Op-ed: Principal leadership learning is key to improving education systems.
Schools are one of the most important institutions in society, and principals have a vital role in leading these institutions and positively impacting teaching and learning. And this is not a new finding. Research has shown that school leadership is one of the most important aspects that influence student learning, and consequently a critical factor in improving the lives and educational outcomes of children, and the broader economic conditions of nations.
When given the agency and trust to act as leaders, teachers and principals can play vital leadership roles in schools and systems – beyond the classroom
However, the positive impact of school leadership does not occur by default. Instead, school leaders should be supported, empowered, and welcomed into policy discourse as collaborators, and co-designers. They shouldn’t be dictated to by top-down bureaucracy.
What we’ve seen during the COVID-19 crisis is that, when given the agency and trust to act as leaders, teachers and principals can play vital leadership roles in schools and systems – beyond the classroom. And I sincerely hope this is something we keep in the ‘new normal’ once this crisis has passed.
However, despite strong empirical evidence showing the importance of investing in school leadership, actual investment by governments and systems – in the form of research funding and support for professional learning – has declined in the last two decades. Coupled with a seismic shift in how we think about learning and schooling in the face of an ever-changing future, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, this has left many school systems deficient of the leadership needed to nurture future-ready educators and learners as they navigate a path of uncertainty.
I propose two recommendations to support school leadership through collaboration and local and global networks.
During my research in Qatar, I have found that principals here are not that different from those in other parts of the world; like all school leaders, they need support in leading successful schools, such as helping them to collaborate and network, and to set up an enabling and supportive system. Part of my job at WISE is to work with local school leaders in building their capacity – beyond that of simply a manager or administrator – by helping them to develop essential leadership skills and capabilities, such as collaboration, problem solving, and life-long learning mindsets.
At WISE, we have been running a multi-year program called Empowering Leaders of Learning (ELL), and part of this program’s approach is to recognize that principals themselves are leaders and learners, and that they cannot work alone and need systems to continually support them. To this point, one key goal of our ELL program is to instill a collaborative mindset in our school leaders, and encourage the creation of leadership teams in schools bounded by a set of shared values and a deep sense of psychological safety. This is one way we can improve education systems.
I strongly feel that the challenge in our current understanding of school improvement is not knowing what schools ought to do, but knowing how principals can get those tasks done
I strongly feel that the challenge in our current understanding of school improvement is not knowing what schools ought to do, but knowing how principals can get those tasks done. The ability of systems to engage and involve principals in improvement processes is a missing feature in many schools.
In my work in Qatar and through my research on the systemic educational change that Qatar has experienced, I have found that what this reform in Qatar missed, as have many other education reform efforts globally, is this crucial leadership piece: involving our principals and school leaders in the essential design process of educational policy and school reform. School leaders need to be given a seat at the table in policy discussions, as, ultimately, they are the key conduits for translating policy into practice in schools.
In fact, the COVID-19 crisis offers a perfect example of the important role school leaders can and should play in actualizing policy at the school level. At the outset of the crisis in March, we saw school leaders globally lead their schools in their transformation into remote learning environments overnight to align with public health policy. And because there was no playbook for governments and ministries to dictate exactly what this rapid change would look like, the COVID-19 crisis gave many school leaders the opportunity to innovate, lead, and accelerate change at a scale and depth never seen before.
Governments and ministries dictating educational policy need to rethink their own working cultures and bring school leaders to the table as co-designers and collaborators
Research on educational leadership indicates that many education systems worldwide struggle with making these same connections between what happens at the policy level and the school level, and much needs to be done to develop cohesive systems, including encouraging governments to make further investments in high-quality school leadership development programs that emphasize a continuous improvement paradigm. At the same time, governments and ministries dictating educational policy need to rethink their own working cultures and bring school leaders to the table as co-designers and collaborators in drafting educational policy, reform and delivery.
One way I personally hope to encourage change at the school and system level is through the global school leadership network I am leading at WISE – The Agile Leaders of Learning Innovation Network (ALL-IN). ALL-IN was established in 2017 as a global network of educational leadership experts and organizations that research, design, and advocate for high quality school leadership policies and practices that prepare and support school systems. In fact, as part of the WISE Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined convening series in September 2020, we hosted a virtual convening which considers the 21st Century school leadership paradigm through the lens of the COVID-19 crisis.
The outcomes from this event will serve as a springboard for our leadership network to devise an updated two-year strategic plan to ensure that school leadership is put squarely on the policy map as governments begin to build their education systems back from COVID-19.
Written during the first five months of the coronavirus crisis, WISE’s special edition e-book, Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined: Thoughts and Responses from Education’s Frontline During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond, tells the story of education amid the pandemic. It spans over 40 articles and essays written by key education stakeholders during the crisis, including perspectives from schools, NGOs, governments, and international organizations.
The e-book will be launched during a WISE event that is one of QF’s Global Goals Week 2020 sessions, on Tuesday, September 29, at 3.30pm Doha time, where six of its authors will participate in a panel discussion about the future of education in a post-COVID-19 world. To register, visit www.qf.org.qa/united-nations-global-goals-week