The School Leadership Crisis Part 2: From Administrators to Instructional Leaders

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How can a school principal be transformed into an instructional leader who provides meaningful feedback and targeted coaching?  In this blog, the second in a two-part series, we explore how principals can use observation and feedback to support teachers.
The first blog provided an overview of Paul Bambrick-Sanyoyo’s seven “levers” for principals to become effective school leaders. Of those seven, Bambrick-Santoyo argues data-driven instruction, classroom observations, and feedback are the most essential to become an instructional leader, as they have the greatest impact on teaching and learning . As data-driven instruction has been explored in detail by several other blogs and reports (see here, here, and here), this blog focuses on the observation and feedback levers.
Principal Wei Jin Shou of Long Shi School, located in Gungxi, China. (2004). Photo: © Steve Harris / World Bank
Observation & Feedback:

Bambrick-Santoyo argues principals must be trained to not only observe teachers, but to frequently follow-up with them, offering meaningful feedback and targeted coaching . These observations should be used to provide the principal with information on how to best coach teachers to improve student learning. Principals should observe teachers on a weekly basis and pair these observations with interim assessments to gauge the extent to which their recommendations address the needs of students.
In addition to these general recommendations, Bambrick-Santoyo identifies four guidelines for principals to follow when observing classrooms and providing feedback:
  1. Observations need to be scheduled in advance to ensure they occur on a frequent and regular basis; these observations can be as brief as fifteen minutes.
  2. Principals need to identify one or two key action steps for the teacher to improve upon. These steps should be measurable, observable, implementable within a short timeframe, and connected to the teacher’s larger professional development goals.
  3. After the observation, principals need to give face-to-face feedback that involves practicing one of the key action steps identified for improvement (see here for more on the importance of practice).
  4. Throughout this process, principals must have a system in place to ensure their feedback translates into practice. This involves tracking which teachers were observed, logging the feedback and goals agreed upon in the follow-up meeting, and assessing the teachers’ progress toward these goals.
Using these guidelines, principals can help teachers master bite-size instructional techniques – ideally, these should be small adjustments the teacher can implement within a week. For instance, principals may recommend using exit tickets—short questions to assess student understanding—to guide teachers who do not ask specific questions or pose questions that students respond to in synchrony. These provide instant feedback on whether students understood the lesson and an essential data point to guide the next lesson. Principals can also train teachers to cold call students, which helps ensure all students—and not just some—are accountable for learning. In another case, for a teacher struggling with transitions and disruptions, the principal may demonstrate how to utilize routines and recommend circulating the classroom throughout the lesson to maximize instructional time and mitigate distractions and misbehaviors. Finally, in classrooms where students struggle to comprehend a complex idea, principals can coach teachers to break down the task into smaller parts or name the steps in a process. As for any of these techniques, principals can adjust and adapt their recommendations to best fit the style and needs of the teacher.
What Principals do in Low- and Middle-Income Countries

Two-thirds of education systems do not require principals to complete any specific coursework and less than 20 percent require principals to pass a written exam before starting the job  (based on SABER-Teachers data available from 31 education systems from the Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) initiative). Moreover, l ess than a quarter of these systems require principals to participate in an induction or mentoring program and 15 percent allow individuals to become principals without ever having taught . Given this reality, it comes as no surprise that conducting observations and providing feedback to teachers rarely occurs.
For example, a nationally representative survey, conducted in Afghanistan in 2017, revealed half of principals neither observed nor provided targeted feedback to teachers (SABER Service Delivery Afghanistan report, forthcoming). It was also found, among those principals who did observe teachers, less than 5 percent had the proper training to do so. Experimental research shows this is particularly problematic because principals who are not trained in classroom observations are unable to identify effective teaching—and as a result, they may provide counterproductive feedback. In the study, principals were shown videos of “effective” and “ineffective” teachers, as measured by value-added, and were asked to identify the effective ones. The principals correctly identified the teachers just 50 percent of the time—essentially the same as relying on pure chance.
While there is not yet much evidence available on the impact of training principals to observe classrooms and provide feedback, research suggests observation and feedback schemes can positively affect instructional quality and student learning  (see here, here and here, as well as evidence coming from Brazil, Georgia, and Kenya). 
The Takeaway?

As educators and policy makers around the world grapple with tackling the global learning crisis outlined in the 2018 World Development Report, they must be sure to also address the school-level leadership crisis . This will involve a shift from thinking of principals as mere administrators to seeing them as key players that ensure quality instruction and learning in the classroom. This cannot be achieved by simply adding “instructional leadership” to principals’ list of core responsibilities. Successful strategy must be paired with a strong investment in principal training and learning and—only then—supervision. If not, this renewed focus on principals as instructional leaders is destined to fail as evidence from Strong and others’ research suggests.

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Tracy Wilichowski

Analyst, Education Global Practice

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