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Leadership challenges in international schools in the Asia Pacific region: evidence from programme implementation of the International Baccalaureate (Part 1)
Over the last four decades, International Baccalaureate (IB) schools have become increasingly important in the global market of international education. This is especially evident in Asia Pacific, which has evidenced the fastest growth in IB schools, as well as international schools more generally, across the world over the last decade. Despite this dramatic growth of international education in Asia Pacific, empirical research examining leadership in this context is scarce. This paper addresses this gap through the analysis of case study data collected in five International Baccalaureate Schools in East Asia. The purposes of the report are to explore key challenges facing IB school leaders in the region, and identify implications for researchers and IB school leaders.


Schools offering the International Baccalaureate (IB) programmes, or IB Schools, have been key players in the global market of international education for several decades. IB Schools have developed a strong reputation for encouraging students to become active learners, well-rounded individuals and engaged world citizens (Hayden 2006). Over the last decade, the number of IB programmes adopted by schools around the world increased by almost 400%, from 923 programmes in 1999 to 3439 in 2010 (International Baccalaureate Organization [IBO] 2009a). Moreover, the IBO projects that there will be 10,000 authorized IB schools serving more than two million students by the year 2020 (IBO 2009b). These statistics highlight not only the rapid growth of IB programmes, but also the growing influence of the IB in international education sector (Hayden 2006).

    Amidst this trend of exponential growth demonstrated by IB schools globally, Asia Pacific has evidenced the most rapid gains in the number of IB schools since 2000 (IBO 2009b). As of 2010, 563 IB programmes had been adopted by 407 schools in the Asia Pacific region. As illustrated in Figure 1, over the last decade, a growing number of international schools in the Asia Pacific region have adopted one or more of the three IB programmes designed to cover the K–12 continuum: Primary Years Programme (PYP), Middle Years Programme (MYP) and Diploma Programme (DP).1 Figure 2 further illustrates the rapid growth rate of IB schools (15.5% annual growth on average during the period from 2001 to 2009), compared to ‘other international schools’ (2.8% annual growth on average during the same period) or ‘government schools’ in the region (e.g. in both Australia and Hong Kong the number of students enroled in government schools during the same period evidenced a slight decline).

In-depth analysis of forces driving the expansion of international education in Asia Pacific is beyond the scope of this report. We do, however, note that IB programmes in this region are located almost exclusively in non-government (e.g. private or independent) schools. This contrasts with North America where IB programmes are found predominately in public (i.e. government funded) schools. We suggest that international education programmes such as the IB enable non-government schools in Asia Paci- fic to offer a credible, internationally validated alternative to the national public education systems that also facilitates access to universities outside of the local environment.

    For example, as of 2010, international education programmes located in Thailand were serving more than 100,000 students, and all were located in non-government schools (Khaopa and Kaewmukda 2010). Thus, we surmise that within the Asia Pacific context, international schools in general, and IB Schools in particular, have succeeded in creating a ‘brand’ or widely recognized identity associated with their educational service. This brand is associated with an international curriculum, multi-cultural student body, global portability of the degree and highquality preparation for university entrance (see Tarc 2009 for details).2

    In fact, IB brand recognition in Asia Pacific has been built on earlier penetration in the international education market in North America and Europe (Tarc 2009). Indeed, a decade ago Gehring (2001) referred to the IB’s Diploma Programme as the ‘Cadillac of College-Prep Programs’ offered in the US. Here, we refer to IB adoption data to suggest that the IB brand is increasingly accepted by stakeholders in Asia Pacific as a credible, internationally validated alternative to national public education systems (see also Doherty 2009). In many Asia Pacific countries parents may find relatively few programmes offered in the government schools sector that offer prerequisites for university entrance in other countries (Lee et al. forthcoming). While traditionally this objective described the concerns of expatriate parents, in recent years, parents in Asian nations have sought similar opportunities for their children. Within this context, the IB’s Diploma Programme has emerged as a key alternative for students in the international college entrance market, further boosting the IB brand (Lowe 1999).

    Despite these growth trends, we observe that the literature on leadership in IB schools is very thin. In particular, empirical research exploring leadership in international schools in Asia Pacific is rarely found. With this in mind, our study centred on the following question: what are key challenges facing IB school leaders in the Asia Pacific region? In seeking answers, we focused particularly on challenges embedded in IB programme implementation. This research focus not only serves to broaden our understanding of leadership in international schools, but also to deepen existing empirical descriptions of school leadership in the Asia Pacific region.

