improve challenging schools.
School leaders whose schools have been identified as outstanding are designated as "national school leaders" and are commissioned to support a particular school in need of improvement. Sometimes they become the executive head of both schools; other times, they support the current head of the troubled school by working as a consultant head. This approach of deploying the best principals in the system to help other schools—known as the London Leadership Strategy—has raised achievement in underperforming primary and secondary schools in London (Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills, 2010).
Support for school leadership is now being supplemented by support to improve teaching. "Teaching schools" provide on-site coaching and training to groups of teachers from nearby schools in need of support. These programs have been found to be more effective than traditional professional development courses. The goal is to improve teaching in target schools from being "predominantly adequate" to "consistently good." The National College has extended this approach beyond London to other cities, with several hundred national leaders of education now paired with schools in need of support.
The National College for School Leadership continues to evolve, with significant tensions between its roles as a voice for the profession and as an arm of government. But its work in inspiring new leaders, providing leadership development and peer networking, harnessing the expertise of the best leaders to drive improvement throughout the system, and working with schools to put in place succession planning has been influential internationally. The college has helped develop new roles for school leaders, such as executive heads, coheads, and heads of school chains. It now puts less emphasis on coursework and more emphasis on developing on-the-job skills through practice, peer support, and reflection.

Singapore's Educator Development

Since achieving its independence in 1965, Singapore has transformed itself from a poor, developing country with no natural resources to a global business leader with a vibrant modern economy. Education has been key to its impressive performance. Since 2000, Singapore students have been consistently high performers on international assessments, such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
Singapore has a comprehensive and proactive approach to identifying and developing educator talent. Teachers are recruited from the top one-third of their cohort. Every new teacher is mentored by a senior or master teacher, and every teacher is entitled to 100 hours of professional development each year. Talented teachers cannot be expected to stay in the same role for 30 years, so after three years teachers express interest in, and begin to be assessed for their potential in, one of three career paths—master teacher, curriculum specialist, or school leader.
Young teachers are continually being assessed for their leadership potential and are given opportunities to demonstrate and learn—for example, by serving on committees. These teachers are moved into middle management and then, with accompanying experiences and training, into assistant principal roles, often while still in their 30s. If individuals do well in these roles, they have several rounds of interviews with senior Ministry of Education officials and go through a two-day simulation designed to gauge their leadership competency. Once selected to enter the program, they spend six months full time at the Leaders in Education program at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Singapore's educator preparation institution.
The goal of the Leaders in Education program is to produce school leaders "with the capability to transform schools to be innovative learning communities that nurture innovative students and teachers in an economy driven by knowledge and learning" (Ng, 2008, p. 237). The three-part program is rigorous, with a distinctively global and future orientation. The content knowledge part focuses on maximizing organizational performance, fostering e-learning environments, designing new curriculum and assessments, creating a school vision, and leading a team. Participants also complete a two-week overseas assignment to challenge their thinking about education; on their return, they present key lessons to their peers.
The knowledge creation part involves projects such as the Future School Project, in which groups of six participants propose a detailed design of a school that could address Singapore's needs in 15 years' time. The groups present their plan to NIE faculty and Singapore superintendents. Finally, in the knowledge application part, each participant is attached to a school for six months and must plan and launch an innovation of value to that school.
Once the principals are trained, the Ministry of Education assigns them to schools. The ministry may transfer principals periodically among schools and sometimes into the Ministry of Education itself as part of Singapore's continual improvement strategy. The principals' performance is evaluated against measures that are common for all principals and against other standards that reflect progress toward their particular school's vision.

