Effective Leadership in High-Need Schools: How Do Leaders Read and Respond to Context?

Context Matters: Professor Bruce Barnett describes some key findings from the High-Need Schools research projects…

Schools around the world serve large numbers of students at risk of educational failure or in need of special assistance and support. Many of these students live in poverty, are homeless, reside in foster care, have physical and learning disabilities, and are second language learners. As a result of these conditions, many students drop out of school, are employed in low-paying jobs, and become dependent on public assistance. These conditions also affect children’s sense of hope. Although American adolescents and undergraduate students tend to be more hopeful than are their counterparts in other countries (Lester, 2015), about 30% of American adolescents experience a sense of hopelessness, with much higher rates among racial and ethnic minority groups (Child Trends, 2012).

Given the increasing numbers of schools serving high-need students and communities, the International School Leadership Development Network (ISLDN) was developed as a joint initiative of the British Educational Leadership, Management, and Administration Society (BELMAS) and the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA). Two areas of focus have emerged: (1) leadership for social justice and (2) leadership in high-need schools. (For more background about the ISLDN, see https://isldn.weebly.com).

High-Need Schools Project Overview

One of the major purposes of the ISLDN is to examine what leaders in high-need schools are doing to overcome many of the educational, social, and economic challenges students and families are encountering. I, along with Jami Berry (University of Georgia), Ian Potter (Bayhouse School, United Kingdom), Pam Angelle (University of Tennessee), and Charles Slater (California State University, Long Beach), have been co-directing these research projects.

The High-Need Schools (HNS) project consists of researchers who are conducting case studies of high-need school leadership across the globe. The project focuses on schools and communities with large numbers of families with incomes below the poverty line, teachers who are not teaching in the content area in which they were trained to teach, teacher and leader turnover, non-native language speakers, and students from indigenous groups.

The project has sought to identify school principals working in a number of different cultural contexts to addresses the following research questions:

  1. What fosters student learning in high-need schools?
  2. How do principals and other school leaders enhance individual and organizational performance in high-need schools?
  3. How do internal and external school contexts impact individual and organizational performance in high-need schools?

Project Findings

A recent special issue of International Studies in Educational Administration (Gurr & Drysdale, 2018) summarizes how principals in high-need schools in several countries (Australia, Belize, Mexico, New Zealand, United States) deal with the internal and external contextual factors influencing student and teacher performance. These six studies examine the relationship between leadership and context, an important area of study since this interplay can determine success and failure (Clarke & O’Donoghue, 2016). Successful leaders understand the context in which they work and can navigate the various levels of context to forge successful outcomes, while other leaders can be constrained or derailed by the context.

One of the studies of a high-need school in the USA identifies the critical contextual challenges principals experience, including national policy changes affecting privatization and reduced resources for public schools, unequitable allocation of support in high-poverty areas, high principal turnover, and inadequate leadership preparation. The school leader addressed these challenges by developing a positive culture of learning through use of quality data, increased community engagement, improved climate and higher teacher quality.

A second study examines the leadership of three underperforming schools in Australia. The authors identify six layers of context: institutional, community, socio-cultural, economic, political, and school improvement. The leaders of each of the schools worked within these six contextual dimensions to improve school performance despite the fact that two schools were in educationally high-advantaged contexts, but were defined as high-need schools.

The third study explores how four leaders in an urban elementary school in a high-need urban context in South Texas have successfully improved and sustained student performance over 25 years. The findings reveal how each principal sought to understand and work within the community, school, and district context to develop interventions that improved and sustained success. Collectively, the strategies adopted by each principal were shown to build on previous success.

Leadership within an early childhood setting in a challenging social economic context in New Zealand constitutes the fourth study. The research emphasizes how these principals developed strong, nurturing relationships with parents and the community to foster a positive environment that enhanced students’ life chances.

The fifth study explores school leaders’ roles in developing a STEM (Science, Technology, Education, Math) curriculum for students in a secondary school in Belize (Central America). Despite limited resources, the two school leaders collaborated with the community to maximize ways for the STEM program to provide opportunities for students to work practically within the industry to develop career options in tourism.

The final study explores principal leadership practices within three Mexican elementary schools in high-need environments. Using a multi-perspective case study approach, the authors outline the external and internal contextual challenges principals had to navigate. These principals promoted order and discipline, clarified roles and rules, managed external support, and developed students’ self-esteem and sense of belonging.

