The principal makes the difference


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Principals have to deal with hundreds of students and their personal and academic challenges. (Photo: Sarah Farhat​ / World Bank)

All schools are different. I’m not referring to the building, the number of students or teaching practices. I’m talking about the school’s spirit. When you walk into a good school, the building is often well-organized and clean. The students look busy and happy. You don’t see strict discipline; ideally, you see organized chaos.

When you see a well-functioning school, most likely, there is a good principal behind it. A leader who sets a vision for the school and sets clear objectives. Someone who creates the space that fosters teachers’ professional and personal development, and encourages students’ personal growth, creativity, and their own journey of discovery.

Running a school efficiently is a very difficult challenge. A principal must be a pedagogical leader to dozens of teachers: observing them in the classroom, evaluating institutional performance, and helping them get the professional development opportunities they need. Principals have to deal with hundreds of students and their personal and academic challenges. They need to respond to parents, each with their own expectations for the school. And principals also need to contend with the administrative and financial burdens imposed by the bureaucracy.  

Are principals up to the challenge? Globally, not yet. Recent research by Nick Bloom from Stanford, Renata Lemos from the World Bank, Daniela Scur from Oxford, and other researchers, adapted the World Management Survey, which measures management capacity in the private sector, to public sector institutions. They developed a management index for schools, taking into account specific practices in operations (i.e., the use of differentiated instruction to accommodate the different student needs, and the use of information and evaluations to define a strategy); monitoring performance; setting meaningful targets which are tied to student outcomes; and people management (i.e., the ability to attract, retain, and provide support for teachers and staff). The instrument was applied to 1,800 schools in eight countries.

There’s a host of reasons behind the disparities in management quality in schools. On one hand, the managerial and leadership skills of the principal; on the other, the operating space that his or her environment may provide, the incentive structure, a well-defined chain of command, and clearly stated institutional objectives (an obvious one is that all students are in school to learn, but that is in many cases forgotten). I recall visiting a school in Ogun state, Nigeria, where the teacher was forced to shout to be heard above the din of a noisy generator. The generator was providing electricity to an empty computer room- clearly an example of dysfunctional school management. But I also remember a school I visited one Sunday in Jamestown, an old fishing village in Accra, Ghana. The principal, together with a group of students and volunteers, was painting the facilities, transforming the modest school into a magical space—the solar system on one wall, fruit on another, and parts of the human body on yet another. While both schools were grappling with limited resources, there was a vast difference in the administration quality and the level of school spirit.

The findings of the empirical analysis conducted by Bloom, Lemos, Scur, and others are clear. The highest management scores were observed in schools in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Canada, and the United States, followed by Germany, with a somewhat lower score, and Italy and Brazil. Much lower scores were reported in India. Looking within countries, another clear pattern emerged: in all cases, the average management capacity in the manufacturing sector was consistently higher than in the education sector. This is not surprising, since most countries fail to recognize that good management requires principals with the right leadership characteristics. Indeed, there is a large-scale failure to properly recruit principals and prepare them to carry out their challenging mandate.

Why does this matter? There is a strong correlation between greater management capacity and better learning outcomes. And many believe that management capacity is synonymous with autonomy. There is extensive research in developed countries documenting the link between greater autonomy and improved learning. In the United Kingdom, for example, autonomous public schools (the “academies’) have better learning outcomes than other government schools.

But this is not due to autonomy itself; better performance comes about by how autonomy is used. There are at least two key factors to improving school management: First, principals should have a clear understanding of who they are accountable to and their performance has to be effectively assessed. And second, principals must have latitude to exercise their leadership, feeling empowered to support and guide teachers, as well as identify their staff's development opportunities needs. Principals need a clear understanding of their responsibility of managing their human resources, to deploy them effectively to meet the challenges inherent in educating children and youth with a broad spectrum of talents, interests, and abilities.

That is why greater autonomy yields good results in high-income countries, but not in poorer ones. And it explains why there is no link between management quality and the various management models—i.e., public, charter or private schools. Similarly, there is no clear relationship between the model of management and student learning outcomes. What matters is effective management.

