“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Good schools, like happy families, have something in common. Whenever I have visited a school where teachers and children are deeply engaged in learning, I have always found this: a motivated “teacher-leader” who invests time in the classroom.
Sashikala Imchen and Urmila Chowdhury are two such “teacher leaders”. Their backgrounds and work contexts could not be further. However, what unites them is the impact their leadership has had on their institutions.
Sashikala quit a successful management consulting job and partnered with her husband Sanen, a former public servant, to fulfill the lifelong dream of bringing a high quality school education to their native Nagaland, northeastern east of India. They started from scratch, with land purchased with their savings and a project plan that Sanen wrote for his master’s thesis in educational leadership. Ten years later, their Maple Tree School is now a happy, buzzing space with six hundred children. Taught as part of a skills-based curriculum, these students built a drip irrigation system to run their own vegetable farm, illustrated graphic stories of orphaned sisters, and raised funds to take care of their own vegetable farm. ‘a sick staff member. The inter-school competition prizes and excellent board exam results prove that these small town kids are on par with their big city peers.
Urmila began to question the system after spending decades teaching and administering in some of the most elite schools in the country. The experience of the struggles of poor children trying to fit into private schools, which had reluctantly admitted them against the free places imposed by the Right to Education Act (RTE), was a turning point. She is now managing the transformation of three public schools as part of a public-private partnership between the South Delhi Municipal Corporation and the educational NGO Peepul Education Foundation. Once deserted by parents, schools have seen a dramatic increase in enrollment. While millions of their peers in other public schools struggle with basic skills, these children can read grade-level texts, converse in English with confidence, and understand difficult number concepts. Most importantly, they enjoy coming to school, are self-disciplined, and know how to stay safe in the city.
Over the past decade, I have had to spend several hundred hours inside schools. Most of the school owners and principals I have met are incredibly hardworking and have good intentions. However, only a handful of them are able to consistently improve outcomes for all children. Research has proven time and time again that of all the influences schools have on student learning, leadership outweighs the quality of teaching. However, survey data reveals that schools around the world, and particularly in India, are bogged down by ineffective management practices. Not surprisingly, we have a learning crisis in our country.
Nick Bloom and his colleagues at Stanford University collected data on management practices in more than 1,800 secondary schools in eight countries, including India. Then, they compared these institutions on four critical parameters – operations, monitoring, goal setting and people management – contextualized to school education. The good news is that schools with high management scores offer superior educational outcomes. Their analysis shows that an increase in the standard deviation of the quality of school management correlates with an increase in the standard deviation from 0.2 to 0.4 in student performance. However, the bad news is that school management practices around the world lag far behind management in other industries, such as hospitals and manufacturing companies. Unfortunately, Indian schools rank at the bottom of the list when it comes to the quality of management, with our private schools performing only slightly better than the government.
We cannot solve our learning crisis unless we solve the leadership deficit in our schools. Today, most leaders of public and private schools remain trapped inside their desks in a vortex of stifling regulations, bureaucratic red tape and day-to-day administration. This leaves them little time and energy to improve what is going on inside their classrooms and staff rooms.
This situation must change. Rather, we need a radical redefinition of the work of school leaders. Let’s call them “Chief Education Officers” (C.Ed.Os) for a change. I use this nomenclature not to impose a fancy label, but to clarify their main mission.
The main objective of the C.Ed.O is to improve student learning. For this to happen, they must invest time in the classroom to internalize the inner workings of teaching and learning. Sashikala explained to me how she doubled herself as an English teacher in addition to her role as owner of the school to gain first-hand experience. Seventy percent of Urmila’s time is spent in the classroom, demonstrating model lessons, and observing teachers in action.
Every school leader should have a working understanding of effective teaching techniques, the “big ideas” in the curriculum, and how to assess learning. These “teacher-leaders” value the learning needs of children and prioritize them over the amenities of adults in the allocation of resources.
Armed with this understanding of good learning, the C.Ed.O must then foster good teaching – by recruiting the best teaching talents and continuously honing their skills.
“We are looking for passion and energy rather than years of experience,” Sashikala said when I asked her how she engages her teachers. She then explained how she uses demonstration lessons and group activities to assess pedagogical and interpersonal skills. Urmila spends time each week developing her teachers – sharing constructive feedback, planning lessons together, and running skills workshops. Research shows that when the principal priority of the principal is to train teachers to be better instructors, student learning improves dramatically.
Roland Fryer at Harvard University conducted a study where principals learned to use lesson planning, data-driven instruction, and observations-feedback in the classroom (using a 6-step protocol conceived by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo). After only a year, Fryer discovered that principals treatment group improved student learning by seven percent.
Effective teaching can only last when leaders nurture the right school culture by setting a personal example of what matters most. Sashikala runs an open office where teachers and parents enter without hesitation. Teachers sit in each other’s classrooms to observe and openly share their feedback. “We have a lot of fun together,” says Sashikala. “If the teachers are happy, the rest falls into place!
Urmila confronted a school culture riddled with excuses as to why children in public schools cannot learn and why they have relied heavily on the fear mechanism as a tool to discipline children. By personally having high expectations for every child, setting positive class standards, and educating parents, she has shown that it is possible to change habits. When new habits take root, beliefs start to change.
No matter how uplifting the stories of Sashikala and Urmila are, we must recognize that the inculcation of large-scale school leadership cannot be left to the initiative of a few inspired individuals. We need to design policies to systematically attract talented people to work and train them with the right training.
The government must first relax regulations that prevent entrepreneurs from starting new schools and academics who run existing schools. Quality entrepreneurs will take hold when fewer licenses are needed to establish private schools and public-private partnerships are encouraged. Principals – in public and private schools – will focus their energies on the classroom when they are less burdened with the red tape of compliance.
We must also institutionalize the development of school leadership, with the same zeal with which we have nurtured the revered Indian Institutes of Technology and Management. The best performing school systems in the world have all systematically invested in school leadership development programs. Singapore creates a specialized ‘leadership path’ for teachers and assigns them specific responsibilities in school improvement. In Shanghai, future school principals benefit from a wealth of curriculum and educational leadership experience as part of their pre-service and teacher development courses. Ontario maintains a rigorous qualification program for principals as a “gateway” to school leadership. We must learn from these successful programs.
India has nearly 1.5 million schools. We need a national priority mission to provide each of these institutions with an education director general with expertise in classroom improvement, teacher preparation and institution building. Only then can we even begin to realize the great promise of unleashing the learning potential of our quarter billion children.