Sameer Sampat on the context of leadership & the evolution of the India School Leadership Institute

In a recent interview, Sameer Sampat, CEO of the India School Leadership Institute (ISLI) talked about the early stages of the Institute’s development. Founded in 2013, ISLI seeks to help school leaders take their schools from “good to great” by enabling them to develop and improve their leadership skills.

When Sameer Sampat headed to India in 2013, he was already convinced that improving school leadership serves as a key lever in improving student learning. As a consequence, the opportunity to work at a new organization – launched by the Akanksha Foundation, Central Square Foundation, and Teach For India – designed expressly to develop the skills of schools leaders in India was a perfect fit. Sampat was equipped for the job through experience teaching in both the US and India and through work he had done with Roland Fryer to identify and support effective schools. In order to build on those experiences, Sampat and his founding colleagues faced the challenge of developing a program that recognizes and responds to the realities of leadership in the context of education in India.

The emergence of ISLI: Expanding the focus from teaching to leading

ISLI’s work began at a time when conversations in India were just beginning to turn from ensuring access to education for all students (through initiatives like the Right To Education Act) to creating a high quality education for all students. But, as Sampat explained “there was a lot of conversation about teacher quality, but the conversation about school leadership quality was much more limited.” Furthermore, organizations dedicated to creating new schools in India like the Akanksha Foundation encountered a similar problem that school networks in the US (like KIPP and Uncommon Schools) had faced: they were having trouble finding leaders with the skills and experience needed to develop and sustain their schools. ISLI was created to fill this need and to develop a national leadership development program that would build on the example of programs in the US like KIPP’s Fischer Fellowship Program and adapt them for the Indian context.

One of the first accommodations ISLI made was to recognize that the leadership pipeline in India is entirely different than it is in the US and many other countries. In contrast to the US, where principals usually first spend at least a few years teaching, some school leaders in India do not have extensive teaching experience. In fact, school leadership in India is often a largely managerial position. Furthermore, relatively little training or certification is required in order to become a principal. Therefore, rather than try to create an entirely new pipeline from teaching into leadership through a “pre-service” program for new leaders, ISLI chose to try to respond to the needs of existing school leaders by creating a program that could also provide “in-service” support for those already in leadership positions.

In their first year, after receiving about 100 applications, ISLI selected 7 initial fellows for a one year, highly flexible and individualized program. At that time, the framework for the program focused on six strands of competencies that they identified based on their own distillation of the common traits and practices of effective school leaders: leadership for equity; leadership for results; people leadership; personal leadership; instructional leadership; and operational leadership.

ISLI’s 2nd Year: From a national to a “local” model

While ISLI considered that first year a success, Sampat noted that they realized that “a lot of the components of the model were not contextualized enough for India.” In particular, they found that they had to put even more emphasis on leading for learning and shared leadership than they had anticipated. “We needed leaders who themselves might not have experience as excellent teachers,” Sampat explained, “but can they identify what good teaching looks like? And then can they have the humility and the shared leadership skills to allow the people on their staffs to promote those skills on their teams?” Sampat and his colleagues also found that there was too much choice and flexibility in the US models. In fact, the Fischer Fellows model originally enabled leaders to explore some 90 different competencies; but ISLI ultimately honed their model to focus on three strands, covering eight competences in total, that they deemed central to the success of all their leaders.

Lastly, while ISLI wanted to take advantage of the knowledge and expertise of experienced and effective leaders by recruiting retired school leaders as coaches, they found that it was not easy to find principals who were aligned to ISLI’s vision of leadership. As Sampat put it, “because the culture and what it means to be a school leader is so engrained in India you almost have to have your coaches unlearn and then relearn how to do coaching conversations.” Furthermore, those principals that were most effective were already fully committed leading their own schools, with limited time to provide the extensive support ISLI envisioned. Instead of trying to turn existing leaders into coaches, ISLI decided to change to a model of on-site support that included very specific, targeted instruction for ISLI principals focused on high-leverage practices like school walkthroughs, lesson observations, and school improvement planning. In order to staff this approach, they brought in educators who had expertise in a particular area, but generally were not themselves leaders.

Recognizing the difficulties that the ISLI leaders faced in trying to implement what they were learning in their own schools, however, ISLI still wanted to find a way to tap into the experience and expertise of the most effective school leaders in India. Therefore, ISLI decided to establish what they called the “Leaders Network.” Drawing particularly on the National Leaders of Education Program in the UK, the Leaders Network pairs each ISLI participant with a leader from a local high performing school for a “thought partnership” that includes ongoing conversations and consultations. “It’s a way for them to share their experiences,” Sampat explained, “and it’s good professional development for all of them.”

In order to accommodate many of these changes, in their second year, ISLI chose to pilot two different programs at the same time: they continued the one year program, but they also developed a second, two-year version of the program – with the “thought partnerships” a focus of the second year. They considered the two-year program a more “localized” model as the participants and their thought partners were all drawn from one metropolitan area – Delhi.

The second time around, ISLI had roughly one hundred applicants and selected ten participants each for the 1-year and the 2-year program. While the ISLI designers again felt that the one-year program was successful, they ultimately concluded that the two-year, localized, model had the best opportunity to make the biggest impact. From Sampat’s perspective, the development of the thought partnerships in the second year was a particularly crucial factor. Without that, Sampat declared, “I don’t think we would have been able to ramp up operations the way that we have.” As he explained, with the local model, staff can be concentrated in a city, with many more “touchpoints” in a given year.