Leadership research in international school settings

As noted above, we assert that research on leadership in international schools is an underdeveloped field of inquiry (Bunnell 2006, Hayden 2006, Lee et al. forthcoming, Walker and Cheng 2009). This limitation is further accentuated if we limit the scope of inquiry to ‘empirical’ studies. Given the growing importance of this education sector, we were surprised that a thorough search of the literature uncovered only a relatively small number of published empirical studies (i.e. Hawley 1994, 1995, Gilliam 1997, Blandford and Shaw 2001, Biro 2003, McGhee 2003, Melton 2003, Keher 2004, Hayden 2006, Jabal 2006, Bunnell 2008, Halicioglu 2008, Hartman 2008, Hayden and Thompson 2008, Siskin and Weinstein 2008, Riesbeck 2008, Hall et al. 2009, Walker and Cheng 2009, Hallinger et al. 2010, Lee et al. forthcoming).

    Despite this paucity of published empirical research, we note a growing consensus about the importance of leadership in International Schools. For example, using random sampling of 20 IB schools across the US, Gilliam (1997) found that strong leadership from principals and IB programme coordinators played a key role in successful DP implementation. More recently, Hall and colleagues (Hall et al. 2009) examined the implementation of PYP in 16 schools in the US. They gathered survey data from teachers and administrators in all of the schools, and conducted case studies in 3 of the 16 schools. Findings from the survey suggested that strong leadership was a key factor that facilitated successful PYP implementation in the schools. More specifically, Hartman (2008) found that personal characteristics of principals such as emotional intelligence influenced trust levels between teachers and principals. Trust levels between the two groups were also associated with successful PYP implementation.

    Riesbeck (2008) identified factors contributing to the success of IB Diploma programmes (IBDP) in 30 American secondary schools by comparing ‘top decile’ and ‘bottom decile’ schools as defined by pass rates in the Diploma Programme. According to the study, four leadership characteristics differentiated principals in the top decile IB schools: modelling professional behaviour, promoting IB programmes to the public, enthusiasm or passion about their IB programmes and exhibiting good public relations skills. In addition, teachers reported that middle-level leaders (i.e. IB Coordinators) in successful DP programmes were more responsive to teachers’ needs, supported the IB philosophy, promoted the IB programme to the public and were enthusiastic about their IB programme.

    Hallinger and colleagues (2010) provided a more comprehensive view of leadership practices in East Asian IB schools. According to their study of IB schools implementing the full continuum of the IB programmes (i.e. PYP, MYP and DP programmes), the complexity of formal organization triggered a demand for more comprehensive instructional leadership. In these full-continuum schools, instructional leadership provided connective tissue binding the three IB programmes through cross-programme activities, curriculum articulation and a strategic approach towards staffing. These leadership practices were evidenced through a widely distributed network of formal and informal instructional leaders.

    Previous empirical research has also documented leadership and management ‘challenges’ facing IB programme implementation. For example, Biro (2003) reported that the complex web of teacher interactions involved in IB PYP implementation contributed significantly to a culture of shared responsibility for student learning. Biro further suggested that school management played an important supporting role through securing scheduled joint planning time that enabled regular teacher interaction around teaching and learning. In her study of Turkish national schools employing the IBDP, Halicioglu (2008) found that a lack of consensus of the definition of international education in general and IB programmes represented a potential obstacle at the management level. Gilliam’s study (1997), noted above, identified the need for educating relevant stakeholders and providing professional development opportunities centred on IB programme implementation for teachers. McGhee (2003) further noted the importance of timetabling, recruitment and the deployment and training of staff in fostering philosophical commitment as well as skills in IB programmes. Hall and colleagues (2009) highlighted potential problems aligning the philosophy and content of IB programmes with ‘local’ or national government standards.

    Although their research did not focus specifically on leadership issues, Millikan’s (2001) and Stobie’s (2005, 2007) studies identified challenges in IB programme implementation. Using case study methodology, Milikan, found that teachers, ‘perceived structural differences both within and between programmes’ (p. 4). This emerged from the fact that various IB programmes employ different terminology to describe key features of the learning process and outputs.

    Stobie’s (2005, 2007) studies found that differences between MYP and DP programmes created structural barriers to achieving coherence and consistency as students moved through schools that were implementing multiple IB programmes. MYP was regarded as needing more teacher input and interpretation in curriculum design because MYP is offered as a programme rather than as a curriculum per se. This suggested a greater need for middle-level programme leadership and teacher coordination in curriculum planning and implementation in MYP than in the content-oriented, examination-driven Diploma Programme (Stobie 2005, 2007).

    Along with these empirical studies, several experts on IB education have offered insightful arguments regarding leadership challenges in International Schools (e.g. Blandford and Shaw 2001, Hayden 2006, Hayden and Thompson 2008). For example, Hayden (2006) pointed out that it requires leadership to transform the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic composition of international schools from a challenge into an educational asset (see also Dimmock and Walker 2005, Walker and Dimmock 2005). Another persistent leadership challenge lies in the high turnover rate of both teachers and administrators in international schools. This can impede long-term planning and necessitates more frequent cycles of teacher training and development in order to maintain programme coherence and continuity and fidelity to the IB’s core principles (see also Hawley 1994, 1995, Blandford and Shaw 2001, Hayden 2006).

