Supporting school leadership around the world: A conversation with Sameer Sampat about the development of Global School Leaders

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In this week’s post, IEN’s Thomas Hatch interviews Sameer Sampat. This conversation (which took place early in 2020,  just before the coronavirus outbreak) builds on a previous interview with Sampat in 2016, when Hatch talked with him about the evolution of the India School Leadership Institute (ISLI), the organization Sampat founded in 2012. Since that time, Sampat, working with his colleague Azad Oommen, has been building on the work at ISLI by establishing a new organization, Global School Leaders (GSL). GSL seeks to develop education programs for school leaders in many different parts of the world. Since 2017, GSL has been  working with partners to establish programs for school leaders in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Kenya. In this  conversation, Sampat discusses how GSL has evolved; how they have tried to adapt their approach in different contexts; what they’re learning along the way; and how their work might develop in the future.

IEN: Can you give us a sense of how your efforts to support school leaders around the world have evolved since we talked in 2016?

Sampat: It was interesting to read that earlier post, and it made me realize that there are really two different tracks to talk about. One track reflects what has happened with our school leadership work in India. In that 2016 post, I laid out three ways possibilities for growth:

  • Working with government schools and trying to scale-up through the government system
  • Expanding in the low-fee private schools where we started our work
  • Developing open-source materials that any school leader in India could access

At that time, we were working with about 300 schools. But by 2019, ISLI was working with about 2,000 schools a year. A reason for that big jump from 300 to 2,000 schools was that ISLI pursued that first path by embedding their training in the government system. Late in 2019, however, ISLI hit bureaucratic road blocks that have forced us to close its programs in India. But a few ex-ISLI staff members have come together to form Alokit and GSL is supporting them to get off the ground. Alokit plans to continue focusing on scaling via partnership with state governments.

In work like this that is focused on government partnerships, the second question that gets asked is “how do you deliver high quality training at scale with the existing human capital resources in the government system?” So, all of that work has happened since I left India. And we have been seeing through third party assessments, that the student outcomes in the ISLI schools seem to be increasing compared to schools who don’t have the program. Now there are lot of caveats: We can’t attribute those improvements directly to ISLI, and there are still validity questions about the outcome scores as well. But we plan to do a randomized evaluation of our work starting in the next academic year.

That’s the first track of work, but the second track is the work on Global School Leaders. In 2017, I left my role as CEO of ISLI and went on to co-found Global School Leaders, and over the last two years, I have been consumed with the question of how countries work on this issue of school leadership. When I listened to the education reform conversations that were happening in international venues, people were talking generally about things like teacher training, improving access to girls’ education, educational technology, and early childhood development. All these things are very important, and I think these things are coming to the forefront because the whole conversation has shifted towards “how do you improve the quality of learning?” And it’s not just how you get access. But in that whole conversation of how you improve quality, it seemed to me that we were missing some key issues including “how do you work with the leadership at the school level?” And “how do you create enabling environment conditions for leadership to thrive?”  So that’s what prompted me to start GSL with my co-founder, Azad Oommen, who was on the board of ISLI when I was running it but also joined me to start GSL. At that point I felt like we could help get people to start thinking about school leadership as a critical part the education system, and I also felt that this would be of value in India as well because it would bring more light to the issue and help show the promise of the work in India. I can’t say that we’ve met either objective yet but I think we’re on the way.

IEN: Why didn’t you just try to expand the India School Leadership Institute? Why create a whole different organization?

Sampat: I think there still needs to be huge expansion in India and we’re by no means saying that we’ve reached where we need to be there. I could spend my whole life working in India and still have work to be done. But we started GSL to address a different need: to get leadership into the international conversation in a way that wouldn’t take away from the ability of our program in India to expand.

Did I leave ISLI at the right time? It is difficult to say. Programmatically, there was a lot of progress in terms of embedding the programming into the government that has been really valuable. Operationally, we’ve had our hurdles. So there wasn’t really a scientific process to that decision, and I don’t know in hindsight if it was the right decision, but what we’re working on in terms of GSL seems like a very important challenge and opportunity.

IEN: What did you take from your experience in India that helped you get started with Global School Leaders?

Sampat: Initially, we started with all these materials that we built in India around how to do this leadership work. We had address questions like “What are the materials used to train principals? How do you do the ongoing coaching? How do you measure if this program is actually making an impact or not?” Although those ISLI materials have been valuable in other countries, I think, the biggest value-add has been having a clear focus on this issue of school leadership. When we just bring this to people in different countries, they resonate with it immediately, but they haven’t thought about it as a critical lever for system improvement. And then it’s not so much about saying, “Oh, we have these materials you can use;” it’s really saying, “Here are some starting points. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but we’ll work with you to develop processes for you to create your own materials.”  “Here’s a model, but let’s really think about how to contextualize this for your situation.” Then we look at what’s policy relevant; what’s culturally relevant; what addresses the needs of the specific school leaders that they are working with. So it’s been more of a process of saying “this is how we thought about addressing this in India.”  We help people to develop their mental maps of what a leadership program can look like. That’s very different from what I expected originally, when I thought we would say “Here’s the curriculum we use in India, take the curriculum.” We’ve realized that’s not at all what’s helpful for folks. There is a core curriculum, about 50% of the overall content, that is useful. But then the process of co-creation and customization to fill out the second 50% is where the really valuable work happens.