Conclusions

These cases reveal school leaders’ contextual acuity by adapting their interventions or practices to suit their unique circumstances. In Belize, the two principals connected the curriculum with current interest in STEM education and the local industries that were likely to be sources of employment for students. In New Zealand, the three early childhood leaders not only focused on developing teachers, but also understood the importance of developing parents’ skills, particularly in helping them raise their children. In Australia, one of the principals in a school that was about to be closed decided to develop a student-focused learning environment by searching for “next practice” ideas, and assembling them into a coherent instructional program. The other two principals led “best practice” environments where the schools utilized ideas that were known to be effective approaches to learning. In the South Texas school with four principals over 25 years, each principal adapted to their context and built on the foundations laid by previous principals, a powerful story of how thoughtful leaders were able to read their immediate and past school contexts to continue nurturing school success.

School leadership team planning meeting

 

What also emerges from these studies of contextual leadership in high-need schools is how common views of leadership describe the core practices of these principals: setting direction, developing people, redesigning the organization, and improving teaching and learning (Day & Leithwood, 2007). The ECE leaders in New Zealand set direction, developed people, and redesigned the organization as well as created positive school/family relationships. The four principals in South Texas set a clear direction for student improvement, supported teachers to improve, altered school conditions, improved teaching and learning processes, and fostered significant parent and community engagement. At the other high-need USA school, significant improvement in staff retention, curriculum, student behavior and attendance, parent involvement, and student learning outcomes resulted from the principal establishing a collaborative school vision, creating a culture of learning, and implementing incremental change in discipline, attendance, training, and curriculum implementation.

Research also demonstrates several types of organizational leaders who are sensitive to their contexts: (1) entrepreneurs are ahead of their time, not constrained by their environment, and able to overcome almost impossible barriers to develop and implement new ideas, (2) managers are skilled at understanding and exploiting their context and possess a deep understanding of how the context can shape and grow their organizations, and (3) leaders confront change and see potential in their organizations that others fail to see. In sum, “Entrepreneurs create new businesses, managers grow and optimize them, and leaders transform them at critical inflection points” (Mayo & Nohria, 2005, p. 48). Evidence of these patterns and behaviors emerge from our studies of high-need school leaders. For instance, the Australian case demonstrates that one of the principals employed entrepreneurial leadership by creating new processes, structures, and practices. In addition, the two leaders from Belize exemplified leadership and entrepreneurship by introducing an innovative STEM program for students in response to the challenges of a high-needs environment. Furthermore, the New Zealand early childhood principals showed leadership by building social capital through partnering with parents in the community. Despite the changing context at different levels at the national, state, district and community levels, the principal in the Texas case study took advantage of the educational initiatives offered at the state level to introduce a series of strategies to build a learning culture and improve teacher quality. Finally, the Mexican principals developed sound managerial strategies for improving student discipline and establishing clear school rules and roles.

Finally, several lessons about leadership and context emerge from these cases. First, leaders in high-need contexts face seemingly insurmountable obstacles; however, rather than being constrained by these contexts, they are optimistic about a better future for their students and communities. Second, by being contextually sensitive and responding with strategic interventions, they demonstrate the competence and skills to successfully manage situations and make good decisions. Third, they are adaptable to changing systemic, school, and community contexts. Together, these factors reflect school leaders’ contextual acuity.

Aspiring and practicing school leaders in high-need schools need opportunities to develop their contextual acuity. On one hand, they can shadow and interview school leaders who are adroit at reading and responding to their contexts. These observations and conversations not only can reveal how leaders are reading contextual clues, but also can uncover their problem-solving strategies. On the other hand, collaborative work groups of school leaders can be established to allow them to compare and contrast different contextual factors affecting their schools. These experiences can sensitize school leaders to consider various options when dealing with these factors to optimize learning for students, teachers, and parents.

References

Child Trends (2012). Adolescents who felt sad or hopeless: Indicators on children and youth. Bethesda, MD: Author.

Clarke, S., & O’Donoghue (Eds.) (2016). School leadership in diverse contexts. New York, NY: Routledge.

Day, C., & Leithwood, K. (Eds.) (2007). Successful school leadership in times of change. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer-Kluwer.

Gurr, D., & Drysdale, L. (2018). Leading high-need schools: Findings from the International School Leadership Development Network. International Studies in Educational Administration, 46(1), 147-156.

Lester, D. (2015). Hopelessness in adolescents. Journal of Affective Disorders, 173, 221-225.

Mayo, T., & Nohria, N. (2005). Zeitgeist leadership. Harvard Business Review, 83(10), 45-60.

Meet Dr. Barnett

Principal Preparation and Development: Highly Regulated or Loosely Structured?

Bruce Barnett provides a helpful typology for examining school leadership development around the world. Professor Barnett also highlights the trends of governments requiring qualifications for school leaders and the importance of offering professional learning opportunities. Paula

 

Over the past 20 years, I have had the good fortune to visit and work with educators outside the United States, particularly in Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. During my international travels, I have worked with numerous school leaders, teachers, and members of professional associations and university faculty to deliver a variety of programs focusing on mentoring and coaching, reflective practice, and team development.

