Leadership Spotlight - Empowered Leaders: Lessons from the World's Top-Performers

December 11, 2017 • Volume #3: On Leadership

Read More

Contrary to a common view in the United States, the countries that consistently attain high—and equitable—levels of student performance get those results not because they are less diverse than the United States, or have lower levels of student poverty, or have cultures that favor academic learning. Rather, the top-performing countries have put in place policies and practices that systematically produce outstanding results. NISL’s parent organization, the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), has characterized these policies as the 9 Building Blocks For a World-Class Education System.

Perhaps the most important of these building blocks focus on educators. Simply put, the top-performing countries have powerful systems for recruiting, preparing, supporting, and developing teachers and school leaders. As a result, they maintain a steady supply of high-performing educators who get consistently excellent results from students.

What are the educator policies of top-performing nations? To find out, NCEE asked Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the world’s leading experts in the field, to lead an international study. Darling-Hammond recruited top researchers, who were themselves experts both on teacher policies and the countries they studied, to conduct in-depth case studies of five top-performing jurisdictions: Australia (focusing on the states of New South Wales and Victoria), Canada (focusing on Alberta and Ontario), Finland, Shanghai, and Singapore.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that the top-performing jurisdictions place a strong emphasis on recruiting, preparing, and developing school leaders, as well as teachers. As Darling-Hammond writes in Empowered Educators, a volume that analyzes the findings from the country case studies, “High-performing systems proactively recruit prospective leaders and provide them with support and learning opportunities to take on leadership roles. They seek strong leaders with knowledge of instruction and demonstrated ability to lead adult learning as well as student learning.”

For example, Ontario has developed and implemented a research-based leadership strategy that provides funding and support to local school boards to recruit and select leaders; place and transfer leaders in ways that sustain school and system improvement; develop leaders through mentoring, performance appraisal, and differentiated learning opportunities; and coordinate support for leaders to buffer them from distractions and make information readily available.

Australia, meanwhile, has developed professional standards for principals that provide “a nationally consistent framework that defines what effective leaders need to understand and do to enable effective teaching and learning,” Darling-Hammond writes. The standards identify five key professional practices: leading teaching and learning; developing self and others; leading improvement, innovation, and change; leading the management of the school; and engaging and working with the community. Australia is developing a new national certification process that will require all new principals to prepare a portfolio showing evidence of their proficiency against the professional standards.

In Singapore, leadership development is a key component of that country’s powerful career ladder for educators. Teachers pursuing the leadership track must undergo a rigorous process to become principals. They go through several rounds of interviews and then undertake a two-day simulation exercise. Once they successfully complete those, they are required to attend a six-month Leaders in Education Program at the National Institute of Education, an intensive course of study that includes opportunities to study leaders in other countries and other industries, as well as in Singapore schools. Successful candidates are then placed in schools based on their skills and the school needs and evaluated regularly against rigorous standards.

As Darling-Hammond makes clear, these leadership-development policies and practices are part of a system for building and sustaining a high-functioning education system. The top-performing countries do not pull on a single policy lever for improvement, she notes. Further, the policies work in synch with other policies, such as assessment and accountability policies. And the top-performing systems balance innovation with quality control.

“The nations and provinces we studied demonstrate that it is possible to think and act systemically to create a strong, knowledgeable teaching force in all communities for the benefit of all children,” Darling-Hammond concludes. “Although they would be the first to argue that they have further to go to fully accomplish their goals, these jurisdictions are firmly planted on a path to success in ensuring that every child is taught by caring, competent, and qualified teachers who work collaboratively in schools organized for their own and their students’ success.”