We help people to develop their mental maps of what a leadership program can look like. That’s very different from what I expected originally, when I thought we would say “Here’s the curriculum we use in India, take the curriculum.” We’ve realized that’s not at all what’s helpful for folks.

IEN: Did you have some experiences that helped bring that lesson home to you? Some places where you tried to share those materials and then you realized, wait, this isn’t working?

Sampat: From the beginning, we were clear that we didn’t want to run GSL as a traditional international NGO. We recognized early on that the key decision makers had to be in country so we’ve structured it so that the programs in each country are independently operated and financed, and they have local boards. A GSL member may have a seat on the boards, but the boards have independent CEO’s. From a strategic perspective, we knew this was going to be a challenge, but even at the curriculum content level, it’s been interesting to see how different countries have contextualized the work. For example, one of the big units in the India program focuses on how school leaders help teachers plan their lessons. We developed that unit because we were finding in India that something like 80% of the teachers that we work with initially didn’t have a plan for the day’s lesson. So, one of our hypotheses was that this was leading to a lot of rote learning in India because teachers were just reading out of a book or copying something from a book onto the board, and then the students would just parrot it back. So the planning unit tries to help leaders work with teachers to get them to think about what activities they want to do before they get into the classroom and then to add activities that are promoting student engagement and critical thinking. But when I was talking to the team in Malaysia, they said that this whole thing about having a lesson plan and motivating it and explaining why it’s important, all that stuff wasn’t relevant because in Malaysia you already have to have a book of lesson plans that you bring to school. Somewhere in their education laws, it even suggests that one of the penalties for not having those plans could be going to jail. So, leaders don’t have to motivate teachers to bring a lesson plan to class. The question is how do you actually improve these plans? How do you make sure they are focused on student learning? So that was a big adjustment. That is just one of the many adjustments we’ve had to make.

IEN: That’s a great example. It reflects the nitty-gritty operational work that can make the difference between a program succeeding or failing. What did you do in that case? If the solution wasn’t to try to help teachers plan, what did you figure out to do instead?

Sampat: For this specific instance, it was recognizing that the teachers all do have plans and trying to take advantage of that. We said to the school leaders we worked with in Malaysia “All your teachers have to make plans, so how do you as a principal support your teachers in making those plans? How do you make sure planning isn’t just a ‘checkbox exercise’?” That’s kind of the tack we took. But more generally, we ask the school leaders to do a needs assessment first. The broader framework from India was helpful for this because that model gives a lot of autonomy to the school principal to decide where they’re going to make their improvements and impact student learning. It’s all about how do the school leaders evaluate their schools? How do we help them make an assessment of where their schools are doing well and not doing well, and then make a plan for improvement? That approach has been really helpful across the different countries because the process is directed by the learners, the school leaders, in each case.

IEN: What are some of the key things that you’ve learned over the past couple of years as you’ve tried to expand globally?

Sampat:  There are a bunch of things, but the first few things that come to mind are actually pushing in slightly opposite directions. One is that I’ve found that there’s a lot of knowledge in a country that is just locked in that country. You can take the US as an example. There’s been a lot of work on leadership in the U.S. and a lot of nonprofits like The Wallace Foundation and others are working on it. There’s also a lot of government agencies that are working on school leadership. So you have this group of people that have spent years and years working on these models, developing them, testing them out, seeing what works, what doesn’t work. But very few of the countries we’ve been working in have been able to access that knowledge in a way that’s meaningful for them. So you might have a country that will fly principals to the U.S. for 10 days and then fly them back. But it’s a one-off thing. It’s difficult to create a system that can build on the best practices from somewhere else. And it’s not just coming from a place like the US. For example, if I look in Indonesia, they have some really interesting policies around principals getting together regularly on their own led by peer principals, and they have a whole system of how that peer learning is filtered down through a principle led cohort. That could be really interesting to think about using in a place like India. So that’s kind of one piece.

I think the piece that’s competing with that that I’ve also learned is how important the depth understanding of a context is: the in’s and out’s of schools; how policies are being felt by school leaders; the specifics of different school districts. As I was saying earlier, those kinds of little tweaks that fit the context are very important. Now we’re trying to figure out how you bring these two things together. On the one hand, there’s this really valuable knowledge about a specific place and its functioning that’s important but on the other hand, there’s this rich global knowledge about school leadership more generally. As an organization, we’re trying to bridge that gap between the two.

