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How Do High-Performing Education Systems Develop Their Principals?

A new international-comparison study sheds light on important factors in the development of school leaders in selected "high-performing" systems around the world. The study, sponsored by the National Center on Education and the Economy’s Center on International Education Benchmarking, highlights commonalities in principal preparation among the systems whose students scored highest on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey: Hong Kong, Ontario, Shanghai, and Singapore.

Australian researcher Ben Jensen authored the report, Preparing to Lead: Lessons in Principal Development From High-Performing Education Systems. Its overarching message is that successful education systems provide current and future school leaders with preparation that is specifically tailored to the real-world problems and contexts they will face in their work environments.

“The best programs combine a detailed understanding of principals’ roles and responsibilities with a deep grounding in the system’s particular philosophy and objectives for how schools get better,” Jensen said.

While their contextual emphases vary considerably, the four studied systems share key commonalities. The analysis finds that they all –

  • Structure leadership development to reflect their vision for schools.
  • Train leaders to manage professional learning.
  • Tie leadership development to real problems of practice that school leaders can influence.
  • Run school leadership programs that build skills for a dynamic work environment.
  • Continue leadership development programs throughout a leader’s career.

Access the full report and its accompanying policy brief here. You can also view a recorded webinar from October 19 where researchers and leaders from the field discuss the findings (including Jensen, NCEE President Marc Tucker, Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Ken Wagner, Associate Dean of School Leadership at Singapore’s National Institute of Education Pak Tee Ng, Associate Professor of Leadership and Education Change at the University of Toronto Carol Campbell, international education expert and thought leader Anthony Mackay, and National Institute for School Leadership CEO Jason Dougal).

Through a communication grant partnership with The Wallace Foundation, AACTE is currently hosting a series of free webinars themed “Principals as Transformation Leaders,” which has a similar focus on highlighting real-world needs of school leaders and best practice in principal preparation. The next webinars in this series will be Principals as Transformation Leaders: Changing School Cultures, scheduled for November 9, and Principals as Transformation Leaders: High-Quality Preservice Preparation, scheduled for November 30. Both will take place at 3:00 p.m. EST.

Fellow Wallace communication partner the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) also recently hosted a webinar in observance of National Principals Month, Tales From the Field: What Graduates Have to Say About Exemplary Preparation, which featured three practicing principals and graduates from the University of Denver, University of Illinois-Chicago, and University of Washington who discussed how high-quality, research-based preparation has impacted their leadership.


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Sarah Verneret

AACTE Intern

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