The 3rd year: Strengthening the organization and expanding the model

In the third year, ISLI concentrated on honing the two-year model, firming up the curriculum and establishing systems and structures to tighten their support and efficiency. At the same time, ISLI made a concerted effort to ramp up the scale of the program to 200 new leaders, with groups of fifty leaders in four different cities. “We felt like fifty schools was the right number to have in a city,” Sampat explained. “You have enough variety, where the schools can learn a lot from each other, but you can provide good support without getting overwhelmed.” Further, the expansion to four different metropolitan contexts allowed them to begin to learn how the model in Delhi that they had adapted from the US and the UK might need to be further localized to worked in other Indian regions. As Sampat put it, “Because doing the program in Delhi is very different from doing it in Hyderabad, which is very different from doing it in Pune.”

Sampat pointed to three ways that the program had to adapt as it expanded into different regions in the third year:

  • Logistical differences including differences in languages, holidays, and schedules
  • Organizational differences in the ways that schools are structured in terms of their governance and operations and in terms of the backgrounds of school leaders
  • Cultural differences in the approaches to school leaders and the relationships between school leaders and the other members of the schools and the community

In terms of school structures, in Bombay and Pune private schools there’s usually a management committee that hires a principal, but in Delhi and Hyderabad the private school owner often also serves as the leader of the school. Culturally, in Hyderabad, the school leaders tend to be slightly older, and, as a result, there is a certain respect that comes with being an elder in the community that needs to be taken into account. In simple terms, that means being very conscious in Hyderabad of making appointments with the school leader before coming to visit; in contrast in cities like Delhi unannounced visits to schools and school leaders are not seen as impolite and are much more common.

While 200 new leaders started in the program, about sixty had left by the end of the third year. In part, the departures reflected attrition in the form of transfers and retirements (particularly among government schools); but some leaders left as the recognized that program did not offer what they were looking for (such as help with infrastructure rather than with curriculum). However, many of the departures also resulted from ISLI’s development of fairly strict policies around who can continue. As Sampat reported, “if you come to the workshops but aren’t attempting to implement in your schools, after we think we’ve done everything we can, we begin conversations that could lead to you being asked to leave the program.” In order to inform those decisions, ISLI has developed a number of benchmarks of progress that include basic measures of engagement including attendance at events and appointments. ISLI staff members assigned to each school also produce monthly monitoring reports looking for evidence of any efforts to implement what the leaders have been learning.

Lastly, ISLI has also established several non-negotiables around student safety. “One big thing,” Sampat noted, “is corporal punishment. By law in India there should be no corporal punishment in schools, but if you look at most of the schools, there is rampant corporal punishment when we start.” Therefore, ISLI works closely with participants to abolish corporal punishment, but a lack of evidence of quick progress in the first year also leads ISLI to ask participants to leave the program. “While we have a pretty rigorous bar for what you have to cross, we also provide a lot of support and time for you to get to that point…It takes some leaders three or four months just to be intellectually convinced that they need to make some change in their school.”

The 4th year and beyond?

Currently, ISLI is in the midst of a “demonstration phase” with the goal of training 1000 leaders in six cities over the next three years. In the process, ISLI hopes to see if the program can both have an impact on these 1000 schools and can do so in a cost effective way, and then to expand beyond that. If the demonstration phase proves successful, ISLI will have to face the key strategic question of how to have an even broader impact on a system of 1.2 million schools and 200 million school-going children. Sampat speculated on several approaches that ISLI could pursue singly or in combination to expand their reach and impact:

  • Develop tools and resources and make them available to all schools
  • Engage more deeply in government schools by embedding ISLI training program within the existing infrastructure
  • Focus on the budget private school system and “productize” ISLI’s services so that a large percentage of school leaders want to achieve the kind of training and certification that ISLI offers

“We don’t want to jump too far ahead, though” Sampat cautioned. “We don’t want to start thinking about 10,000 schools, until we sure we have had a signifincat, positive impact on 1000 schools.” Notably, the 1000 schools figure would be substantially larger than most school networks in the US. While Success for All has grown to include over 1000 schools since its launch in 1987, most other school networks are much smaller. KIPP, which provided one of the leadership program models for ISLI, has about 180 schools in its current network.

For Sampat, with his experiences in both the US and India, questions of expansion stretch even further. As he puts it, “can we take what we’ve learned in India and apply it in productive ways in other aspects of the developing world?” While he expects that many adjustments will need to be made, he notes that most of the models that ISLI built on came from the US and UK, but ISLI’s model may be more relevant to other developing contexts in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia or even Latin America. Nonetheless, he expects that more adaptations will always be required. “We would have to rely on people that are in-country and on empowering them to make the changes and to make the adaptations that make sense for their context.”

Thomas Hatch




2 responses to “Sameer Sampat on the context of leadership & the evolution of the India School Leadership Institute

  1. Pearl Rock Kane

    Thank you for this informative update on ISLI

  2. Pingback: Global School Leaders Respond to COVID-19 | International Education News

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