On the one hand, there’s this really valuable knowledge about a specific place and its functioning that’s important but on the other hand, there’s this rich global knowledge about school leadership more generally. As an organization, we’re trying to bridge that gap between the two.

IEN: How are you trying to bridge that gap now? 

Sampat: A lot of that is in process, but one of the things we’ve done is work on theories of action. Our program is not the first program focusing on school leadership so we are trying to develop a sense of the different theories of actions of some of these programs. We’ve taken that knowledge to our partners, and there’s been a lot of back and forth so that each partner can develop their own. At least right now, our hypothesis is that it’s just a lot of really intentional conversations that are ongoing. These are not one-time engagements. They repeatedly bring together people with these different sets of expertise, some with a knowledge of the local context, some with an understanding of the best practice across contexts.

IEN: Would you say that before with ISLI, you were the program architects and now with GSL you’re the convener of the program architects within a particular country? You’re trying to bring together the various stakeholders, bring what you’ve learned globally about school leadership and make that part of a process that will then allow your partners within that country to develop their program?

Sampat: That’s definitely the role of GSL. In Malaysia, for example, there’s already a lot of work going on in education, and we worked with our partners there to create an entity that is focused on improving the leadership that can complement some of the other initiatives.  We are helping them to hire their initial staff, and then once that’s done, GSL plays the role of supporting a Malaysian organization to bring the right stakeholders to the table to engage together, to use the resources that GSL has as well as the resources they already have available in-country to do this work.

IEN: Given what you’ve said about looking back at the interview in 2016, if you imagine that it’s three years from now and we’re doing another interview about how things have developed, what do you think you might say? What are the next steps and what are some of the challenges that you’re going to have to navigate?

Sampat: I think there are a few pretty clear pathways that we’re exploring right now.  One thing is how do we think about improving school leadership in a system? We have focused on training as the main way to improve school leadership on a large scale. But if you were to think about all the tools available to anyone running a network of schools, whether it’s a government or a private entity, they would have more than just training available to them to improve school leadership. They could think about:  

  • How do they select their leaders in the first place?
  • How are they encouraging people to go into positions of leadership?
  • How are they selecting those leaders?
  • How are they holding their leaders accountable?
  • How are they rewarding their leaders?
  • How are they showcasing models of excellence around good school leadership?
  • What are the decision-making powers they give to leaders?

I think the reason that we’ve focused on training so far is that it’s the first step that all the key folks support. In the countries where we work, school leaders haven’t had a lot of training themselves, so they recognize the need for training. Government officials also know that, often, they have rules on the books around training principals, but they recognize that they are under capacity to deliver that training. As a result, both see our work as supportive, but some of these other pieces are more problematic. For example, in India, leaders tend to be selected based on seniority. I think that’s starting to change but changing a system like that is going to require a lot of political will. Consequently, at GSL we’re thinking about how we build our capability to support our partners to work on these more difficult issues, particularly political issues. 

Another piece we’re thinking about is how do you use technology to help you scale the leadership training? Even if we look across the work in all four countries where we work, we are only working with about 3000 school leaders a year. And these four countries together must be in the range of a million and a half schools to maybe just under two million schools. So we’re trying to identify the components of our training model that the principals appreciate. They tell us it’s the content that we deliver to them; the way that the coach comes once a month, gives them personal support and provides some “soft” accountability; the peer network and the ability to share ideas and even have a little bit of friendly competition with their peers. How do we enhance some of those things with digital delivery? Can we do some kind of digital coaching? Can we do digital content delivery? Can we do digital peer network, peer sharing with school leaders? These are all things that people have tried in different contexts, but how do you put it all together and can we move towards something that is fully online? I know that we’re a long way away from that, but if we’re having this interview three or four years from now I hope that we have a better sense of the possibilities.

IEN: That’s particularly challenging because you don’t know what the technological developments are going to be, but they’re either going to make your work easier or more difficult, and probably both. It’s certainly a challenge to adapt to that going forward. Any other lessons or things that you are keeping in mind as you are continuing your work?

Sampat:  We’re thinking a lot about partnerships. How do you embed this work into education systems whether government or nonprofit systems? If you look at India and the other three countries, we’re working with organizations that we started ourselves or that are new and usually relatively small. But there is a whole set of organizations that are much bigger who’ve already done some of the hard work of getting to some level of scale. They have a bunch of schools in different contexts, but how can we embed school leadership into that work at scale in a way that has the same sense of urgency that you’ll see in the four countries we’re working in now? I think that’s been one thing.

I think one of the other big challenges for us is around evidence. We’re working with school leaders who are then working with teachers who have an impact on students. We’re a few steps away from direct impact. Of course, working with school leaders will take a little bit of time for them to make the changes that can have a positive impact on students. As a result, when we’re in conversations about investing in school leadership, the big question is often “how do you know that that’s actually going to impact students?”





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