However, effective management doesn’t just mean empowering principals, giving them decision-making powers, clear objectives and accountability. Principals are not merely classroom teachers taking another step up in a successful career ladder. It also demands a merit-based process to select competent professionals with the management and leadership skills needed. And they have to be trained in such areas as human resources management, use of financial resources, and pedagogical leadership. That is the challenge many countries now face.

England established the National College for School Leadership in the late 1990s to strengthen the professional development of principals (now called the College for Teaching and Leadership after it merged with the Teaching Agency). Aspiring principals first enroll in the Future Leaders program, where they receive mentoring and leadership opportunities over the course of four years before they can assume a school leadership position. Under the English system, principals also have less administrative responsibilities, which enables them to undertake higher value-added activities.

New measures to improve school quality can only be implemented if schools are led by leaders and managers who are committed to the education and well-being of their students. There are thousands of schools with excellent principals. But there are also thousands of schools in need of improvement. All schools need an excellent principal and excellent leadership, because all schools have children who deserve a better future. 

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Jaime Saavedra

Jaime Saavedra, Senior Director, Education Global Practice

Join the Conversation

Alicia Ortiz
November 29, 2017

Brillante artículo! Soy Coordinadora de Área en un colegio en Perú y creo firmemente en que el liderazgo del director es donde inicia la construcción de la visión del colegio, siempre creada para los estudiantes. Estoy realizando una investigación referente al tema y me gustaría saber como puedo acceder al instrumento validado por los investigadores del Banco Mundial y de London School of Economics, pueden ayudarme en ese tema?
Muchas gracias y a seguir trabajando por la educación que soñamos para los niños, niñas y jóvenes del mundo.

November 29, 2017

Buen artículo

Pedro Hipólito De la Sota
November 30, 2017

Gracias por compartir tan valiosa y argumentada reflexión.
Fue un honor tenerlo como Ministro en nuestro país.

Global School Leaders
November 30, 2017

Mr. Saavedra, we appreciate and completely agree with your post. This is why we have set up Global School Leaders (, we incubate, connect, and support organizations that promote improved leadership as a means to improve learning for students from marginalized communities. We would love to work with you and others at the World Bank to ensure that having a great principal in each school is at the forefront of the agenda for countries looking to improve their education systems.

Lindelani s singo
December 03, 2017

To have a funtional school u need to sell ur vision to the staff until they owned it and they will be able to run with it. Remember to afrim and knowledge them. Build strong relation amount them,when u have build a good working relation the rest is just magical

January 02, 2018

Interesante; se me ocurre pensar en estrategias de fortalecimiento de capacidades específicamente dirigidas a las autoridades de la Institución Educativa y que superen la demanda de gestión casi exclusivamente dedicada a aspectos administrativos/financieros.

January 13, 2018


Susan Watkins
January 23, 2018

In a study on primary education in Malawi that we just completed, we asked teachers whether their Head Teacher is "good" or "bad". A good HT treats the children "as if they were his own children"; a good HT also brings resources to the school from outside organizations, establishes good relations with local chiefs and builds trust by demonstrating “transparency and accountability” in the management of these resources.

María Zamora
September 28, 2018

Muy buen artículo.

