What Do We Know About School Leadership in Lower and Middle Income Countries?

Global School Leaders (GSL), recently released the results of a survey of school leaders from programs run by country partners in India, Kenya, Malaysia, and Indonesia.  This week Sameer Sampat shares some of the background and key results from that survey (with the full results of the survey available on their website). Sampat has also discussed the evolution of GSL in two previous IEN posts – Supporting school leadership around the world and the context of leadership & the evolution of the India School Leadership Institute.

Strong school leadership impacts student outcomes, and this relationship is more important during a crisis. School leadership training can be cost-effective if it is delivered using best practices. However, there are limited programs focused on working with school leaders in lower and middle income countries (LMICs). As a result, the evidence base on this issue is sparse relative to the central role that school leaders play in a school’s functioning.

My organization, Global School Leaders (GSL), aims to play a catalytic role in developing evidence on school leadership in LMICs. In order to do this, we have been scaling school leadership training programs while strengthening our monitoring, evaluation, and research systems to contribute to the larger ecosystem of learning on this issue. We have worked with over 3,500 school leaders, impacting approximately 920,000 students.  Our primary countries of focus are India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Kenya. During COVID, we have expanded to work in Peru, the Philippines, Uganda and Nigeria.

Why survey school leaders?

In 2020, we conducted a thorough review of the evidence on school leadership in LMICs. One of the key questions that emerged from that review is: “What are the key leadership practices that impact student learning for students from marginalized backgrounds?”

In order to deepen our understanding of this question, we have developed a set of High-Leverage Leadership Actions (HLLA) that synthesizes key leadership practices identified by our review and our experience training school leaders. We then developed a consultative process with a group of 10 education leadership researchers, our Academic Advisory Council, whose work is rooted in LMICs, to further refine this list.

These focus areas are not intended to be a complete framework of practices for school leaders. Instead, they serve as actions that 1) impact student outcomes and teacher performance 2) are trainable 3) are relevant across contexts.  The six High-Leverage Leadership Actions we have identified are:

  1. Create a positive school culture that reflects high expectations
  2. Build teacher skill through observation & feedback
  3. Understand effective teaching practices
  4. Set school goals, create plans, and monitor progress
  5. Promote teacher leadership
  6. Disrupt inequitable patterns

In order to understand the quality of school leader practice in HLLA areas and the amount of time school leaders give to HLLA areas, we developed a set of school leader, teacher, and student surveys.

We piloted this survey toward the end of 2020 with our partners from India, Kenya, Malaysia, and Indonesia.  Each of our four partners identified one school leader training program that started in early 2020. From this group of 180 schools, we randomly selected 10 schools from each partner. From each selected school, we surveyed the school leader, 5 teachers, and 20 students in grades 5 or 8. Our sample was thus 40 school leaders, 200 teachers, and 200 students. We ended up collecting data from 34 School Leaders, 116 teachers, and 145 students. The biggest gap in data collection was that our India partner was unable to collect teacher or student data.

What did you learn from the survey?

Overall, three findings from the study stood out:

1. The belief that all students can learn, and that teachers are critical in this process, is not universal.

In our sample survey, we saw that the percentage of teachers who believe that “all students can learn” is lower than the percentage of school leaders who believe the same. While 74% of our school leaders believe that all students can learn regardless of familial background or educational experience, only 48% of teachers agree.

While 74% of our school leaders believe that all students can learn regardless of familial background or educational experience, only 48% of teachers agree.

2. School leaders are providing teachers with limited opportunities to grow professionally.

Less than 40% of teachers reported receiving monthly short observations of at least 5 minutes from their school leader. Further, only 12% of school leaders reported conducting monthly observations of 30 or more minutes. Less than 50% of teachers reported their school leaders doing monthly in-service activities related to improving teacher skills and only 16% of teachers stated that they had opportunities to learn from their colleagues.

Less than 50% of teachers reported their school leaders doing monthly in-service activities related to improving teacher skills

3. School leaders use little data for decision making.

In our sample, less than 20% of school leaders reported using learning data to make curriculum changes, and only around 25% reported using data to incentivize teachers. Even though student absenteeism was identified by both teachers and parents as the biggest hurdle to student learning in their schools, only 62% of school leaders reported tracking student attendance. While almost all the school leaders reported having a school improvement plan that included student learning targets, in a majority of cases, these are not updated or reviewed regularly.

Less than 20% of school leaders reported using learning data to make curriculum changes, and only around 25% reported using data to incentivize teachers

Moving forward, we plan to conduct yearly follow up with this group of schools to see how their practice changes over time. We also will continue to test and refine our understanding of key actions leaders need to perform to impact students and improve our ability to measure these actions. We believe that understanding the detailed actions and choices school leaders make can have a substantial and sustained impact over the quality of education students receive.

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