One of my most personally and professionally rewarding international experiences was collaborating with Gary O’Mahony and Ian Miller of the Australian Principals Centre to develop and deliver the SAGEMentoring Programme. This two-day leadership development program was sponsored by the Victorian Department of Education and various Regional Education Offices throughout the state of Victoria. We also worked with principals in Lutheran Schools in Queensland and South Australia. During the operation of the program from 2000-2007, we trained over 1000 principals to become mentors for new principals in their school systems (Barnett, 2001; Barnett, O’Mahony, & Miller, 2002).

This experience in Australia, coupled with my time in other countries, exposed me to approaches to school leadership development occurring in a variety of cultural contexts. On one hand, I came to appreciate that offering quality professional development programs for school administrators is definitely becoming a much higher priority, and many educational systems are providing resources to allow practicing administrators to participate in these programs.

On the other hand, I also realized not nearly the same level of attention is devoted to formally preparing aspiring principals in other countries as in the USA. The predominant school leadership preparation model in the USA requires aspiring principals to complete advanced-level coursework often leading to a master’s degree, pass a state-administered test, participate in an induction program provided by their employing school district, and complete a specified number of hours of professional development in order to maintain their license or certificate. Outside the USA, mandatory certification systems operated for short time periods in England and Scotland in the past decade; recently, Malaysia (Jones et al, 2015) and Indonesia (Sumintono et al, 2015) have implemented mandatory certification requirements. Nevertheless, most nations have no formal pre-qualification training requirements for educators seeking to become principals or required professional development once they start serving in the role.

Therefore, my curiosity about the variability of preparing and developing principals around the world has led me to ponder several questions:

  1. What practices and policies focus on preparing and developing school principals?
  2. What trends are evolving in the preparation and development of school principals?

Practices and Policies

My review of school leadership preparation requirements suggests there is a continuum of systems addressing school leadership and development:

  • Tightly regulated systems. Principal candidates must complete formal requirements from an authorized provider (e.g., university, local education authority). In Singapore, for example, potential leaders are identified early in their career, engage in a variety of leadership tasks, and complete interviews and assessment center tasks before determining their eligibility to engage in the principal accreditation system (Gurr & Drysdale, 2017).
  • Moderately regulated systems. Preservice school leadership programs are available and sponsored by government agencies; however, they are not mandatory to be eligible for principalship positions (e.g., Australia, New Zealand, Sweden). Induction programs are offered for new principals, some of which are required (e.g., Austria, Czech Republic) (Moller & Schratz, 2008).
  • Loosely regulated systems. Preparation programs or experiences for aspiring school leaders are sparse or non-existent. Professional development is offered for practicing principals, although offerings are infrequent, require long distance travel, and participants costs are not covered (e.g., Africa, Asia, Mexico, Central and South America) (Lumby, Crow, & Pashiardis, 2008).

There also is great variability in how educational systems determine if principal candidates are prepared to take on the role. In their review of the processes used for identifying and assessing the readiness of aspiring principals for the principalship in Australia and 11 other countries, Gurr and Drysdale (2017) discovered several trends. First, although most systems require principals to come from the teaching ranks, some systems require candidates to possess demonstrated leadership experience, have served as senior teachers, and/or have completed a specified qualification process. Second, most principalship candidates self-select for the position; some systems encourage mentoring, nominations, or recommendations from superiors. Very few nations tightly regulate eligibility for potential principal candidates (e.g., Singapore), some countries require candidates to complete an approved certification program to be eligible for principal vacancies (USA, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Scotland beginning in 2019), while many others have few restrictions on who can apply for principalships. Finally, some systems, especially those that require certification, assess candidates’ qualifications based on pre-determined national or local professional standards, and more countries are establishing standards and competencies for principals (e.g., Hong Kong, Russia, New Zealand).

International Trends

Because of the important role principals play in improving the learning conditions for students (see Paula Cordeiro’s March 8, 2018 post, “Girls’ Education Goes Beyond Getting Girls into School” and Tony Townsend’s March 14, 2018 blog, “Leading Literacy Learning: Sharing Leadership at its Best” for good examples), more attention is being devoted to preparing and developing principals. Despite the fact that many countries have a loosely regulated system for identifying, preparing, and developing school leaders, there is growing evidence that these conditions are changing. For instance, Huber’s (2008) analysis of leadership development patterns in 15 countries across Europe, Asia, Australasia, and North America revealed that: (a) preparatory qualification programs are being offered more frequently, (b) more training programs are being developed to explore the challenges and realities of the principalship and its responsibilities, (c) leadership development is shifting from administrative and legal issues to communication, cooperation, leadership, change, and continuous improvement, and (d) workplace learning experiences are increasing (e.g., mentoring, internships), rather than relying only on course-based learning.

