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  • 5th Feb 2021

Can ‘rules of thumb’ training for principals improve Guatemalan schools?

What impact can reading a blog on school management have on school performance? It turns out quite a lot. A few years ago Stewart Kettle, Principal Advisor in BIT’s International Development team, sent this blog by Dave Evans at the World Bank to a few teammates. The blog outlines compelling evidence that having a good principal (headteacher) improves student learning and included details of a US trial that demonstrated the impact that a 300-hour training programme for principals had on management practices and student test scores. Stewart suggested running a trial in this space. He noted:

Pretty cool and probably points towards trialling simple advice for principals such as some rules of thumb – e.g. try to observe each teacher in your school once every fortnight for 20 mins and provide XYZ feedback…”

2 years later, with Johannes Lohmann, Principal Advisor in BIT’s employment and organisational behaviour team, we did exactly that and ran a trial to see if rules of thumb could help principals improve their schools. 

In 2018, we visited high schools across Guatemala with our excellent partners in the Guatemalan Ministry of Education (MINEDUC). We were trying to understand why only 32% of high-school students pass the national standardised exam in reading comprehension and only 10% pass the exam in Maths. By talking to principals, teachers and students, we found that principals receive hardly any training, and in turn often fail to provide management and support to their teachers. This results in large differences in management and teaching quality between schools.

From these early encounters, we believed that improving the quality of school management could subsequently increase the quality of education in those schools. Due to Ministry budget constraints, we decided to test a light-touch, low-cost version of school management training interventions evaluated by Roland Fryer. The idea was to take the main components of Fryer’s intervention and turn them into simple ‘rules of thumb’ for principals. The guidance included recommendations on how often principals should conduct lesson planning meetings with teachers, with 6 specific suggestions of what to do in them; and how often principals should observe teachers in classrooms, with 5 tips of what to observe (see the full guidance here).

Together with the MINEDUC, we developed a half-day training session for principals, a poster with the rules of thumb, an implementation checklist to help them plan their new management practices, and a letter of support from Oscar Hugo López, the Minister of Education, to formalise and give gravitas to the guidance.

Guidance here

After some prototyping and piloting of the intervention – with positive and constructive feedback from principals – we conducted a trial involving almost all of the high-school principals in Guatemala. 4,124 high schools and 2,892 principals (some of whom oversee multiple schools) participated in the trial, and about half of the principals were randomly assigned to receive the new training and materials we developed with MINEDUC.

To measure school management practices, we surveyed teachers from each school at the end of the school year about the practices in their school and the behaviour of their principals.

What we found

The ‘rules of thumb’ training intervention increased the frequency and quality of school management practices by principals across a broad range of indicators. Teachers who were in schools in the treatment group reported more planning sessions and class observations conducted by their principals. These teachers were also more likely to be spoken to about teaching, be helped to set class objectives, adapt their teaching to the level of students, and provide support to students with difficulties. The job satisfaction of teachers involved in the intervention also increased throughout the trial period. However, while the intervention measurably changed the behaviour of thousands of principals, it did not translate into an impact on student attainment in maths or reading.

Overall, the results are very promising. Our light-touch intervention, which is easy to scale, had a range of positive outcomes on management by principals. However, they also point to the drawbacks in such a ‘light-touch’ approach, given that student attainment remained unaffected in the year we evaluated. We think the simple ‘rules of thumb’ have the potential to improve school management and education in other countries. We would, however, also recommend adding more management support for the principals themselves in future applications of this approach. In much the same way as the intervention works, principals themselves would likely benefit from more planning sessions, observation and feedback from Ministry officials. We hope this blog might inspire someone to test out such a programme.

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