International schools as a ‘context’ for leadership

Blandford and Shaw (2001) offer a comprehensive list of features that shape the context for leadership in international schools. These include:

    1. High but diverse parental expectations;
    2. High rate of staff turnover and student mobility;
    3. Politics surrounding the position of the school head;
    4. Unclear roles or inappropriate involvement of school owners and Board members in school operations;
    5. Conflicting pressures emerging from the need for compliance with host country education laws and policies and the educational goals and processes guiding international education;
    6. Fluid participation of members of the school board of governors;
    7. Cultural diversity of staff, students and board members;
    8. Conflicts between local and global curriculum standards and expectations;
    9. Competitive pressures for student intake (pp. 24–25).

    Drawing from our review of the literature, we note that leaders in international school settings find themselves facing a number of challenges. While some of these have been identified in the broader educational leadership and management literature, others appear to be embedded in contextual differences that describe these particular school settings. When considering the importance of locating leadership in the context where it is enacted (e.g. Bossert et al. 1982, Hallinger and Murphy 1986, Goldring et al. 2008), we further note that most of the empirical research cited in this paper was conducted in Western societies (e.g. US, UK, Australia, Canada). Indeed, we were only able to locate three studies that explored leadership issues targeting leadership in international schools in Asia (i.e. Jabal 2006, Bunnell 2008, Hallinger et al. 2010). This supports our contention that more studies are needed that explore leadership in international schools in this high-growth region3 of the world.

    Figure 3 presents a conceptual framework for understanding the context of leadership challenges based on our review of relevant literature. Prior reviews of research in educational leadership have yielded a consensus that school leaders are influenced by both external (i.e. environmental) and internal (organizational) contexts (e.g. Bossert et al. 1982, Yukl 1989, Leithwood et al. 1996, Hoy and Miskel 2001). Coupled with this perspective, we adopt Dimmock’s (1996) framework, capturing school leadership dilemmas, in order to illuminate the range of challenges facing IB school leaders in the Asia Pacific region. Various challenges relevant to both external and internal factors will be discussed later in this paper.


This report focuses on qualitative data collected as part of a larger, multimethod global study of IB programme implementation (Hallinger et al. 2010). The study employed a sequential explanatory, mixed methods research design (Creswell 2008). Qualitative case study data were collected following the analysis of quantitative survey data collected from 175 IB schools throughout the world. The purpose behind this research design was to gain more specific insight into how global trends concerning programme implementation played out in IB Schools in East Asia (Hallinger et al. 2010). Qualitative data were collected in case studies (Yin 1994) of five full-continuum IB schools located in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and mainland China.

School selection

The five case study schools were identified collaboratively with staff from the IBO (see Table 1).4 Several selection criteria were employed. First, consistent with the primary purpose of the study, we selected schools that were offering the full continuum of IB programmes. Second, we sought diversity in terms of country, school size and type of student populations (see Table 1). Third, once these criteria were met, we then selected schools that showed relatively better school performance in the DP-level average subject grade than other IB schools (see Table 1).

Data collection

As noted above, this report focuses solely upon qualitative data collected during the course of case studies conducted at five IB schools. The data were collected data through interviews conducted with teachers, administrators and students. In total, we interviewed 68 teachers and administrators, as well as 25 students. Most of the administrators were individually interviewed for half an hour to one hour while teachers and students were generally interviewed in group settings for about

one hour (see Appendix 1 for details about our interview data collection scheme). At least two interviewers were involved in most of the interviews. The semi-structured interview protocol focused on key staff members’ and students’ perceptions of challenges in association with the IB programme implementation. By employing similar interview procedures with the same basic protocol, the iterative process of data collection functioned as a variant of the constant comparative method (Corbin and Strauss 1998).

Data analysis

In order to reduce the approximately 150 hours of interview data, into a smaller number of analytical units, we conducted pattern coding based on similar themes (Miles and Huberman 1994). We contextualized the data by first integrating each theme into an individual school profile and then aggregating and comparing thematic coding across schools.

    Several efforts were made to address validity and reliability of the data analysis. First, we checked possible factual errors in our interview data by cross-checking with each principal of the selected schools and relevant archival data. Second, we used analytic memos in triangulating the interview data. Third, the two data analysts coded the data independently and then checked data coding with a partner. To ensure coding reliability, inter-rater reliability was checked with 10 randomly selected interview files. Fourth, we also sought feedback from other members of the multicultural interviewing team (i.e. American, Australian, Chinese, Korean). This feedback-solicitation process enabled us to surface alternative interpretations of the same transcript and contributed to a better understanding of seemingly discrepant statements. Finally, all data were organized using NVivo 8 software in order to organize the information for thematic analysis and cross-school comparisons.

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