Shaping Strong Principals in Singapore: Success by Design

by Seng-Dao Keo

PrincipalsThe job of a principal in the United States has become increasingly complex, demanding, and lonely. Stress is high. Hours are long. Turnover is alarming. Internationally, we see a slightly different picture in the top performing systems, one in which the principalship is still complex and demanding, but not impossible or lonely. Take the case of Singapore whose students consistently perform at high levels on international assessments. Singapore has shaped strong, collaborative school leaders in a well-developed and highly coherent education system. This did not happen by chance. Over the past 40 years, Singapore has transformed its education system from a level comparable to many developing countries to one of the highest performing systems in the world. It did this deliberately by designing different parts of the system to work in coordination with other parts, a point that becomes clear when examining how principals are identified, trained, and supported. This is a system that consistently sets its principals up for success.

Singapore is small and diverse, with a population of 5.4 million that is multiracial, multiethnic, multi-religious, and multilingual. Its school system serves over half a million students in 366 schools, with roughly 34,000 teachers, 1,000 vice principals, and 400 principals. This is comparable in size to a large school district, such as Clark County School District in Nevada (serving more than 320,000 students in 356 schools), or a small U.S. state, such as Rhode Island (serving roughly 144,000 students in 317 schools). While Singapore possesses its own unique political, social, and cultural context, it nonetheless offers lessons for education policymakers, researchers, and practitioners.

School Principals are Highly Valued in Singapore

Two fundamental values guide principal leadership and development in Singapore. First, significant resources are invested in their development. Professional development and international study trips are fully funded, and principals receive full salary compensation for all training, including longer training sessions. Second, principals are granted a high level of autonomy for decision-making because, based on the investment made in their development, they possess a great deal of professional expertise and a knowledge base that is both deep and wide.

School Principals are Carefully Identified and Selected in Singapore

Singapore TeacherAspiring school leaders are carefully selected and groomed to become principals in a process managed by senior leaders in the Ministry of Education. This process is laid out in the educator career ladder, which has three main streams: the Leadership Track, the Teaching Track, and the Specialist Track. All Singaporean educators, including principals, are a part of this career ladder to help identify those who have potential to be promising leaders across the system. To become a principal in Singapore, an aspiring principal must first be promoted along the Leadership Track from classroom teacher to subject or level head, to head of department, to vice principal, and then principal. Rigorous promotion criteria ensure that all principals possess content expertise and can effectively develop students holistically. It also ensures that principals possess the skills needed to successfully organize and manage a school, and are already highly skilled at facilitating collaboration and developing their colleagues’ content knowledge and professional craft. Multiple factors inform the promotion process, including results from an annual performance appraisal, information from a current estimated potential (CEP) tool, contents of a professional portfolio, a district level panel interview, and recommendations from supervisors, coaches, mentors, and colleagues. Created over two decades ago, and adapted from a system used at Shell Oil Company, the CEP tool estimates the highest level of responsibility an educator can handle competently before retirement. To determine the annual CEP valuation, a supervisor will consider an educator’s intellectual qualities (e.g., system-level thinking, analysis, and innovation), achievement (e.g., motivation, socio-political sensitivity, and decisiveness), and leadership (e.g., capacity to motivate others, communication, and delegation skills).

School Principals are Rigorously Prepared in Singapore

If identified as having the potential to become a strong school leader, aspiring principals participate in two fully-funded training programs, during which they receive their full salary. The first program is a 17-week full-time Management and Leadership Studies (MLS) Program for teacher leaders who are heads of their department, grade level, or subject group. The MLS Program strengthens participants’ leadership skills, ability to build strong teams, and operational and management capacities. Participants also take part in a one-week study visit to Asia-Pacific countries to understand different systems and challenge mindsets engrained within Singapore’s system. The second training program is a six-month, full-time Leaders in Education Program (LEP) for vice principals and Ministry of Education officers who have been identified as promising candidates for the principalship. It aims to strengthen participants’ capacity to think strategically, innovate, be future-oriented, be values-based, and work in complex environments. Components of the LEP include being mentored by a senior principal, reflecting on their development in journals, learning through case studies, and participating in sessions with senior Ministry leaders. Participants also lead a Creative Action Project at their mentor principal’s school. In this project, they imagine what the school will be like in 10-15 years and then implement one element of this future school to add value to the current school, helping to develop their capacity for adaptation. They also take part in a two-week international study trip in order to gain broad perspectives, develop insight on how to navigate challenges in different contexts, and challenge their own thinking. These two training programs were first implemented in the mid-1980s and have since gone through multiple iterations to improve their effectiveness.

