I was curious to read 'Successful School Leadership: International Perspectives' (2016, editors: Petros Pashiardis, Olof Johansson). So I felt fortunate that I could buy their book as an eBook on Google Books with a major difference in price to the hardcopy.
Both editors have been active (are still active?) in the International Successful School Principals Project. The ISSPP is an international version of a project in the UK (The impact of school leadership on pupil outcomes, Research Brief DCSF-RB108, 2009). Both projects are conceived by Christopher Day (University of Nottingham).
The UK project
The project in the UK started on high ground. This was the project that finally would unveil the practice of good leadership in schools. Conclusions were sobering. In essence: Successful principals choose those strategies and activities that fit the complexity of the situation of the school.
This is how Day formulates that now: "Research tells us that success is achieved over time through the values-informed application of combinations and accumulations of context sensitive strategies. These are based upon the principal’s diagnosis of and wise and timely responses to the concerns of policy and parents, the professional needs of staff and the best, broad educational interests of all pupils. It is the relative intensity with which these are applied and sustained in particular phases of the school’s improvement journey which makes the difference. This is at the heart of what successful leaders do in achieving and sustaining success.” (Brochure ISSPP 2015 https://www.uv.uio.no/ils/english/research/projects/isspp/).
The mystery around good leadership continues with the wordings ‘combinations and accumulations of context sensitive strategies’ and 'wise and timely responses'. How do you measure that responses were wise and timely?
The international project
ISSPP started as a project with teams of 8 countries in 2001 finally ending up with 25 countries. That is impressive. No joking, international cooperation of researchers is a very complex thing and convincing others to buy-in on your approach is even more difficult.
Central in the project are multi-perspective case studies of schools deemed to be successful in each country. You can read it all in the brochure. Read it carefully and notice how the language hardly hides the pride of the authors about the unique results. Notice also that there is no information about results in Strand 2 'Principals in under-performing schools’ and Strand 3 ‘Principals’ identities’.
About the book.
After reading the introduction and the last chapter of the book of Pashiardis and Johansson I thought: ’This book might be a compilation of some leftovers from the project'. Luckily that was not the case.
The introduction shows the different manners of writing of the editors (my impression). The concrete Swedish examples and the discussion about the level of acceptance of distribution of resources (p. 3, 4) are in stark contrast with the technical pages (p. 6,7) about recent work from Pashiardis.
The last chapter aims to search for commonalities in the preceding chapters. It attempts to highlight the main factors of successful and effective school leadership and the impact of that leadership in each continent. The effect is that it presents a discouraging, repeating, enumeration of the factors we know to have some kind of relation with results of schooling (directly or via the schoolleader). The commonalities in the last two pages are: schoolleaders reckon with the context in which they operate, they are leaders of leaders, show instructional (pedagogical) leadership, have leadership distributed and are entrepreneurial, are value-driven and trust-driven. This way of dealing with the complexity at hand is not very helpful. Maybe the goal should not have been to search for commonalities?
The book has two parts. Part I is about 'Developing Successful and Effective School Leadership’. Part II is about 'Practicing Successful and Effective School Leadership’. Part I brings (in principle) cases about system level, part II about school level.
The chapters bring perspectives from the different continents and one region (the Caribbean). There is no information about Eastern Europe and Russia. Sometimes a chapter in principle deals with a continent but in fact focuses almost only on the situation in one country (e.g. Heystek about South Africa).
Those are minor comments. More troubling is is it when articles show inconsistencies or are not constructed in a logical way. I also wonder why the chapter on the Australian perspective includes no information about the critical theory of Richard Bates*. And I consider the quality layer as superfluous in the chapter on European perspectives (though understandable given the background of the first author).
I enjoyed reading about North-America. I am rather well informed about the field there (because of my long-lasting relation with the International Network of Principals’ Centers - in my time located at Harvard). I recognised much in the careful writings of Mrakami and Kearney and those of Jacobson.
I also liked the chapters with South Asian perspectives, but since I worked with Walker and Hallinger in Vietnam, there might be some bias here.
The article of Gomes about South-America is exemplarily in highlighting the context and time-bound developments. That from Hutton about the Caribbean is a good description of major differences between the states while making clear the many restrictions principals still experience there in doing a good job.
Ärlestig, after describing European-level cooperation and research projects presents in a down-to-earth style challenges for the European research community on school leadership. Very convincing.
Gurr and Drysdale present a rich overview of research in Australia and New Zealand.
My main comment
Although the introduction starts with a focus on mobility in the society and uneven distribution of resources (p. 2) the theme hardly is revisited. Just search for (in)equity, (in)equality, injustice, lower class, SES, high-need. Or search for neoliberal or New Public Management. You will find it only in a few places.
As an exemption read the contribution of Jacobson on North-American perspectives. He also presents a more positive and nuanced image of the history of ISSPP than I did above.
* See: Bates, Richard 2011, The new leadership in education, in 'Educational leadership : emerging issues and successful practices’, The University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji, pp.148-155. (Full text available when you search Google Scholar).