Global Perspectives: School Leadership in the Global Top Performers

Singapore Teacher

by Seng-Dao Keo

School leaders are a driving force for improving teaching and learning outcomes in the highest performing systems in the world. In this month’s Global Perspective, we explore how school leaders are recruited, prepared, developed, and utilized in a number of education systems that top the PISA league tables. We broadly define school leadership to include any leaders at the school, district, municipal, or state/territory level, although the focus here will be on principals.

Selecting Suitable Candidates for the School Leadership Pipeline

The global top performers have narrowed what they look for in teachers and use a variety of ways to select candidates for school leadership. Whereas some select and groom aspiring school leaders from high-performing teachers, others select from among highly-trained teachers and some allow self-selection. Singapore and Finland also recognize that teaching requires complex, professional knowledge and skills, similar to those that medical doctors and lawyers use in their work, so they have rigorous quality controls at the entry point into teaching, which directly impacts the quality of their candidates for school leadership.

SingaporeTeacherIn Singapore and Shanghai, school leaders from across the system help to identify and groom future school leaders based on their performance and potential. For example, in Singapore, teachers with potential for school leadership are identified early in their career and, as early as the third year of their career, can select the leadership track from among the three tracks in Singapore’s career ladder system, in consultation with their principal.[i] Only the most effective and accomplished teachers who advance forward on the career ladder will be recruited to become school leaders, and they must successfully pass district level interviews with panels of experienced school leaders and experts.[ii] School leader candidates are selected based on criteria including being values-driven, life-long learners who can effectively collaborate and communicate with others to support the holistic development of children.[iii] In order to gauge which teachers have potential for school leadership, teachers are regularly assessed through a comprehensive appraisal system according to professional standards based on a professional portfolio, self-reflection, evidence and data that satisfy each standard, and other indicators informed by senior colleagues and experts.[iv] And since Singapore only recruits teachers from the top one-third of the secondary school graduating class,[v] Singapore effectively selects the highest performers from among the top performers to be school leaders.

Likewise, in Shanghai, teachers’ expertise and accomplishments determine their ability to advance through its career ladder structure to higher levels of leadership within schools, district offices, and the national ministry.[vi] To move into leadership roles, teachers must successfully help students develop holistically; demonstrate their expertise through demonstration lessons observed and critiqued by new and more experienced teachers; serve as a mentor and coach to new and less experienced teachers; engage in action-research; and participate in, or lead, formal teaching groups focused on improving teaching and student-centered learning, among other roles and responsibilities.[vii] This means that future principals in Shanghai are selected for grooming from the most effective and highest ranks of teachers, as are education officials and policymakers, who started their careers as teachers.[viii] Because leadership is distributed within schools in Shanghai, principals rely on teacher leaders who have reached the highest ranks on the career ladder, to lead continuous improvement efforts, such as the work done in a jiaoyanzu, a teaching research and subject matter group in primary, junior secondary, and secondary schools.[ix] This model of distributive leadership helps to identify suitable principal candidates, in addition to providing aspiring principals and school leaders with opportunities to take on increasing responsibilities that prepare them for advancement.

Finnish studentsand teacherFinland and Ontario have different approaches for selecting suitable candidates for school leadership. In Finland, the local municipal authority appoints principals, who are typically successful teachers, for five to seven years.[x] This is important because principals are also generally expected to teach a few hours a week, in addition to having traditional financial and management responsibilities.[xi] Finnish teachers are highly trained and teaching is among the most competitive professions. Teacher education programs accept only about 25 percent of all candidates who apply, with primary school education programs, among the most competitive, accepting only about 10 percent of applicants.[xii] Selection to teacher education focuses on individuals who have a collaborative disposition, strong interpersonal skills, and a moral purpose for entering the profession that aligns with the core humanistic, civic, and economic mission of public education in Finland.[xiii] This rigorous selection process for teachers, coupled with the practice of selecting principals from among excellent teachers, ensures a strong alignment between the values of school principals and the larger education system. Ontario allows teachers to self-select into school leadership development programs, but school boards select and decide on the placement of principals based on the needs of schools.[xiv] Unlike Finnish principals, principals in Ontario are not expected to teach, similar to the dominant practice in the United States.[xv] Teacher selectivity in Canada is high, with applicants to teachers colleges coming from the top 30 percent of their graduating college cohorts.[xvi]

