School Directors in Latin America: The Forgotten Stakeholder

˙ PREAL Blog

Jaime Saavedra, Senior Director for Education at the World Bank, recently wrote, “When you see a well-functioning school, most likely, there is a good principal behind it. A leader who sets a vision for the school and sets clear objectives. Someone who creates the space that fosters teachers’ professional and personal development, and encourages students’ personal growth, creativity, and their own journey of discovery.”1

He is right. School directors—also known as principals in the United States and head teachers in the United Kingdom—are among the most important stakeholders in any education system. They can become allies in designing, supporting and implementing reforms and education policies, as well as in motivating teachers in their day-to-day activities. In the long term, directors are crucial for getting teachers to implement reforms fully and securing parental support for school programs.2

In a previous PREAL blog post, José Weinstein highlighted school leadership as one of the most relevant topics in the international education discourse, where accountability is becoming a central element in the search for quality improvements. A growing literature shows that principals and other system managers are a critical factor in explaining school outcomes, and that the management practices they use with teachers drives effectiveness.3,4,5,6,7 This research also shows that some best practices can be identified from the charter school experience, where management practices correlate positively with student outcomes and can lead to increased student learning when introduced in lower performing schools.8 Moreover, based on both educational and business research, this literature has also begun to measure best practices in management, and demonstrates that good management practices correlate strongly with student outcomes.9, 10 These findings support the assertion that principals can increase teacher effectiveness and, ultimately, improve the quality of education.

In fact, the best functioning education systems have demanding and diverse requirements to enter the profession, and mechanisms in place to support principals. Incidentally, seniority—a determining factor in the Latin American context—is one of the less important requirements to become a school director in most of the highest-performing school systems. Although requirements vary between high-quality systems, they include passing written tests, having formal academic credentials, and completing a certain number of years of service in teaching and school management. In most systems, candidates are pre-selected from a pool of certified, qualified candidates. In some countries this pool of certified candidates receives regular training on subjects relevant for school directors. Principals go through substantive training programs covering topics such as school planning, internal management, school culture, instructional development, teacher growth, and conflict resolution. Hence, these systems are nurturing the directors-to-be before they even have the job.

In contrast to these well-functioning systems, throughout LAC there are just a few Principal Training Programs (one established several years ago in Jamaica, a small one in Colombia, and two promising models in Argentina and Peru), with most operating on a temporary basis while financial support lasts, or exist in name only, with very few positive results to show. The result is that few school directors are well-trained, and many face challenges in doing their job. In fact, due to highly centralized and bureaucratic systems and career ladders that favor seniority over professional and pedagogical abilities, principals in Latin America are at best administrators, instead of academic leaders.

Principals are the forgotten stakeholders of the education systems in Latin America. Programs specifically designed to support them are few and far between, and there are no studies showing their effectiveness (most of them have been implemented for a relatively period of time, even sporadically).  This is an area that needs further development, and recent experiences from Peru and Argentina should be analyzed for potential lessons they could offer other countries.

Argentina has begun training principals following the Leadership and Educational Innovation Program (PLIE). The program was designed by the Varkey Foundation and the Ministry of Education of Argentina with support with the University of London. This model, adapted to the particular conditions in each province, includes the following elements:

  • Educational leadership for organizational development and school reform (effective leadership is building teams
  • Management of technological integration (information technology to transform the efficiency and effectiveness of schools)
  • Leading and managing learning, creativity and curriculum innovation (effective school leaders foster the evolution of a climate where original Thinking enhances the learning experience and leads to curricular innovation)
  • Leadership to guarantee quality and improve performance in the teaching and learning process
  • Professional development of teacher leaders (lifelong learning is a philosophy and a habit that must flow through the entire learning community)
  • Leading and developing relationships in an educational community (successful schools are at the heart of their local communities).

