From Finland to Kyrgyszstan: A Changing Landscape

An international assessment of students finds countries redefining leadership roles to drive improvements by Andreas K.R. Schleicher

International comparisons show that countries differ vastly in the achievement of their students as well as in the degree to which learning opportunities are equitably distributed.


In the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment of science learning, the equivalent of six school years separate the achievement of 15-year-olds in Finland, the best-performing country, from their counterparts in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic. Still more than a school year lies between the neighboring countries Canada, whose students perform well above the average of the principal industralized countries, and the United States, with below-average performance.

SchleicherAndreas Schleicher is a research official with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, France. Photo © By OECD

The fact only a modest part of these differences is accounted for by national wealth or investments in education has fueled the debate as to what is behind the high and equitable learning outcomes and rapid improvements observed in some countries.

One area receiving increasing attention is how countries are redefining school leadership roles to drive improvements in learning outcomes and to responsibly manage increased school autonomy and accountability. The Programme for International Student Assessment, better known as PISA, shows that a substantial proportion of students in countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development now attend schools in which school leaders have high degrees of autonomy in different areas of decision making.

In some countries, the development and adaptation of educational content has been the main expression of school autonomy. Other countries have focused on strengthening the management and administration of individual schools through market-oriented governance instruments or collaboration between schools and other stakeholders in local communities. In some cases, countries are even moving toward centralized governance of curricula and standards.

But effective school autonomy depends on effective leaders and strong support systems. That, in turn, requires distributed leadership, new training and development for school leadership and appropriate support and incentives. To shed light on effective school leadership, the OECD carried out a comparative study in 22 countries in 2008, guided by research on leadership roles that are most conducive to improved teaching and learning.

Teacher Caliber
The study identified the focus on supporting, evaluating and developing teacher quality as the core of effective leadership. This includes coordinating the curriculum and teaching program, monitoring and evaluating teacher practice, promoting teacher professional development and supporting collaborative work cultures.

In Sweden, successful school leaders use more of their time giving feedback to the teachers about their work. They also challenge the thoughts of the staff more frequently. By asking questions such as “How do we know that?” “Could we test another way of doing it?” and “What do we know about how people in other schools do it?” they contribute to a learning atmosphere in the school.

While most countries establish a core curriculum or curriculum framework at national or state levels, it is usually up to school leaders to implement curricula and instruction effectively. On average across OECD countries, PISA shows that more than half of 15-year-olds are in schools where school-level stakeholders have responsibility to decide which courses are offered, and more than 40 percent of students are in schools in charge of determining course content.

School leaders generally have a range of discretion in how they design curriculum content and sequencing, organize teaching and instructional resources, and monitor quality. The data suggest that in countries where principals reported higher degrees of responsibility, performance tended to be higher, even if that relationship can be affected by many factors.

OECD’s study also found teacher monitoring and evaluation an increasingly important responsibility of school leaders. While the nature and consequences of teacher evaluation vary widely across countries, there are formal provisions for teacher evaluation in the majority of the countries studied. The form, rigor, content and consequences of evaluation vary greatly across countries and sometimes within them.
In most countries where teacher evaluation is carried out, it is conducted as part of a larger quality review or school improvement process. The purposes of evaluation distribute roughly equally over formative evaluation, performance appraisal, professional development planning and support for promotion.

Principals’ Views
In general, regular teacher evaluations involve the school principal and other senior school staff, but countries such as Belgium and France also involve a panel with external members. Different criteria for evaluation involve assessment of teaching perform-ance, in-service training and, in some cases, measures of student performance. Classroom observation, interviews and documentation prepared by teachers are the typical methods used in the evaluations.

The weight placed on principal observation or monitoring varies among participating countries from considerable (Slovenia) to slight (Chile, where the principal’s input counts for only 10 percent of the total). Principals can rely almost exclusively on their observations (Slovenia) or on a wide range of other data, such as reviewing teachers’ plans, observing teacher meetings, reviewing teacher communications with parents, pupil performance data, peer review, and teacher self-evaluations (for example, Denmark, England, Korea, Scotland and New Zealand).

The frequency of observations ranges from as often as three to six times per year in England to once every four years in Chile, with several countries settling on annual observations. Where teacher evaluation is conducted, it almost always entails an annual formal meeting between leader and teacher.

The study also suggests school leadership plays a vital role in promoting and participating in professional learning and development for teachers. Different professional development activities exist simultaneously, but their relative weight has changed over the years.
School-based professional development activities involving the entire staff or significant groups of teachers are becoming more common and teacher-initiated personal development less so, at least in terms of programs supported through public funds. Most countries now link professional development to the developmental priorities of the school and coordinate in-service education in the school accordingly.

School management and, in some cases, local school authorities play an important role in planning professional development activities. Some countries, including England, are also ensuring that teachers identify their own professional development needs.

Last but not least, the study revealed that supporting collaborative work cultures is an increasingly important and recognized responsibility of school leaders. Some OECD countries like Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden have more of a history of teamwork and cooperation among their teaching staff, especially in primary schools. Others such as Ireland are shifting to encourage such practice.