What emerges from the global top performers is that teaching is a high status and competitive profession. The teaching profession holds its members accountable to high standards and ensures that those who aspire to school leadership meet these rigorous standards for advancement, as determined by more experienced professionals and experts in the field, who were once teachers. The top performers also demonstrate that one necessary, but not sufficient, indicator of whether aspiring principals are prepared to become instructional leaders is whether they themselves have been identified as highly effective teachers.

These practices are very different from what occurs in the United States, where teachers typically self-select into school leadership training and development programs, regardless of their performance and potential, and without accountability to their peers.

School Leadership Preparation

While the global top performers prioritize school leadership development, they approach this differently. Principals in Shanghai are trained on how to manage teachers as professionals, but not much attention is paid to developing their instructional leadership.[xvii] This is because aspiring principals must have already advanced to the highest levels of teaching on the career ladder, so they have already demonstrated their teaching expertise and ability to coach and train their colleagues to improve instructional practices.[xviii] Finland does not provide instructional leadership to school leaders because teachers are expected to have gained relevant knowledge and skills during their teaching and in-service experiences, including how to cultivate a collaborative professional environment.[xix] It does, however, provide training to manage professionals through a Certificate in Educational Administration. In addition to this certificate, the requirements for principal qualifications in Finland include a higher education degree, teacher qualifications at the respective school level they will lead, and a strong track record as a teacher.[xx]

SingaporestudentSingapore and Ontario provide both instructional leadership and professional management training. In Singapore, department heads and vice principals participate in the Management and Leadership in Schools program at the National Institute of Education (NIE), to prepare them for principalship and advancement on the career ladder. Aspiring principals are selected for interviews and participate in situational leadership exercises, with some selected to move forward and enter a comprehensive, six-month executive leadership training, during which their salaries are paid and they can engage in a study trip on school innovation.[xxi] All department heads also receive similar training prior to taking their posts, at the expense of the government.[xxii] In Ontario, teachers who pursue the principalship are prepared through the Principals’ Qualification Program (PQP), a two-part program accredited by the Ontario College of Teachers that expands candidates’ leadership and managerial skills, and enhances their curriculum leadership.[xxiii]

Professional Development and Continuous Improvement for School Leaders

The global top performers use a number of mechanisms to support the professional and leadership development of school leaders. One mechanism is through the career ladder system, as in Shanghai and Singapore. Educator career ladders typically have three defining features or subsystems: 1) a framework for career advancement that provides educators with clear expectations for performance at each level, with deepening and increasing roles and responsibility as educators advance; 2) an appraisal framework that manages performance including integrated apprenticeship and mentorship models tied to career advancement; and 3) a recognition and financial compensation framework that rewards teachers for their unique and growing knowledge, skills and abilities and is tied to the teacher’s advancement on the career ladder.

Singapore has three tracks within its career advancement structure—teaching, leadership, and specialist—to provide educators with multiple pathways and learning opportunities to develop their leadership and professional skills, with support and financial compensation to incentivize forward movement. [Please see last month’s Global Perspectives for more information on Singapore’s career ladder.] Once identified, aspiring leaders in Singapore are provided with specific training and learning opportunities that prepare them for the next level of leadership responsibilities, and these experiences can span across schools, the Ministry of Education, and the National Institute of Education (NIE)—with the government covering the costs.[xxiv]

