The School Leadership Crisis Part 1: Making Principals Work for Schools


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Principal of Sorya High School in West Kabul - Photo ID: Graham Crouch / World Bank
Worldwide, hundreds of millions of children reach young adulthood without acquiring even the most basic skills – a phenomenon dubbed "the global learning crisis ." Concurrently, few of the principals who oversee these schools exercise strong management practices, which include setting learning targets, using data to guide instruction, observing classrooms, and providing feedback to teachers.

Is There a Relationship between Poor Learning and Weak Principals? 

Recent research by Bloom et al. (2015) suggests there is a link between poor learning and weak principals. The authors collected data on management practices in more than 1,800 secondary schools in
School management practices are worse
than manufacturing management practices,
which suggests principals are not as good
at managing schools as CEOs are at managing
firms (WDR, 2018).
eight countries and found higher management quality is strongly associated with better educational outcomes, which points to the vital role principals play in student learning. 

By comparing school management practices to manufacturing management practices, this study also found managers at manufacturing firms are much better at managing their firms than principals are at managing their schools. This means that it is more likely that managers at manufacturing firms will monitor performance, set targets, and manage people through reward, removal, and promotion than their counterparts in the education sector. Poor leadership is not simply a matter of low human resource capacity, but rather an indicative of a system that either doesn’t provide principals with robust management training or fails to hold them accountable to the same standards as the private sector . Of course, educating children is very different than running a manufacturing firm that produces textiles or shoes. However, this deficiency suggests that to tackle the learning crisis, we first must address the leadership crisis in our schools .

'Leverage Leadership: Addressing the Leadership Crisis

In Leverage Leadershipauthor Paul Bambrick-Santoyo argues that to be effective, principals should shift from being bureaucrats, burdened by administrative work, to instructional leaders who provide pedagogical support to teachers.  He offers evidence suggesting teachers spend less than 10 percent of their time observing, training, coaching, or providing feedback to teachers. From his experience working with thousands of school leaders, Bambrick-Santoyo was struck by one finding: in each high-performing school he visited, the principal's core priority was to coach teachers to become better instructors. From these experiences, Bambrick-Santoyo identified seven key levers principals can use to improve instruction and foster a culture of learning at schools. 

The levers are (1) using data to drive instruction, (2) continuously observing teachers and providing feedback on their performance, (3) supporting teachers with lesson and unit planning, (4) providing useful professional development, (5 and 6) creating a strong culture of learning among staff and students, and (7) developing a strong leadership team to support and improve instruction. 

Do we Have Evidence this Model Works?

This model has shown promising results, based on the successes of Uncommon Schools, where Bambrick-Santoyo applied these insights. Students at Uncommon Schools outperformed students from other comparably economically disadvantaged settings (see 2017 state exam results from New York and New Jersey).

In 2017, Roland Fryer put this model to the test in a low-income community in Houston, Texas, where 28 principals were given 300 hours of professional development over a two-year timeframe. This intervention taught them how to utilize lesson/unit planning, data-driven instruction, and classroom observations/feedback (using Bambrick-Santoyo’s 6-step protocol). After just one year, Fryer found that principals in the treatment group improved student learning by seven percent (check out this blog for more details on Fryar’s study).

While Fryer’s study points to the importance of instructional leadership and its potential to increase student learning, effective principals also need to master organizational skills (see here, here, and here). In part 2 of this blog series, we’ll explore how principals can become instructional leaders in their schools.

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Jimmy R. Aycart
May 08, 2018

Questions: 1. Do the Principals are born leaders? , 2. What Colleges or Universities teach leadership at BA level for new teachers?, 3. Are the Principals in all counties and /or states and within the rural areas of LDCs countries counting with the necessary support (academic and Budget) to do their job?, 4. What about the problems for the Principals in different rural and regional parts of any country in the world with the problems of inequality, race, gender, age,religion, etc. and good parenthood support?
It is nice and easy to say that the principals need leadership training everywhere. What about Cross-cultural and organizational behavior training to understand today's' society?
Jimmy Roberto Aycart, MPA, MS.
Doctoral Student,Adult Education and Human Resource

May 09, 2018

Jimmy -- thanks for posing these important questions. The blog does not call for providing "leadership" training everywhere -- rather, it points to emerging evidence that providing pedagogical support for teachers is crucial. We're trying to shed light on the reality that, currently, many school principals are not equipped to provide teachers with such support. As of now, I have not come across rigorous evidence on the sort of training you describe; however, I'm happy to learn.
Regarding the question on other problems principals, schools, and society face, I think these should inform, but not prevent us from thinking of ways to utilize principals to improve learning. On a slightly lighter note, I think we'd both agree training people is possible, considering the time and efforts spent pursuing a PhD. If this wasn't the case, it's unlikely we would have chosen to pursue a graduate degree. Of course, this is not to say we are all equally good at what we do or we all were born with the same innate ability. At the end of the day even Messi wakes up early every morning to train and grow as a player.

Lakshmi Rao
May 25, 2018

It’s certainly a good article ! Except for comparing schools with manufacturing companies n factories .Schools are not meant for machines .Here we shape human beings that too in formative stages .Hence School operations require quite flexible n dynamic strategies .Yes I do agree that learning environment which is highly congenial and conducive has to be designed by none other than effective Principal and leadership quality of Principal holds pivotal role in creating the unique work as well as learning culture.Close monitoring is the prime duty of the Principal .But if it is a system driven institution ineffective Principal can also produce results persay.
But I must appreciate the pointers to become effective Principals .
Lakshmi Rao
Academic Director Jain group