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Principal-Training Secrets Shared by the World's Top School Systems

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High-flying school systems have something in common when it comes to recruiting, training, and deploying school leaders: they take a systematic approach, according to a new study by the National Center on Education and the Economy.

Researchers from the Australian research group Learning First analyzed principal training and development in Ontario, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. They found that the school systems, which routinely score in the top 10 in math, science, and literacy on an international test, had similar approaches to training principals, such as:

  • Designing leadership development to reflect the system's vision for its schools, such as professional norms for teachers and how schools are held accountable for improvement.
  • Training leaders to manage professional learning organizations, including finding and grooming teachers for leadership roles and shared responsibility.
  • Creating programs that build skills for a dynamic work environment, including the need to be resilient and have strong critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Ensuring that professional development continues throughout a principal's career.

"What we're describing is not just a training program; it's a whole system, a way of running schools, a performance management system," said Marc Tucker, the president and chief executive officer of NCEE. 

Another common theme: A clear, cohesive system that builds pools of staff members with leadership potential at every level, from teacher to assistant principal to principal to central office staff and eventually system leader.

"In all of these countries, unlike the United States, they believe there is no way you can be a good principal unless you were a damn fine teacher. So they have career ladders," Tucker said.

"You don't get to be considered for a principal unless you have shown leadership as a teacher. Here we have a system in which the pool consists of people who raise their hands. There is no system for grooming people and creating a rich pool of people at each step of the sequence." 

While U.S. and Australian training programs often focus on building a new principal's skill to be an instructional leader, top-performing education systems in Singapore and Hong Kong instead recruit principal candidates from pools of master teachers with demonstrated experience leading other teachers, and then train them to manage professional learning organizations, including grooming teachers below them for leadership roles in turn. 

For example, Ben Jensen, a co-author of the study, said, "Singapore is a world leader [in training principals], but if you took that system to the United States, it would fail. It's intensive, rather expensive, and it is designed around a model where they have a strong pool of people to draw on. It would be highly unlikely to get people in a principal education program who do not already have extensive curricular and instructional experience."

Moreover, leader training programs across all systems studied require principal and superintendent candidates to conduct research on real problems in a particular district (either their own or one to which they might be assigned), and then work with that district to try to implement an improvement project. This "action research" gives the potential school leaders experience not only in analyzing problems in a school, but also getting buy-in from stakeholders, managing expectations, and planning to sustain improvement over time. 

"It's very hard to mandate a network, to mandate collaboration," said Jensen, the chief executive officer of the Australia-based research group Learning First.

"When you have a system with a strong cohort that went through professional development together, entered the workforce together, and had the same experiences over their first few years, they are much more likely to stick together."

NCEE will hold a webinar to discuss the results of the report Thursday afternoon.

Some states are trying to put those lessons into practice. Last year Pennsylvania partnered with the National Institute for School Leadership to create the Pennsylvania Superintendents Academy, which was designed, based on international principal training systems to develop cohorts of strong superintendents who work together to solve regional education issues.

Julia Vicente, the superintendent of the Eastern Lebanon County school district in Pennsylvania, was in the first cohort last year. As part of the action research project required for the academy, she and superintendents from five other districts in her region have worked together and with a local teachers' college at nearby Kutztown University to extend student teaching and bring university education professors to conduct both research and more professional development for teachers and leaders in their schools. 

Joining the superintendent's academy "was the best decision in my professional career yet," Vicente said. "It was the freedom to think about reform ... with more reflection and discussion with my colleagues," she said. "We know reform takes a lot of work, especially when we are talking about changing systems. This gave me the freedom to think big and think about where are the places in our education system that I'm frustrated with and want to see change."

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