In 2000, Shanghai implemented its principals’ career ladder, which features five distinct levels and 12 grades (Figure 1). Each grade typically represents three years, but principals can be promoted one grade band per year if they earn an excellent appraisal.[xxv] Roughly 30 percent of principals are senior-level principals, and only 5 percent have earned a designation of Special Grade Principal, or the highest rank of master principal.[xxvi]

Figure 1: Shanghai career ladder for primary and secondary school principals

PrincipalCareerLadderShanghai

(Zhang, Ding, & Xu, in press)

Another mechanism used by the global top-performers is their purposeful integration of apprenticeship, mentorship, and clinical practice models into routine, and even daily, professional activities. For example, collaboration is core to being a school leader in Singapore, Shanghai, and Finland. In Shanghai and Singapore, more experienced school leaders mentor less experienced educators, including aspiring school leaders, and teachers and school leaders routinely plan lessons and curriculum together and work in groups to improve instructional practices.[xxvii] Different ranks of school leaders—from principals to master teachers and specialists—support the development of others advancing along the career ladder, a practice that occurs within schools and at the district and municipal levels.[xxviii] Finnish schools are designed so educators have the time and workspace to meaningfully engage with colleagues, and they are organized into networks, an organizational structure that allows teachers and principals to share best practices and engage in professional learning.[xxix] Mentorship also features prominently in Ontario, where all new principals and vice principals receive two years of mentoring funded by the Ministry of Education and delivered by the school board according to ministry guidelines.[xxx]

Strong Leaders for Struggling Schools

ChinaOrgThe international top performers prioritize equity within their systems, ensuring that the most effective leaders work with schools and students struggling the most.[xxxi] Shanghai and Singapore have strong mechanisms to ensure educational equity. Throughout China, disparities exist between urban schools and rural schools, which have typically had fewer resources and opportunities for teachers to engage in ongoing professional learning. Because it is challenging to recruit and retain high-quality teachers in rural areas, Shanghai deployed an equity strategy whereby excellent school leaders and teachers from urban schools are transferred for a few years to rural schools, and teachers and principals from rural schools are transferred to urban schools so they can learn and adapt practices upon their return to rural schools.[xxxii] Principals in high-performing schools are also asked to take responsibility for low-performing schools under two-year contracts, or to mentor the school leaders of low-performing schools.[xxxiii] Through these experiences, high-performing school leaders and teachers are afforded opportunities to hone their skills, coach and mentor colleagues, and further the larger goals of the education system—these are all requirements to move forward on Shanghai’s career ladder.

Singapore’s Ministry of Education assigns principals to schools, so struggling schools will be matched with school leaders who have the appropriate skills and qualifications to address their challenges. Nowhere in the United States is there a longstanding or consistent policy to provide struggling schools with the most effective principals, school leaders, and teachers. Worth highlighting however, is Massachusetts, which has just started a program to match high-performing principals with struggling schools.[xxxiv]

The global top performers offer compelling evidence for rethinking how states and districts select, prepare, develop, and utilize school leaders: their strategies align resources, goals, processes, and priorities across the system to build system-level coherency, and principals drive this alignment. This has led to excellent instructional practices, strong student academic outcomes, and holistic development of students and educators. School leaders are trusted professionals and experts in these systems, a worthwhile lesson for education systems around the world.


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[i] Darling-Hammond, L., Goodwin, L., & Low, E. (in press). Singapore as a case of quality teachers and teaching: Recruiting, preparing, retaining, and sustaining. CIEB Study.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Stewart, V. (2014). Singapore: A journey to the top, step by step. In M. Tucker (Ed.), Surpassing Shanghai: An agenda for American education built on the world’s leading systems. (pp. 21-50). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

[vi] Sato, M. (in press). How culture, policy, and practice shape the work of Shanghai’s teachers. CIEB Study.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Hammerness, K., Ahtiainen, R., & Sahlberg, P. (in press). Constructing teacher quality: A case study of Finland. CIEB Study; Pasi Sahlberg. (Summer 2014). A conversation on lessons from Finland. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://pasisahlberg.com/a-conversation-on-lessons-from-finland/.

