Here's what our school principals need to help them lead, and it's not an MBA

This article was published in the Australian Financial Review (paywall) on 20 October 2017.

Ben Jensen and Phoebe Downing

In recent decades, Australian school systems, like all sectors of society, have spent a lot more money on courses to develop leaders. The number of leadership courses available to existing and aspiring principals has grown dramatically, and the quality of these programs has generally improved. But this investment hasn't really moved the needle – it hasn't created enough leaders who can lift the performance of the whole system.

This is a difficult problem and two responses are often discussed in school systems. The first is to find an effective program somewhere in Australia or overseas and bring it to local school leaders. The second is to try to replicate MBA programs offered at top universities and business schools.

Unfortunately, both these solutions are wrong. Preparing to Lead, a new report written by Australian school education consultancy Learning First and published by the Washington-based National Centre on Education and the Economy, shows why.

Consider this all too common scenario. A senior executive in a telecommunications company enrols in a prestigious MBA course. She finds it intellectually challenging, has a good time and makes useful contacts across a range of sectors, but after a few weeks back in the office she finds that much of what she learned doesn't really apply to her job and before long she reverts back to business as usual.

Around the world, organisations and individuals are spending billions on leadership development programs. While some of these are excellent, the returns to organisations are not what they should be.

Don't need generic programs

Developing leaders whose professional behaviour improves organisational performance requires changes to identity and culture. We develop as leaders when we interrogate our habits and beliefs, and the impact we have on our colleagues. Because it is almost impossible to do this through generic programs such as MBAs, more companies are opting for leadership development offered in-house by human resource or business management firms.

These firms provide their courses onsite, with the challenges and ways of working of that organisation explicitly in mind. This approach is too expensive for most companies, but it makes sense for big school systems that need thousands of effective leaders and are willing to spend to get them. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what the world's highest-performing school systems do.

Preparing to Lead shows how four school systems, which perform consistently at the top of international tests such as PISA, provide outstanding leadership development for their school leaders.

Ontario, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai differ significantly in many respects, yet in leadership development they take a very similar approach. They all develop aspiring principals by requiring them to undertake a real change initiative in schools. To qualify as principals, aspiring leaders are sent into a real school to oversee a long-term intervention to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

Together with the serving principal, who becomes their mentor, aspiring leaders work on improving student outcomes. For example, if school data show that grade twos are struggling with reading, aspiring leaders will sit down with teachers to discuss what is going on. They then work together to devise and implement a plan to adopt new strategies to lift literacy, and they monitor teachers' success in improving their own professional practices.

Must collaborate

This approach can be highly confronting. Because the proposed change will fail if the grade two teachers do not support it, aspiring leaders must get them on board. Leadership programs orchestrate a scenario in which aspiring principals must collaborate, set a vision, solve problems and share responsibilities – all skills they will need once they are school leaders.

Doing this well also requires that the content of leadership development programs matches the career stage and developmental needs of participants. Providers and program designers such as the Ontario College of Teachers or Singapore's National Institute of Education understand the roles and responsibilities of school leaders: what they are accountable for, how they share responsibilities, and what excellent practice looks like in their schools. Providers have developed these insights both by building close partnerships with government departments, professional organisations, research centres and schools.

Through this process these four systems have developed what many consider the best school leadership courses in the world. But because these courses are tailored to specific schools and school leaders, if they were offered in any Australian school system they would fail.

School leadership is critical for improving student learning—and our school leaders deserve the best. It won't come from expensive generic courses; equally, we can't copy and paste from other school systems. We need leadership development that is specifically designed and delivered for each Australian school system. Preparing to Lead shows how it can happen.

Dr Ben Jensen is CEO, and Dr Phoebe Downing is senior associate, of Learning First. They are the authors of Preparing to Lead.