Shanghai's Leadership Teams

Shanghai is the leading education province in China and the top performer on the 2009 PISA assessments. The Shanghai Education Commission is responsible for basic, higher, and vocational education and lifelong learning for 23 million people. School principals are employees of the commission.
Thirty years ago, principals simply followed instructions from the commission. Today, they have a more demanding role—to meet the needs of students and communities; encourage professional development within the school; and establish good relationships with communities, the media, and other schools. Schools in Shanghai are large, typically serving several thousand students. Each school has a leadership team that includes the principal and several directors who are in charge of teaching and learning, student affairs, and logistics.
The principal's role focuses on the overall performance of the school, but much of the instructional leadership of the school is carried out by teaching and research groups. Teaching or lesson groups are composed of teachers who teach the same subject at the same grade level. They meet for up to two hours weekly to plan lessons together, examine student progress, observe one another's classrooms, and provide constructive feedback.
Teacher research groups, which are made up of the most senior teachers, select an education issue to research—such as teaching math in the middle gradesreview the literature, try out different approaches in their schools, and produce papers on their findings. The research groups later present their findings to other teacher research groups across Shanghai (there are about 900 research group members), thus providing a way to share best practices across the system.
Both the teaching and research groups are led by senior teachers, whose role is to support junior teachers and improve the overall instruction in the school. Unlike in the United States, where teachers typically work alone behind closed doors, Chinese classrooms are routinely open to colleagues so junior teachers can learn from senior teachers.
Enormous rural–urban migration has led to huge socioeconomic disparities in Shanghai; the province has now put a major focus on improving lower-performing schools. Principals and teachers from high-performing schools are called on to work with weaker schools on management, school culture, and teaching quality. A principal of a successful school might be asked to manage several schools, not just one. Principals and teachers spend time each week in one another's schools and develop clear targets for improvement within two years. Schools may also form themselves into clusters to share teaching resources and best practices. Several other provinces in China have adopted this approach of using the best leadership talent within the system to improve the performance of other schools.

Ontario's Focus on Capacity Building

After a decade of educational stagnation and conflict in the 1990s, a new provincial government was elected in Ontario in 2004. The government brought together all stakeholder groups and initiated major education reforms that sought to increase mastery of literacy and numeracy in the elementary grades, raise high school graduation rates, and reduce achievement gaps among its highly diverse population of 2 million students. The initiative also aimed to increase public confidence in the province's 5,000 publicly funded schools.
The defining feature of the initiative was its focus on building capacity in schools to raise achievement. Elementary school teachers received extensive professional development on key instructional practices in literacy and numeracy, with intensive assistance given to schools in greatest difficulty. At the high school level, "student success officers" identified potential dropouts and developed individualized education and support mechanisms to keep them in school.
As part of this reform, the province developed a coherent leadership development strategy—the Ontario Leadership Framework and Principals' Qualification Plan—which changed the function of the principal from administrator to instructional leader. Supporting the instructional core became the focus of principal preparation programs.
Now, in addition to successful experience as a teacher and completion of a principals' training program at a university, every principal and vice principal receives two years of mentoring in each of these roles from an experienced principal. This mentoring is funded by the Ontario Ministry of Education but organized through local school boards. The program includes training for mentors and a clear learning plan for mentees.
In consultation with their school boards, principals set a number of challenging goals and strategies to achieve those goals. This becomes the basis of their evaluation, which takes place every five years. There's also considerable job-embedded professional development and information sharing across schools. The ministry also gave each of the 72 local school boards funding to develop a leadership succession plan so reform momentum isn't lost when principals move on.
As a result of these measures, by 2010, 68 percent of students achieved the 6th grade proficiency standard—up from 54 percent in 2004—and the high school graduation rate moved to 79 percent, up from 68 percent in 2004. The reforms also reduced the number of low-performing schools from 20 percent to under 5 percent and decreased the attrition rate of new teachers by two-thirds (Levin, 2008).

Lessons Learned

What lessons can the United States take from international efforts to develop the next generation of school leaders?