[xi] Schwartz, R. & Mehta, J. (2014). Finland: Superb teachers—how to get them, how to use them. In M. Tucker (Ed.), Surpassing Shanghai: An agenda for American education built on the world’s leading systems. (pp. 21-50). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

[xii] Hammerness, K., Ahtiainen, R., & Sahlberg, P. (in press). Constructing teacher quality: A case study of Finland. CIEB Study.

[xiii] Schwartz, R. & Mehta, J. (2014). Finland: Superb teachers—how to get them, how to use them. In M. Tucker (Ed.), Surpassing Shanghai: An agenda for American education built on the world’s leading systems. (pp. 21-50). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

[xiv] Campbell, C., Osmond-Johnson, P., Lieberman, A., & Sohn, J. (in press). International teacher policy study: Ontario case report. CIEB Study.

[xv] Center on International Education Benchmarking. (2015). Kentucky Rising: The Indicators Project.

[xvi] Schwartz, R. & Mehta, J. (2014). Canada: Looks a lot like us, but gets much better results. In M. Tucker (Ed.), Surpassing Shanghai: An agenda for American education built on the world’s leading systems. (pp. 21-50). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

[xvii] Center on International Education Benchmarking. (2015). Kentucky Rising: The Indicators Project.

[xviii] Sato, M. (in press). How culture, policy, and practice shape the work of Shanghai’s teachers. CIEB Study.

[xix] Center on International Education Benchmarking. (2015). Kentucky Rising: The Indicators Project.

[xx] Centre for Continuing Education Palmenia, University of Helsinki. (n.d.). Teacher qualifications. Retrieved August 19, 2015, from http://www.helsinki.fi/palmenia/kotka/opettajaksi/eng_screen.pdf.

[xxi] Stewart, V. (2014). Singapore: A journey to the top, step by step. In M. Tucker (Ed.), Surpassing Shanghai: An agenda for American education built on the world’s leading systems. (pp. 21-50). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

[xxii] Darling-Hammond, L., Goodwin, L., & Low, E. (in press). Singapore as a case of quality teachers and teaching: Recruiting, preparing, retaining, and sustaining. CIEB Study.

[xxiii] Campbell, C., Osmond-Johnson, P., Lieberman, A., & Sohn, J. (in press). International teacher policy study: Ontario case report. CIEB Study.

[xxiv] Darling-Hammond, L., Goodwin, L., & Low, E. (in press). Singapore as a case of quality teachers and teaching: Recruiting, preparing, retaining, and sustaining. CIEB Study.

[xxv] Zhang, M., Ding, X., Xu J. (in press). An efficient triangle system: The Shanghai teacher policy. CIEB Study.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Sato, M. (in press). How culture, policy, and practice shape the work of Shanghai’s teachers. CIEB Study; Darling-Hammond, L., Goodwin, L., & Low, E. (in press). Singapore as a case of quality teachers and teaching: Recruiting, preparing, retaining, and sustaining. CIEB Study.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Hammerness, K., Ahtiainen, R., & Sahlberg, P. (in press). Constructing teacher quality: A case study of Finland. CIEB Study.

[xxx] Campbell, C., Osmond-Johnson, P., Lieberman, A., & Sohn, J. (in press). International teacher policy study: Ontario case report. CIEB Study.

[xxxi] Center on International Education Benchmarking. (2015). Kentucky Rising: The Indicators Project.

[xxxii] Cheng, K. (2014). Shanghai: How a big city in a developing country leaped to the head of the class. In M. Tucker (Ed.), Surpassing Shanghai: An agenda for American education built on the world’s leading systems. (pp. 21-50). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] Center on International Education Benchmarking. (2015). Kentucky Rising: The Indicators Project.[/acc_item]