This 180-hour training program has two main training mechanisms, both of which have proven effective around the world. First, the program requires principals to work in groups to discuss topics and share experiences, following the “quality circles”* methodology, frequently used in teacher training. Second, it requires principals to develop and implement a School Innovation Project (PIE) as part of their training. During the six-week training, principals, together with their school pedagogical adviser, must design a PIE that addresses a major challenge within the school, presents a possible solution with clear objectives, and puts forth a plan of action to be implemented once they complete the in-person phase of the training program. In 2017, 2,112 Argentine principals were trained through this program. In 2018, the objective is to train about 4,500 in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Corrientes, Jujuy, Mendoza and Salta, with a goal of adding more provinces in the future.

Peru and Colombia have also devoted increased attention to training principals following similar programs. Under the guidance of the Empresarios por la Educación Foundation, Colombia launched an initiative in 2010 to train principals with the goal of improving the quality of educational institutions. This public-private partnership created the Rectores Líderes Transformadores program, that has trained around 500 principals in eight regions in Colombia. Based on initial monitoring results, all these programs seem promising.

Many stakeholders, including academics, policy makers and practitioners, are recognizing the importance of school director training. (Even the World Bank is including it as an additional topic to its SABER instrument, as a part of education system management). We agree with this position and believe in the importance of principals as key stakeholders responsible for the success or failure of their schools. What Argentina, Jamaica, Peru, Colombia and others are doing should be monitored and evaluated closely to learn more about how to empower principals as a way to improve the quality of the education systems in Latin America.

Eduardo Vélez Bustillo is Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University and Visiting Professor at Kobe University

Agustín Porres is Argentina Country Director at the Varkey Foundation.


*“Quality circles” is a business management practice that became popular in the 1970s and 80s. A quality circle is a small group of employees who do the same or similar work, who meet together regularly to analyze and solve work-related problems. In the teaching realm, the concept refers to groups of teachers who meet regularly to identify on-the-job problems and solve them jointly, share personal experience and insights on teaching practices, provide feedback to each other, etc.

1. Saavedra, J. (2017, November 27). The principal makes the difference. [Blog post]. World Bank Blog. Education for Global Development. Retrieved from

2. Mizala, A. & Ross Schneider, B. (2014). Negotiating Education Reform: Teacher Evaluations and Incentives in Chile (1990–2010). Governance, 27(1), 87-109. Retrieved from

3. Leithwood, K. K., Seashore Louis, K., Anderson, S., & Wahlstrom, K. (2004). How leadership influences student learning. Carei, OISEUT, The Wallance Foundation. Retrieved from

4. Branch, G., E. Hanushek, & S. Rivkin. 2013. School Leaders Matter: Measuring the Impact of Effective Principals. Education Next, 13(1): 62-69. Retrieved from

5. Branch, G., Hanushek, E., & Rivkin, S. (2012). Estimating the Effect of Leaders on Public Sector Productivity: The Case of School Principals. NBER Working Paper Series, 17803. Retrieved from

6. Hitt, D., & P. Tucker. 2015. Systematic Review of Key Leader Practices Found to Influence Student Achievement: A Unified Framework. Review of Educational Research 86(2): 531-569. Retrieved from

7. Gates, S.M., Hamilton, L.S., Martorell, P., Burkhauser, S., Heaton, P., Pierson, A., …Gu, K. (2014). Principals Preparation Matters: How Leadership Affects Students Achievement. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from

8. Fryer, R. (2014). Injecting Charter School Best Practices into Traditional Public Schools: Evidence From Field Experiments. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 129(3), 1355-1407. Retrieved from

9. Dobbie, W. & Fryer R. (2013). Getting Beneath the Veil of Effective Schools: Evidence from New York City. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 5(4), 28-60. Retrieved from

10. Bloom, N., Lemos, R., Sadun, R., & Van Reenen, J. (2015). “Does Management matter in Schools?” The Economic Journal, 125(584), 647-674. Retrieved from