Leadership is a critical aspect of all social endeavors. In schools, talented leadership is essential to student achievement. School leadership impacts all facets of education: teacher motivation, shaping the conditions and the environment in which teaching and learning occurs, and interaction with the broader community. A large scale six-year study reported by Louis et al (2010) covering 180 schools in 43 school districts in the US found that there is no single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of skilled school leadership.
In many school systems, effective school leadership is far from the norm. It is often simply assumed that school leaders, irrespective of capacity, will discharge responsibilities and initiatives assigned to them. Moreover, programs to prepare and or support school leaders are either lacking or ineffective.
What do we know about developing school leaders to successfully transform schools? An example from Jamaica illustrates good practice aspects that can help to equip school leaders with skills to transform schools they run.
The government of Jamaica instituted the National College for Education Leadership (NCEL) program in 2011. The program has several good practice features all geared towards nurturing school leaders.
NCEL has, over the short period of its existence, established a reputation in the Caribbean as an incubator of effective school leaders with sharpened focus on turning around schools through effective teaching and learning. School systems in the region are eying the program with interest.
The Jamaica school leadership program has changed the behaviors and practices of school principals and resulted in greater focus on improved instruction and student performance, better school climate, motivated teachers, and more collaboration in planning for overall school improvement. The immediate result has been improved student outcomes.
Initial assessment of this program is positive. Why? The quick answer is grounded in the following essential good practices in leadership development.
- It is based on evidence from research on school effectiveness and the needs of school leaders. This ensures that the modules are tailored to the real-life demands of school-level practice directed at improving effectiveness.
- There’s a strong focus on improving instruction, in particular, the use of data to diagnose the learning needs of students, providing feedback to teachers on teaching practices and planning professional development.
- It includes field experience and other practical aspects. This exposes principals to strategies which help them to improve practices at the schools they lead. It also helps the trainees to reflect on what they have been taught in the context of their own school and provides an opportunity to implement some of the innovative ideas shared during the training.
- The program uses cohort groups constituted based on specific criteria that reflects commonalities of leaders or their schools. Cohorts offer formal and informal networks and peer coaching. They also act as a professional resource which can be used as a “sounding board” where ideas can be shared in a non-judgmental setting.
- Trainers are certified and practitioners are experienced. Trainers include highly respected current or retired school leaders and their expertise in their respective fields is considered exceptional. This ensures that the courses are more authentic and reflect real experiences.
- Mentoring, coaching and feedback from more seasoned or even retired principals recognized to have done well as school leaders.
- The program links to the overall sector reform program, which includes school development planning and improvement. Some of the cohorts were explicitly linked to the results of the National Education Inspectorate and preparation of an action plan to address the weaknesses identified and the implementation of that plan is part of professional development.
- Content is aligned with professional leadership standards. This provides common expectations for knowledge, skills and dispositions of school leaders. It also strengthens the focus on improving instruction. The standards are used for performance appraisal of the school leaders which further strengthens the role of the standards in leadership development.
- Theory and practice are integrated in leadership development action plans and case studies. The modules include discussion of case studies and a portfolio of evidence about practice. This mode of problem-based learning exposes trainees to concrete elements of real-life practice.
- Competence-based training which involves certification. Competency evaluation includes both quantitative and qualitative data and helps to shift from acquisition of knowledge to its use.
Responses by teachers in schools headed by leaders who have undergone the training point to a stronger focus on instructional improvement, greater support to teachers, as well as improved school atmosphere.
Schools are also demonstrating improvement in performance. The difference made in Jamaica over a short period of time shows that there is great value in strengthening the focus on building capacity for school leadership in developing countries where learning outcomes remain very low.
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