Preparing to Lead in Top-Performing Education Systems

Preparing to Lead

Robert Rothman
by Bob Rothman

Improving school leadership is central to education improvement efforts. After teacher effectiveness, school leadership has the greatest in-school impact on student outcomes and is widely considered crucial to system reform. The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act recognizes this and provides targeted funding to help states and districts set up strategies and actions to improve their leaders. However, such improvement at the scale of a state has largely remained elusive in the United States.

The world’s highest-performing school systems, conversely, have made extensive investments in school leadership development systems, and these efforts provide some insights into how to design effective programs to develop school and system leaders. Students in Ontario, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai performed, on average, in the global top ten systems for student achievement in mathematics, literacy and science in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for 2015.

With the exception of Shanghai, all of these jurisdictions designed mandatory pre-service preparation programs for aspiring principals starting in 2000. Singapore’s Leaders in Education program (LEP), Ontario’s Principal’s Qualification Program (PQP), and Hong Kong’s Preparation for Principalship (PFP) program within the Continuing Professional Development Framework are gateway qualifications for principals aspiring to serve in these systems’ primary and secondary public schools.

A new report released by the Center on International Education Benchmarking, Preparing to Lead, by Ben Jensen and colleagues, draws lessons from these leadership development programs.

The report finds that leadership programs in high-performing systems reflect the systems’ particular philosophy about ways that schools get better, how to organize schools as learning communities for the entire faculty, and how best to distribute teacher accountability for school and student achievement. Program providers embed these expectations into the design of their programs for aspiring leaders.

In addition to being nested in the guiding principles of their own education systems, the programs in high-performing systems are organized around action learning. Action learning is a high-impact process of leadership development through which small teams work collaboratively on real-world problems of immediate professional concern. That process, among other principles of effective adult learning, are embedded in the design and delivery of the programs in the high-performing system.

Key Takeaways

1. High-performing systems structure leadership development to reflect their vision for schools. The way a system expects its teachers to act (i.e., as a learning profession), the kind of schools the system wants (i.e., professional learning organizations), and the system’s vision for how schools improve (i.e., the steps toward and accountability for school improvement) all have an impact on leadership behaviors required of effective school principals’ and therefore on the design of high-quality leadership development programs.

2. High-performing systems train leaders to manage professional learning organizations. Top-performing jurisdictions often appoint teachers to leadership roles, particularly for curriculum and instructional leadership. This means the principal is not the sole instructional and curriculum leader, but instead appoints leaders and shares oversight. This role is embedded in the program design.

3. In high-performing systems, leadership development is tied to problems from practice that are actionable. Programs in top-performing systems are at the cutting edge because they use action learning projects for leadership development. Such projects enable participants to develop leadership practices in a real school environment. They engage in a school improvement inquiry that directly reflects the roles and responsibilities of principals. Critically, they are supported by a serving principal who is often the principal of the host school. This leads to effective mentoring, as the mentor has a professional stake in the success of the candidate’s project.

4. In high-performing systems, school leadership programs build skills for a dynamic work environment. School principals work in complex professional learning environments that are dynamic and in constant flux. No formula exists for effective leadership in complex environments, so leaders need to develop resilience, critical thinking skills, and the ability to adapt practices for new situations. Leadership development programs in these systems are not “content events” but are instead a way of defining the principal’s job as a continuous learning process.

5. Leadership development programs in high-performing systems continue throughout a leader’s career. Unlike most U.S. school jurisdictions, these high-performing systems take a systematic and comprehensive approach to leadership development that is career-long and system-wide. They actively identify, recruit and develop high-potential leaders from early in teachers’ careers, following them through to the system level. The programs considered here are part of a broader leadership development continuum for each system and have been designed to complement it.


At an October 19 webinar to release the report, educators from Singapore and Ontario, two of the systems studied in the report, and two school leaders from the United States, discussed the report’s findings and how they relate to their leadership-development efforts.

Pak Tee Ng of the National Institute of Education in Singapore, which trains all school leaders in that country, said Singapore’s approach can be defined as “centralized decentralization.” That is, there is one strategic direction for all schools, but each school can decide how to carry out that direction.

Thus, he added, principals in Singapore are both school leaders and system leaders; they serve both as leaders in their buildings and as members of the team that leads the national system. The leadership development program at NIE, he said, prepares principals for that dual role.

Carol Campbell, a professor of leadership and educational change at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said Ontario similarly has developed a strategic framework for all schools, and principals need to be able to work within that framework. “You don’t just pick a person and place him in a school,” she said.

Campbell added that Ontario works with practicing principals to continue their learning and development throughout their careers, a feature highlighted in the report. “Leadership development is always unfinished,” she said.

Ken Wagner, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education in Rhode Island, said that state is working with the National Institute of School Leadership (NISL) to develop the capacity of leaders at all levels, from teachers to district superintendents. The report’s discussion of Singapore’s continuum of leadership will help Rhode Island in their efforts, Wagner said.

Jason Dougal, the chief executive officer of NISL, noted that the report stressed the importance in the top-performing countries of preparing leaders by examining the conceptual framework for the work of school leaders, not just the behaviors they exhibit. “Knowing what an effective leader looks like doesn’t guarantee success,” Dougal said. “Leadership is more than a set of behaviors.”

Marc Tucker, while praising the report, cautioned readers not to assume that the programs it describes can be implemented effectively in the United States without additional changes to the education system. Singapore’s leadership development programs work well because the other components of the system—such as school organization, teacher development and career ladders—complement the leadership efforts, Tucker said. “If you take a powerful component of a system and install it in a system that is otherwise unchanged, the results will be disappointing,” he said. “Think hard about implementing the other parts of the system that make it effective.”

Along with the main report, CIEB released a companion policy brief and in-depth case studies of the jurisdictions featured in Preparing to Lead. You can read more about the study and access both the cases and the policy brief by visiting