An International Movement Calls for Greater Investment in School Leaders

Access and Inclusion March 20, 2019

This article was originally published on NYC Leadership Academy.

While schools in Nairobi face different challenges from schools in Hong Kong or India or the U.S., there is increasing agreement across contexts that to transform schools, you need great school leaders. An international movement is growing to increase and improve school leadership by calling for more investment in and policy supporting educational leadership; more research on effective school leader and leadership development practices; and greater understanding of the importance of agile leadership and the need for schools to function as learning organizations.

I recently attended the latest meeting of the Agile Leaders of Learning Innovation Network, or ALL-IN, a group of a few dozen researchers and practitioners from more than a dozen countries, of which the NYC Leadership Academy is a member. Sponsored by WISE, the World Innovation Summit for Education, and led by WISE research director Asmaa Al-Fadala, the group has been meeting for the last year to exchange resources and ideas, work through challenges, and lay the foundation for a continuous network of support and advocacy.

As Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) senior analyst Beatriz Pont, a researcher on school leadership for more than a decade, told the group, “If governments want policy reforms to happen and school leaders to be able to implement those reforms and lead the best schools possible in the 21st century, they need to invest a lot more in school leaders.”

We discussed approaching this effort through a few key strategies:

Increase investment in and policy supporting school leadership

Many of us spoke about the limited commitment our local and national governments are making to explicitly improve educational leadership as a critical lever for transforming schools (in the U.S. we again face possible federal education cuts based on the latest proposed budget out of the White House). Education leaders made it clear the impact that a commitment to leadership is having in their schools. In Singapore, for example, where students consistently perform at the top of international achievement measures, the government invests 2.9% of its GDP in education and nearly half of that is explicitly for developing school leaders. They do this, David Ng from Singapore’s National Institute of Education explained, because of the effect size of leadership on student learning.

In Ontario, Canada, leadership is part of how the government has been analyzing student achievement as a key lever for reform. “In our minds, leadership is not a title. Leadership is your behavior,” said Joanne Robinson of the Ontario Principals Council. Ontario has made impressive achievement growth in recent years.

More research on effective school leader practices and effective practices for developing strong school leaders

While research on school leadership has increased in recent years, there are gaps, particularly in countries outside of the scope of the OECD. As explained by Deborah Kimathi, Executive Director of Dignitas in Nairobi, where there is no investment in education, an evidence base is needed to support conversations around the impact of supporting educational leadership. Dignitas offers leadership training and coaching for school leaders that aims to instill emotionally intelligent leadership and reflective practice with an emphasis on instructional leadership. In the coming months, researchers participating in ALL-IN will research and write case studies on school leader programs in Lebanon, India, and Nairobi.

Emphasis on importance of agile leadership and the need for schools to be learning organizations

Whatever the context, wherever the schools, we agreed that good leadership is about flexing to meet the needs of your community and your students. “Most education change is human work,” ALL-IN co-facilitator Simon Breakspear of Agile Schools in Australia said. Human work is complex, messy, and unpredictable and requires adjusting to and trying to shift human behavior. School leaders dedicated to rapid, iterative, and responsive learning, or who are agile, will be best able to lead their schools as learning organizations, Breakspear said.

At the NYC Leadership Academy, we see this need for flexibility every day in the work we do with schools and school systems to identify and dismantle inequities. We take it into account as we develop tools and professional learning opportunities. Learning to see your own biases, to be able to talk about them and consciously shift your behavior so that you can lead your school or your classroom more equitably, requires agility. I think about how Ebony Green, Executive Director of Equity & Access of Newburgh Enlarged City School District, one of our partner districts, described their equity work to us: “We can’t predict what the students coming in tomorrow will need. When you don’t create flexibility, then you go back to equality. … The goal is to always be very intentional about looking at what these students need, and what do we have to figure out to meet them where they are?”

It’s an honor to work with such a committed group of experts and we look forward to supporting this international effort to expand and improve school leadership.