September 30, 2018

Revelador comentario. El Director hace la diferencia. Conozco casos donde los directores, que se han dedicado, con alma corazón y vida, al colegio, los alumnos, trabajadores no docentes, profesores y la comunidad, se benefician. De lo contrario seguirá el círculo vicioso, como un director burócrata que no asiste puntualmente al colegio, no supervisa o se va "al ministerio u otra dependencia de educación pública" para gestionar ayuda para el colegio o ver el estado de las gestiones, cuando la cierto es que no desea estar en el colegio...
Conozco un bonito caso: Una profesora fue designada "directora interina" en un colegio estatal de uno de los barrios mas peligrosos del puerto del Callao en el Perú. Los niños acudían desaliñados, sin lavarse la cara, con los uniformes sucios y rotos a la escuela, pues sus padres los tenían casi abandonados. Debido a problemas con la justicia y el consumo y venta de drogas, los padres no cumplían con su deber real de padres de familia. El colegio también estaba abandonado, pues desde mucho tiempo, las paredes, por la humedad y el salitre -el colegio está cerca del mar- estaban carcomidas y sin pintar. En los alrededores del colegio por la abundancia de basura que los moradores arrojaban, era un muladar y refugio de "fumones", consumidors de drogas. Era un desastre.
Al asumir el cargo, la profesora se reunió con los profesores e invitó a los padres de familia. Asistieron pocos padres. Luego invitó a una reunión a los padres de los niños que iban desaliñados -padres que nunca asistían a las reuniones de padres de familia- y conversó muy amablemente con ellos. Acordaron que los niños deberán ir aseados y arreglados, peinados y con el uniforme limpio.
Luego convenció a los padres para que un sabado, se realice una jornada para retirar y limpiar la basura que rodeaba el colegio. La directora llevó escobas, palas, y en un dia entero, lograron retirar la basura.
Después logró una donación de pintura que fue usada para pintar la fachada y paredes del colegio. Los padres y la comunidad empezaron a ver el cambio en el colegio y poco a poco algunos padres se fueron involucrando con la institución. La directora con la asociación de padres de familia, organizaron otra jornada para que los padres ayuden a reparar las carpetas, que sus hijos usaban, y que estaban en muy mal estado. Las anteriores administraciones siempre acudían a las autoridades del ministerio de Educación del Callao, que les respodían: No hay presupuesto. Los padres llevaron lijas, martillos, clavos y pintura. Las carpetas rejuvenecieron.
El colegio estaba mejorando! De repente observó, que en la cocina del colegio, para el desayuno escolar, se preparaba en una olla mediana. Ella pensó, una olla mediana para todos los alumnos?... Entonces le preguntó a la personas encargadas de la cocina: ¿Por qué preparan una olla mediana de avena con leche? La persona encargada le respondió: "A los niños no les gusta la leche con avena y la arrojan al baño...Por eso hacemos solo una ollita".
Durante la distribución de la leche en un salón, la directora fue a observar como era la entrega del desayuno escolar -leche con avena-. La profesora vio, que a los niños que recibían el desayuno les daban el equivalente a un cuarto de taza, o menos. Los niños tomaban ávidamente...
Espero un rato a que los niños tomen su desayuno y luego les preguntó: "A ustedes les gusta su desayuno?" Los niños respondieron a viva voz "SIIII.." La directora preguntó de nuevo, "¿Desean un poco mas de leche?" SIIIIII, fue la respuesta.
Las personas encargadas de la cocina, fueron testigos de las respuestas de los niños, y sonrojadas, no sabían que hacer.
La directora ordenó: "A partir de ahora, el desayuno escolar se va a preparar en esta olla grande y se entregará a los niños, la taza llenecita...".
Se sabría después, que como no toda la leche no era usada en el desayuno escolar, sobraban bolsas de leche en polvo. El ministerio otorgaba al colegio, según el número de alumnos, un número determinado de bolsas de leche, como a los "niños no les gustaba", estas bolsas eran vendidas a los heladeros artesanales de la localidad.
Para que cortó la "teta de la leche" a los heladeros? La directora empezó a recibir amenazas y fue injustamente acusada. Pasó de acusadora a acusada. Luego, accidentalmente, se descubriría después, que en un triciclo, sacaban las bolsas de leche del depósito del colegio, para ser llevado a las fábricas artesanales de helados.
Cuando asumió la dirección, la directora fue estricta en el horario de ingreso al colegio. El personal docente y auxiliar, cumplían a regañadientes. Ella llegaba al colegio temprano, mucho antes de la hora de entrada y se retiraba tarde. Exigía que los profesores asistan a las charlas de capacitación docente. Personalmente supervisaba la limpieza del colegio y los servicios higiénicos del colegio estaban impecables. El patio y los alrededores de la escuela brillaban. Hizo gestiones ante las autoridades de educación y obtuvo material para todos los escolares (libros y útiles). Por las amenazas de algunos de sus colegas y otras personas, decidió retirarse del colegio...
Pero la lección sigue, El Director DEBE ser un líder pues ellos hacen la diferencia.
Creo que las Directoras con las pujantes que los Directores...