Organizations in Which Teachers Can Do Their Best Work: Part I

Cross-posted at Education Week

NCEE, the organization I head, runs the biggest and most successful program for training school principals in the United States, the National Institute for School Leadership (NISL).  But we see a way to make it even better.  We are more convinced than ever that leadership development is one of the most productive of all investments a state or nation can make to improve student achievement, but the work we have done benchmarking the world’s most successful education systems has given us another perspective on what it will take for American school leaders to enable their faculties to match the performance of the schools in the worlds top-performing education systems.

This blog comes in two parts.  This week, I’ll start by describing our original vision, and then tell you what we accomplished, framed by that vision.  In the blog you will get next week, I’ll tell you why we are thinking about the challenge somewhat differently now than when we started and what the implications of this shift in thinking are for what should be expected of school principals.

We started with the idea that school principals need to understand there is no longer much need for the schools’ main product of the last half century: high school graduates with not much more than 7th or 8th grade literacy.  High wage countries like the United States are now charging far too much for workers with that level of literacy in a global labor market in which those skills can be bought much more cheaply elsewhere and automation is taking away the routine work that is not being outsourced.  NISL gives our aspiring and serving principals the knowledge they need to create the same sense of urgency in their faculty and community on this point that we instill in them.  It comes down to a compelling argument that all students need to reach levels of achievement that only a small elite were expected to reach before.  We help the NISL participants understand how to develop effective plans for getting there and how to develop strategies for building support and minimizing opposition as they execute their plans.  Much of what we do is marry the best thinking on leadership from business and the military to the best thinking on school instructional leadership, with careful attention to the moral dimension.  We have enlisted in this effort some of the world’s leading experts in these and related fields.  We use a blend of face-to-face instruction and digital interactive instruction.  There are games, simulations, case studies and much more.

Four American states are using this curriculum as their statewide school leadership program.  Others are actively planning to do so.  Little wonder.  Independent quasi-experimental studies have shown that students in schools led by NISL-trained principals experience statistically significant achievement gains over those in schools not led by NISL-trained principals.  All this at a cost of about $25 per student.  It is very hard to get those kinds of gains at that sort of price with any other intervention.

With this kind of success, why would we be thinking about changing anything?  Because, although we are getting bigger gains in student performance for each dollar invested than any other intervention we know of, those gains are not big enough to address the problem just posed.  They will not put American schools on a par with the average schools in the more then 20 nations that are outperforming the United States on PISA.  NCEE may have the best school leadership development program in the United States, but it is not yet good enough.

NCEE, as the readers of this blog know, has been benchmarking the world’s top performing education systems for more than a quarter of a century.  We have learned a few things.  Among them, three stand out for the purposes of this essay.  First, more important than the design of any single component of an education system is the overall design of the system itself.  When the whole system is set to high standards, designed to function coherently and implemented with care, there is a very high likelihood of very good performance across the board.  Conversely, when education reform is little more than a welter of unrelated initiatives, no matter how good in themselves, little of lasting consequence is accomplished.  The first lesson here is that system design, whether of the school, the district, the state or province, or the nation, is very, very important.  School leaders need to see themselves as system designers.


But not all systems are equal.  The second lesson is that policies and practices of any given school might be coherent and mutually reinforcing and dead wrong.  Schools run by tyrants often answer to that description.  So what would a good system—a well-functioning school organization—look like?  We know a lot about the answer to that question.  I’ll boil it down to a few first principles.  First, the expectations for all the students in the school, irrespective of background, need to be high, benchmarked to those in the top-performing countries.  Second, the faculty must have access to a first-class curriculum and associated assessment system that both reflects the high academic standards and constitutes the main resource for achieving them.  Third, the teachers must have the knowledge and skills needed to teach that curriculum well to the kinds of students who inhabit their school.  Fourth, the faculty need to operate in an environment in which, no matter how well they are doing, they have strong incentives to do even better, want to do better and have the support they need to do better, and are constantly working to improve their own skills and knowledge, and, thereby, the achievement of their students.


I think we know how to organize and manage such schools.  The best examples available are in Shanghai and Singapore, but there are other places in North America, Europe and Australia that are learning to employ many of the strategies pioneered by Shanghai and Singapore.

I am in a privileged position.  Our Center on International Education Benchmarking is supporting two research projects, one led by Ben Jensen, a leading Australian researcher, and the other by Minxuan Zhang, the key figure in the creation of the now famous Shanghai system.  These two papers, still in draft form, provide the most detailed and thoughtful examination yet available of the form of school organization I am focusing on here.  We are also supporting a large international comparative research project on teacher quality, led by Linda Darling-Hammond, which, though it focuses on teacher quality, will have some very important things to say about the model I am about to describe.  The findings of these research programs are utterly convergent.  We will let the readers of this blog know when they are finished and become available.  To the extent that I draw on them here, you can consider it a tease advertisement for the finished papers.  I might also say that I have been privileged to see a manuscript of a new book authored by Dylan Wiliam that also bears directly on the question of how schools should be organized and managed. Wiliam makes a strong case that the single highest payoff investment we can make in raising student achievement is in formative assessment.  Jensen makes a no less strong case for professional development of the faculty as the single most potent investment. When you read them side by side, as I have, and look at what each describes as the essential components of successful policy and practice, I think you will agree with me that they are describing, in much the same terms, not simply a new approach to professional development or formative assessment, but rather a whole new approach to school organization and management that is very powerful.  I will be writing more about each of these books and papers when they become available.

So what is that new approach to which I am referring?  That will be the subject of my next blog post.