School leaders in Finland, when surveyed, spoke enthusiastically about the benefits of collaboration. Sharing resources and ideas helped them face the many demands on their time and energy, and mutual support helped them cope with hard times. One of the heads “loves data,” while another “hates it” and leaned on her colleague for help with statistics. In exchange, she offered expertise in workforce development.

Setting Goals
Aligning instruction with external stand-ards, setting school goals for student performance, measuring progress against those goals and making adjustments in the school program to improve performance were identified as other important aspects of school leadership. School leaders also played a key role in integrating external and internal accountability systems by supporting their teaching staff in aligning instruction with agreed learning goals and performance standards.

Case study schools visited in England used data as a key vehicle to engage the leadership team and teachers in school improvement and student outcome information. As a result, they developed strategies for learning with individual students and classrooms. Information was revisited every six weeks. Data were analyzed at the individual level and classroom level, providing an overview of where problems lie. Intervention teams then stepped in to look into potential underperformance and respond to challenges.

Most countries also have a long tradition of school inspections where leaders are accountable for their use of public funding and for the structures and processes they establish. The majority of OECD countries report they have or are developing national goals, objectives or standards of student performance.

To assess these, accountability frameworks tend to rely on both school and student information. To evaluate school performance, two-thirds of OECD countries have regulations that require middle schools to be inspected regularly, and slightly fewer countries have regulatory requirements for schools to conduct periodic school self-evaluations. To obtain information on student performance, periodic standardized assessments of students in compulsory education occur in two-thirds of OECD countries and just over half of the OECD countries have national examinations that influence the educational careers open to lower secondary school students.

For accountability systems to lead to improvements, they need to focus attention on information relevant to teaching and learning, motivate individuals and schools to use that information, and expend effort to improve practice and build the knowledge necessary for interpreting and applying the information. That requires school leaders with skills in interpreting test results and using data as a central tool to plan and design appropriate strategies for improvement. It also requires school leaders involving their staff in the use of accountability data to strengthen professional learning communities within schools and engaging those who need to change their practice.

Managing Resources
The strategic use of resources and their alignment with pedagogical purposes can help to focus operational activities within the school on the objective of improving teaching and learning. However, where devolution has put greater discretion for maintenance and repair and substantial capital projects in the hands of school leaders, they are often asked to fulfill responsibilities that call for expertise many do not have through formal training. Even where such things are the purview of the school board, it is often formally or informally delegated to the school leader.

PISA shows that, on average across OECD countries, 84 percent of 15-year-old students are enrolled in schools that have full autonomy in deciding how their budgets are spent and 57 percent are in schools that are fully autonomous in formulating their budgets. However, PISA also shows that school leaders only have a modest role in setting teachers’ salaries or awarding salary increases, which somewhat reduces the impression of large budgetary discretion.

Fewer than 60 percent of students across countries are enrolled in schools that hold the key over who is hired as a teacher and less than a quarter of schools are the main player for establishing teachers’ starting salaries and deciding salary increases. Moreover, the lack of transparent and accepted procedures for dealing with ineffective teachers can mean that the problem is not tackled, with all the adverse consequences this has for the reputation of schools and the teaching profession.

Last but not least, the study found the capacity of school leaders in strategically shifting financial and human resources is often limited by lack of training and focus in the field. Often principals reported having to engage in operational delivery issues and put aside the strategic planning necessary to provide a strategic vision and choice of resources.

Beyond Borders
Yet another role for school leaders is that of collaborating with neighboring schools or communities. Schools and their leaders are strengthening collaboration, forming networks and sharing resources.

These wider engagements focus leadership beyond the people in the school leaders’ own buildings to the welfare of young people in the city, town or region. They also focus on the improvement of the profession and its work as a whole — but in ways that access learning and support from others to provide reciprocal benefits for leaders’ own communities.

In some Finnish municipalities, principals also work as district principals, with one-third of their time devoted to the school district and two-thirds to their own schools. The aim is to improve schooling by ensuring that principals are responsible for their own schools as well as their districts. This means that shared management and supervision exist as well as shared evaluation and development of education planning. The aim is to align schools and municipalities to think systemically to promote a common schooling vision and a united school system.

At the same time, experience in these municipalities also showed that for school leaders to be able to take on this larger system role, distributed leadership should be in place at the school level with more involved as deputy heads and leadership teams that can take on tasks of principals when they assume larger roles.

Overall, the study suggests that leaders’ collaboration with other schools and with the local environment can improve problem solving through intensified interaction, communication and collective learning. It also can develop leadership capacity, stability and succession plans by increasing opportunities for local leadership in the school and at the local level.

Networks Stimulate
School leaders can make a difference in school and student performance if they are granted autonomy to make important decisions. To do this effectively, they need to be able to adapt teaching programs to local needs, promote teamwork among teachers, and engage in teacher monitoring, evaluation and professional development. They need discretion in setting strategic direction and to optimize their capacity to develop school plans and goals and monitor progress, using data to improve practice.

They also need to be able to influence teacher recruitment decisions to improve the match between candidates and their schools’ needs.
Last but not least, building ways in which networks of schools stimulate and spread innovation as well as collaborate to provide curriculum diversity, extended services and professional support can bring important benefits.

Andreas Schleicher is head of the indicators and analysis division of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, France. E-mail: andreas.schleicher@oecd.org. His article is based on OECD’s Improving School Leadership study.