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Claudia Costin, the education secretary of Rio de Janeiro who introduced teacher performance pay and other reforms.
Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Finding Latin America’s Education Leaders

How do we find the next generation of Latin America’s education leaders?




When we talk about education reform, we are generally talking about things like improving standards, increasing evaluations, funding teacher training, and promoting student autonomy. Much less do we address the issue of leadership, of the management style that can itself make or break the success of these reforms.


In Latin America, for instance, the education debate has evolved from a narrow focus on access to a broader understanding of the need for quality – but even so, the discussion has remained largely academic. This may be beginning to change, slowly, with those like Jeffrey Puryear (at PREAL, the Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas), and others, pushing to include the practical perspective: the politics necessary to implement the policy, the stakeholder engagement, and the coalition strategies to move reform forward.


So why aren’t we talking more about the kind of leadership necessary to take education policy from the academic sphere move it into the real world of schools? In the business world, in contrast, the role of leadership is well understood, and there is an impressive amount of research on the factors that make effective professional leaders – their backgrounds, their talents, skills, habits, strategies, and attitudes.


There is, admittedly, much written about individual teachers, and sometimes principals. But about the role of leadership at the systems level of the education sector, there is much less. How can administrators and policymakers reorganize and reinvigorate their school systems? In Latin America, public spending on education is already high, in many countries – such as Mexico – higher than the OECD average. Yet the region’s educational performance as measured by international indicators such as the PISA assessments remains dismal.


Clearly, we don’t know enough about how to manage the money that is already flowing into educational systems. Who should we be looking to take the lead in implementing positive changes, and taking responsibility for them – will this emanate from political party platforms? From the bureaucratic ranks of education ministries, or from private sector innovators? Or some effective combination of these?


In the United States, this type of leadership is increasingly coming from independent civil society institutions: Teach for America, New Leaders, and Kipp DC, just to name a few.


Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp may have done as much for educational innovation as anyone in the US by introducing her model of recruiting high achieving college graduates to serve stints as teachers in the nation’s most difficult schools. She recognized that young people had a desire to contribute to a cause greater than themselves, and channeled that into the education sector. Michelle Rhee, former DC education Chancellor, is another young innovator – she not only sought to transform DC’s education system, but also triggered a national debate on teacher performance standards. She went on to found Students First, an organization committed to mobilizing all stakeholders at a grassroots level to improve schools.


It is rare to find leaders like these, who go beyond transforming a school or district and impact their country’s policy agenda more broadly. They do exist in Latin America as well, however. There are national policymakers such as Cecilia Maria Velez, who served as Colombia’s Education Minister, and Gloria Vidal, former Education Minister of Ecuador. There are also leaders at the local or municipal levels that have had this kind of impact: specifically, Claudia Costin, education secretary of Rio de Janeiro who introduced teacher performance pay and other reforms, and Esteban Bullrich, who has been at work revamping the education system of the city of Buenos Aires.


How do we find – or develop – more leaders like Kopp, Rhee, and Bullrich? It turns out that that is the million dollar question. As Marcelo Perez Alfaro, head of the education division at the IADB Brazil office, says, “they share the same drive, the same values, but it is harder to find common denominators in terms of origin.”


Some argue that there is actually no shortage of raw leadership material in our countries – but these potential leaders are constrained by archaic bureaucracies, with stifling rules and regulations, that make it very difficult to take risks and move forward with bold plans. This may be true, but leaders also need to learn to navigate even tough systems. As Luanne Zurlo, the founder of Worldfund, argues: “We need more politics in education leadership, not more education. Reformers need to play politics, to deal with their central government, to deal with Congress, to understand the right timing to push for reforms.” They must also be political in the sense of building sustainable popular support for their initiatives.


Frederick Hess, in his latest book Cage-Busting Leadership, addresses these challenges. He wonders why most leaders embrace ambitious thinking in theory – but then fail to put it into practice. He identifies a number of self-imposed traps that well-meaning leaders fall into. These include the trap of low expectations (only comparing oneself to other poor performers), the trap of thinking only more money can help effect real change, and the trap of feeling oneself not creative or resourceful enough to navigate a regulated or opaque system.


Hess’ book is one of the few thoroughgoing analyses of educational leadership skill on a political level. One of his most important points is that even dynamic education reformers are only addressing one half of the problem. As he says, “leadership always entails two complementary roles. One is coaching, mentoring, nurturing, and inspiring others to forge dynamic professional cultures. This half absorbs almost the whole attention of those who tackle educational leadership. Lost in K-12 education is the second half of the leadership equation – the cage-busting half that makes it easier for successful and professional cultures to thrive.” That is, the half that improves systems and institutions, instead of only focusing on individuals.


While it is well understood that education reform is crucial to reaching the next level of development and economic competitiveness, we still struggle to find leaders that understand how to engage the politics of reform in order to achieve lasting change. We simply don’t yet devote the time or resources to finding or developing them. While we still lack a systematic way to do so, it is a problem we need to tackle soon.

Gabriel Sanchez Zinny is president of, a Latin American Blended Learning company, working in incorporating technologies to reduce drop out rates. Follow him on Twitter at @gzinny. He wrote this column for Latinvex.

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