While these international trends are neither universal nor have been adopted in many nations, they do suggest an increasing realization of the need to provide professional support for educators who aspire to and become school principals.

Even tightly regulated systems, like in the USA, changes in the preparation and development of school leaders are occurring. For example, research has identified the important features of effective principal preparation (Davis & Darling-Hammond, 2012; Orr & Orphanos, 2011). However, many programs do not implement these features because of high costs and lack of resources, and most state policy makers have not created legislative policies supported by these research findings (Anderson & Reynolds, 2015).

In addition, an increasing number of principal preparation providers besides universities have surfaced, such as non-profit organizations, school districts, and charter schools (Tozer, Zavitkovsky, Whalen, & Martinez, 2015) as well as a host of on-line programs. This situation has created far more certified administrators than positions exist. Consider these statistics from two states:

  • In Illinois, there are just under 3000 practicing principals, slightly more than 400 new principals are hired each year, with over 44,000 certified candidates (Haller & Hunt, 2016)
  • In Texas, where over 8000 principals are employed, there are about 800 vacancies per year, and preparation programs produce over 2500 certified master’s degree candidates annually (Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 2018).

In order to regulate the number of university preparation programs and utilize state resources more efficiently, a number of states, including Ohio, North Carolina, and Illinois, required universities programs to reapply for program approval, resulting in a reduced number of approved providers.

What does the future hold for school leadership preparation and development? Clearly, there is growing interest by policymakers and professional associations around the world to raise the quality of principal preparation and development. Although pre-qualification requirements for the principalship may never reach the same level as for teacher certification, my sense is that there is growing momentum to ensure principal candidates are better prepared for the role and supported once they take on the job. I am heartened by the growing recognition that aspiring and practicing principals deserve the professional support, guidance, and resources needed to improve their capacity to influence school improvement and learning.

I welcome your comments and suggestions regarding how educational systems and providers around the world are addressing leadership preparation and development.

Meet Dr. Barnett

References
Anderson, E., & Reynolds, A. (2015). A policymaker’s guide: Research-based policy for principal preparation program approval and licensure. Charlottesville, VA: University Council for Educational Administration.
Barnett, B. (2001). Mentoring for practising and aspiring school leaders: The “SAGE” model. Australian Principals Centre Monograph, No. 4. Hawthorne, Victoria: APC.
Barnett, B., O’Mahony, G., & Miller, I. (2002). The promise of mentoring. Prime Focus, 29, 23-26.
Davis, S., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2012). Innovative principal preparation programs: What works and how we know. Planning and Changing, 43(1/2), 25-45.
Gurr, D., & Drysdale, L. (2017). Aspiring principals capstone assessment processes. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Graduate School of Education.
Haller, A., & Hunt, E. (2016). Statewide data on supply and demand of principals after policy changes to principal preparation in Illinois. Normal IL: Center for the Study of Education Policy, Illinois State University.
Huber, S. G. (2008). School development and school leader development: New learning opportunities for school leaders and their schools. In J. Lumby, G. Crow, & P. Pashiardis (Eds.), International handbook on the preparation and development of school leaders (pp. 163-175). New York: Routledge.

Jones, M., Adams, D., Joo, M. T. H., Muniandy, V., Perera, C. J., & Harris, A. (2015). Contemporary challenges and changes: Principals’ leadership practices in Malaysia. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 35(3), 353-365.

Lumby, J., Crow, G., & Pashiardis, P. (2008) (Eds.). International handbook on the preparation and development of school leaders. New York: Routledge.
Moller, J., & Schratz, M. (2008). Leadership development in Europe. In J. Lumby, G. Crow, & P. Pashiardis (Eds.), International handbook on the preparation and development of school leaders (pp. 341-366). New York: Routledge.
Orr, M. T., & Orphanos, S. (2011). Graduate level preparation influences the effectiveness of school leaders: A comparison of the outcomes of exemplary and conventional leadership preparation programs for principals. Educational Administration Quarterly, 47(1), 18-70.
Sumintono, B., Sheyoputri, E. Y. A., Jiang, N., Misbach, I. H., & Jumintono (2015). Becoming a principal in Indonesia: Possibility, pitfalls and potential, Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 35(3), 342-352.
Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (2018). Retrieved from: http://www.txhigheredaccountability.org/AcctPublic/InteractiveReport/AddReport
Tozer, S., Zavitkosky, P., Whalen, S., & Martinez, P. (2015). Change agency in our own backyards: Meeting the challenges of next-generation program in school leadership preparation. In M. Khalifa, N. W. Arnold, A. F. Osanloo, & C. M. Grant (Eds.), Handbook of urban educational leadership (pp. 480-495). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.