Redefine the Role of School Leaders

As countries seek to raise the performance of their education systems and adapt them for the 21st century, they recognize that the role of the principal as conceived in the past (and codified in regulations) is no longer appropriate. These countries have developed new standards to redefine the responsibilities of school leaders to focus on leadership for learning. Overall, the definition of the principal's role has changed from "bells, buildings, and buses" to a focus on instructional leadership.
Although these new leadership standards include many items, they tend to focus on the following responsibilities, which seem most closely linked to improved student outcomes (Pont, Nusche, & Moorman, 2010):
  • Supporting, evaluating, and developing teacher quality.
  • Setting school goals for student performance, measuring progress, and making improvements.
  • Strategically using resources to focus all activities on improving teaching and learning.
  • Partnering with communities, social agencies, and universities to support the development of the whole child.
Although it's not entirely clear what experiences actually serve to develop such leaders, especially on a scale large enough to staff a whole system, many places, including Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, and Hong Kong, are exploring new leadership models like those described here.

Take a Comprehensive Approach

Although the United States tends to focus on developing new kinds of training programs for aspiring and current principals, training programs on their own will not ensure a sustainable supply of effective school leaders. The highest-performing countries take a comprehensive approach to attracting, recruiting, and supporting high-performing school leaders.
Current international best practices target four areas. First, there's an emphasis on purposeful recruitment. Countries actively seek to attract high-quality candidates. They select those with strong instructional knowledge, a track record of improved learning outcomes, and leadership potential. These recruitment mechanisms go beyond traditional job interviews to include an expanded set of tools and procedures to assess potential.
Singapore, for example, doesn't wait until teachers have become experienced and applied for leadership positions but assesses young teachers early on for their leadership potential and gives them ample opportunity to develop their leadership capacity. Other countries offer "taster" courses to interest younger teachers in school leadership. Teacher career ladders in many countries enable teachers to play progressively more important roles in schools and thus learn new skills that may subsequently lead to a principalship.
Second, in place of isolated, theoretical, short-term courses, best practices emphasize the continual development of skills through high-quality initial training that focuses on responsibilities that lead to improved student outcomes; intensive mentoring of new leaders; ongoing, job-embedded coaching; support from peer cohorts; and systematic feedback.
Third, high-performing systems are putting in place farsighted succession planning approaches, proactively identifying and developing potential leaders in a school or district to ensure that schools continue to improve even when the leadership changes.
Fourth, principal organizations in many countries are establishing standards for accomplished practice and promoting a range of knowledge and best-practice sharing activities.
In short, countries are employing modern talent-development approaches, creating pipelines into leadership positions, and ensuring there is enough support and skills development for principals to be successful, thus making school leadership an attractive profession.

Distribute School Leadership

Even if the role of the principal is defined as being about leadership for learning, many other operational tasks in a school need to be handled. Although governments say they want instructional leaders, they often exacerbate the administrative burden on principals with new reporting requirements. We need new ways to distribute leadership in schools. England and Ontario, for example, focus on the systematic training of what they refer to as school business managers.
Many countries have systems of teacher leadership in which teachers can rise through career ladders with increasing responsibilities and compensation. In Singapore and Shanghai, senior or master teachers play a crucial role in mentoring new teachers, introducing and coaching new teaching practices, and bringing innovations to the curriculum. A middle tier of teacher leaders can both strengthen the instructional leadership of the school and create career paths for talented teachers so they remain in the profession.
These kinds of distributed leadership models also make sense from a change management perspective. When more people are involved in leadership in a school, it's easier to bring about change because there's a broader base to support change efforts.

Deploy Effective Principals in Every School

A problem in many countries is getting highly effective leaders into the most challenging schools. In Japan, China, and Singapore, school leaders may be assigned to lower-performing schools for a period of time as part of a strategy to ensure more equal distribution of human resources. In Ontario, strong leadership is part of an overall package of measures to improve achievement, such as early intervention programs or parent and student supports.
Some systems are looking to see how their best school leaders can improve student achievement in other schools besides their own (Pont, Nusche, & Hopkins, 2010). In London and Shanghai, school leaders may work formally or informally with several schools as executive heads or consultant heads. These new roles are helping to improve the quality of teaching and management, reduce the variation in performance among schools, and scale up best practices or innovations. In these cases, system leadership comes from collaboration among principals rather than from the top down.
Finding good principals and giving them better training can make a difference, but they won't be enough on their own if school systems have weak teachers or low and uneven standards. Internationally, the best results come from explicitly linking efforts to strengthen the quality of school leaders with other aspects of reform.
In Ontario, strengthening school leadership is part of a coherent effort to build capacity for raising achievement in literacy and math and reducing the dropout rate. In Singapore, strong leaders build on a foundation of investment in excellent teachers and high-quality curriculum and assessment.