School Principals are Regularly Evaluated as Part of Their Continuous Development and Growth in Singapore

Singaporean principals are evaluated annually through a holistic appraisal and development tool, the Enhanced Performance Management System (EPMS), which was fully implemented in 2005. This occurs in three phases that consist of performance planning, performance coaching, and performance evaluation. During the planning phase, principals work with their supervisors (typically cluster superintendents) to set their targets, training, and development plans for the school and for themselves. Coaching occurs regularly throughout the year with cluster superintendents, who provide useful guidance and support to the 10-14 principals within their cluster. All cluster superintendents were once highly effective senior principals themselves (and before that, expert teachers and teacher leaders). At the end of the year, principals meet with their cluster superintendent to discuss their outcomes and appraisal. Evaluations are informed by the principal’s self-assessment, the cluster superintendent’s appraisal, and the input of the deputy director who supervises the cluster superintendent. This process serves multiple purposes, including supporting a principal’s continued growth and development, assigning both a performance bonus and monetary compensation, informing the promotion process, and ensuring alignment between the school and the goals of the larger system.

School Principals Receive Significant and Regular Training and Support to Improve Their Practice and Prepare Them for Moving Up the Educator Career Ladder in Singapore

SingaporeStudents2Coaching, mentoring, and networks are at the heart of the principal development process in Singapore. These strategies are also used to build communities of practice that transfer knowledge and expertise across the education system. Every principal has a coach and mentor(s), and principals are coaches and mentors to those with less expertise, or further down on the career ladder. Senior principals mentor new and struggling principals, and senior leaders in the Ministry mentor principals who aspire to become cluster superintendents. Furthermore, formal and informal networks help to ensure that the principal’s job is not lonely or impossible. Their networks comprise of teacher leaders within their schools, principals in school clusters, and education leaders within the Ministry, the National Institute of Education (Singapore’s teacher education institute), and the Academy of Principals (the principals association). For example, principals meet every month with their cluster superintendent and all of the principals within that cluster, which provides an opportunity to regularly collaborate, discuss challenges, brainstorm solutions, and share learning across the network. An expectation to learn from a myriad of networks, and to widely share their learning, shape a culture of collective responsibility within the profession for improving the larger education system. In Singapore, the principalship is a responsibility not limited to one school.

To promote lifelong learning and continuous improvement, principals are entitled to professional development funded by the Ministry of Education. This includes conferences, workshops, and seminars, as well as additional international study opportunities to examine different education reforms and innovations. Principals can also select courses and program offerings aligned with their career development goals through the National Institute of Education. Thus, principals are trained to both apply their learning and adapt within an education system that is constantly undergoing transformation. Principals are also routinely rotated into the Ministry and then back into schools so they gain a deeper understanding of the larger system and national goals.

Incentives for School Principals Are Tied to System-wide Goals in Singapore

Incentives for principals are structured in order to support the overall goals of the education system. Singapore first implemented wide-scale changes to compensation and promotion opportunities in 1996 to make the profession more attractive to potential educators. A decade later, it launched the GROW and GROW 2.0 pay and career packages to provide educators with a more competitive compensation package and stronger career development opportunities. These incentives are closely tied to the appraisal and development process. For example, principal competencies in the EPMS are Managing People, Leading and Inspiring, Visioning for the Future, and Knowing Self and Others. They make transparent what principals must know and be able to do, and they tightly align those skills with the overall goals of the education system. Those who achieve these goals are recognized and rewarded, both financially and non-financially.

Several steps (called “grades”) exist within the principal track on Singapore’s career ladder, so a principal must be promoted multiple times to the most senior principal grade before being considered for promotion to cluster superintendent. Promotion is contingent upon the principal’s current estimated potential (CEP), annual performance, knowledge and experience, integrity and character, readiness to perform at a higher level, recommendations from supervisors and colleagues, panel interviews, and the employment needs of the system. Furthermore, principals are strategically rotated to new schools every five to seven years, which gives less experienced principals opportunities to learn in a variety of school contexts, and expert principals opportunities to share their knowledge and skills, particularly in lower-performing schools. This system-level strategy spreads excellence and equity across all schools and ensures that system level leaders have had the experience of leading schools in many different contexts.

Conclusion

SingaporePrincipal Singaporean principals are carefully identified and prepared. They are also challenged, supported, and incentivized to continue their own development, support their colleagues’ growth, and strengthen the larger system. Research has consistently shown that, after teacher effectiveness, school leadership is the most important in-school factor impacting student achievement. It is not by accident that Singapore is one of the top-performing systems in the world and continues to be over time. Its system-wide coherence and success were clearly by design.

 


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