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© 2024 Opportunity International Education Finance functions under its US and UK affiliates. Opportunity International United Kingdom is registered as a charity in England and Wales (1107713) and in Scotland (SCO39692). Opportunity International United Statesis a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

What does existing research tell us about how to design school leadership training programs to have the greatest impact on student learning outcomes?

By Natalie Davirro

School leaders play an integral role in creating a school environment and culture that is conducive to learning. Numerous studies globally have found clear links between a strong school leadership and improved student learning outcomes. In many contexts however, especially low-resource environments or isolated settings, many school leaders lack the training and support necessary to develop their capacity. When school leaders do receive support – such as in developing school improvement plans, goal-setting, and assessing progress – this has powerful impacts on student learning.

Through its holistic three-year EduQuality program, Opportunity EduFinance delivers school leader professional development and peer coaching to approximately 1,900 schools annually. Over the years, EduQuality has made continuous efforts to ground its program in best practices and lessons learned from other contexts.

Opportunity EduFinance has recently published a new brief: How to Design Effective Support to School Leadership: Lessons from Existing Research. In this evidence brief on school leadership, we reviewed nearly 50 studies on school leadership to understand what is necessary for school leadership support to improve student learning outcomes.

The evidence brief sets out to answer these critical questions on school leadership in LMICs. What can we learn from existing research on successful training programs for school leadership? What makes these programs effective, and how can these lessons be applied in practice to ensure EduQuality continues to improve learning outcomes for disadvantaged students? The evidence brief seeks to answer these questions by identifying three necessary conditions for school leadership to have an impact on learning.

1. Focus school leaders training on teacher tevelopment and coaching

First, to improve learning outcomes, school leaders training should focus on effective tools and strategies for building teachers’ capacity. As one study highlights “Whether an education input is a physical item, such as a tablet or textbook, or a process, such as school management and leadership, it will improve learning only if it directly improves the quality of teacher-learner interactions.”

Research indicates that one of the most effective ways school leaders can improve learning outcomes is by developing teachers through coaching and regular feedback. Rather than focusing on general oversight, audits, or administration, the most effective school leaders training programs include topics such as how to give effective feedback to teachers, utilizing classroom observation to improve teacher performance, and methods for teacher coaching and mentorship, all of which emphasize the teacher-student relationship.

2. Use student-level data to improve school leader accountability systems

Second, supporting school leaders in their use of student-level learning data can have a positive impact on learning outcomes. When school leaders can clearly visualize how their management decisions have a direct impact on learning data, this provides a strong incentive for school leaders to devote more time and resources to incorporating new practices.

Many studies have demonstrated that simply providing school leaders with straightforward and timely data on student learning outcomes led to significant improvements in test scores. Evidence shows that school leaders who have data on student learning outcomes were more likely to make changes in curriculum or teacher feedback than those who did not, and teachers were more likely to use improved instructional strategies such as explaining topics, engaging students in discussion, writing on the blackboard, or summarizing the material at the end of every lesson. Ensuring that school leaders not only receive data on student learning outcomes but also understand how to translate this student data into tangible school improvement plans and clear goals can have a powerful impact on learning outcomes.

3. Build parent capacity to engage in school management

Lastly, empowering parents and community members to be actively involved in their local school management can effectively improve student learning outcomes. This parental involvement may include school-management committees (SMCs), which provide parents with real decision-making power in schools, or it may be through informal mechanisms, such inviting parents to collect data on teacher attendance or facilitated parent-teacher meetings. All these interventions aim to strengthen accountability by creating feedback loops between teachers, school leaders, and parents.

Research in Practice: How Does EduQuality Incorporate Lessons from Research into Program Design? 

EduQuality strives to incorporate lessons from research into its existing activities and future program planning. The Pathways to Excellence (P2E) guide was designed as a key component of EduQuality, and aims to address challenges in school quality by equipping school leaders with the tools necessary to assess and improve their school's progress across 18 key domains.

The P2E guide incorporates each of the three design considerations outlined above to support school leaders to create a school environment that is most conducive to improving student learning outcomes. In 2023, Opportunity EduFinance released a report Pathways to Excellence: Assessing EduQuality school progress in quality improvements that found schools leaders were also improving in these three practices between the first and second years of the EduQuality program:

  • Focus on Teachers: As highlighted above, one of the most effective ways school leaders can improve learning outcomes is ensuring leaders give effective feedback to teachers, utilize classroom observation to improve teacher performance, and provide regular professional development support to teachers. EduQuality school leaders have made strong improvements in these areas, with more than 95% of school leaders conducting regular classroom observations, and 83% of schools observing teachers at least once a month. EduQuality school leaders are also becoming more responsible in providing feedback and professional development for teachers. In Year 2 of EduQuality, 95% of schools provide professional development support to the staff, an increase of 9 percentage points from Year 1, and 72% of schools provide individual feedback to teachers at least twice per term.

  • Utilize Student-Level Learning Data: EduQuality school leaders are trained in various types of learner assessments, as well as how to utilize data from student-level assessments to adapt and improve teaching. In the second year of EduQuality, 68% of schools report using assessment results to re-teach areas that were not well understood, an increase of 13 percentage points from Year 1. Further, 71% of school leaders report teachers use assessments to identify learners in need of support, an increase of 29 percentage points from Year 1. Schools that do not consider assessment results also fell from 28% to 13%, a positive result. These improvements represent ways of utilizing student-level data in order to adapt teaching, that has been shown to improve student learning.

  • Engage Parents: Lastly, parent and community engagement is a key component of P2E, and is another area in which EduQuality school leaders are improving. EduQuality schools have been widely successful in strengthening their community and parental engagement, with 95% reporting that parents are actively involved in the school. School leaders also note that parents participate in wider school life, such as extra-curricular activities and special events (71%, up from 59% in Year 1). The majority of schools also have parent-teacher associations (PTAs), and most PTAs actively support school leaders by offering recommendations for improvement.

Our recent evidence brief, How to Design Effective Support to School Leadership: Lessons from Existing Research, draws on nearly 50 studies and systematic reviews to identify the three key ingredients of successful school leaders training: Empowering and coaching teachers, applying student-level data, and engaging parents in the community. Overall, our assessments of school leaders show how EduQuality partner schools have made strong improvements in these areas during their time participating in the program. In the coming years, EduQuality will continue to apply lessons from research in effective, impactful school leader professional development.


Read the full report here!

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