Redesign Leadership for the Future

There's a lot of ferment and innovation, including potentially disruptive innovation, in redesigning the learning environments of schools to deliver 21st century skills. These rapid changes make it challenging to conceptualize how to prepare leaders for these new environments. Hong Kong's preparation for the principalship, for example, focuses on leading schools of the future in a knowledge- and technology-intensive globalized world where students are open to cultural influences from East and West (Hong Kong Education Bureau, 2012).
Even more profound changes in leaders' roles may be on the horizon. In the age of the Internet, a better image of leadership may be of leaders in the middle of a circle rather than at the top of a pyramid; leaders will be, to quote Bill Gates, "those who empower others." In the age of Twitter, the effectiveness of leaders may depend less on administrative powers and more on the capacity to attract followers. In 21st century global and digital learning environments, the principal's role may be to expose students to a wide range of teachers in and out of school and to create opportunities for students to use their knowledge locally and globally.

A Systems Approach

Although schools are increasingly autonomous, governments can support the systemwide development of effective leaders through policy frameworks and through funding to support a modern approach to leadership that focuses on recruitment, training, and development as well as ongoing support and feedback. Because this is a relatively new approach in many countries, a lot of questions remain unanswered, including how to build the collective capacity of leadership teams rather than just individual leaders and how to create knowledge management systems that connect leaders to research and innovation.
In the United States, districts and states often tackle the leadership problem piecemeal. But improvements must go beyond pockets of excellence or a couple of quick fixes. We need to adopt a more systemic approach to ensure that all our schools have effective school leaders.

Asia Society. (2012). Teaching and leadership for the twenty-first century: The 2012 International Summit on the Teaching Profession. New York: Author.

Duncan, A. (2010, February). Preparing the teachers and school leaders of tomorrow. Remarks at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. Retrieved from

Hong Kong Education Bureau. (2012). Continuing professional development of principals. Retrieved from

Leithwood, K., Louis, K. S., Anderson, S., & Wahlstrom, K. (2004). How leadership influences student learning. New York: Wallace Foundation.

Levin, B. (2008). How to change 5,000 schools: A practical and positive approach for leading change at every level. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Levine, A. (2005). Educating school leaders. Washington, DC: Education Schools Project.

National College. (2010). Making a difference. Nottingham, England: Author. Retrieved from

Ng, P. T. (2008). Developing forward-looking and innovative school leaders: The Singapore Leaders in Education Program. Journal of In-Service Education, 34(2), 237–255.

Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills. (2010, December). London Challenge (Report No. 100192). Retrieved from

Pont, B., Nusche, D., & Hopkins, D. (Eds.). (2010). Improving school leadership, Volume 2: Case studies of system leadership. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Retrieved from

Pont, B., Nusche, D., & Moorman, H. (2010). Improving school leadership, Volume 1: Policy and practice. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Retrieved from

Tucker, M. S., & Codding, J. B. (2002). The principal challenge: Leading and managing schools in an era of accountability. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Vivien Stewart is senior education advisor and former vice president at Asia Society, where she has been leading a national effort to prepare American students and educators for the interconnected world of the 21st century. She has worked with schools around the country to broaden students' educational experiences to prepare them for work and citizenship in a global age. She has worked with states to adapt their policies to a global knowledge economy, and she has developed resources for teachers to use to promote global knowledge and skills. Stewart has also used her unique international background in education to bring together education leaders from different countries to share expertise on how to respond to the rapid transformations of globalization and the need for world-class educational systems.

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