An Exploration of the Role of Leadership in Successful Systemic Improvement in China

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Principal Investigator
Dr. Qian Haiyan
Director of APCLC,
The Education University of Hong Kong
Professor Allan Walker
Chair Professor and Co-Director of APCLC,
The Education University of Hong Kong
Professor James Spillane
Chair Professor
Northwestern University
Senior Research Fellow of APCLC
The Education University of Hong Kong
Funding Source
General Research Fund
Project Duration


Ten years ago, Michael Fullan predicted that educational system reform would “come of age”. The past decade has witnessed some ambitious attempts to reform educational systems in different societies, but few have delivered their intended outcomes. Among these societies, Shanghai seems to be a positive outlier which often attributes its success in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to its system-wide reform efforts. Many cities in Mainland China have also followed the piloting role of Shanghai and adopted similar system reform strategies. System reform usually involves collaboration and networking across schools and districts for the purpose of narrowing the gaps between schools and enhancing teacher capacity on a large scale. System reform therefore requires displaying and executing leadership at different levels – teacher leaders, principals, district administrators, and government officials. A core challenge for system leaders is to design and deploy educational infrastructure, including coordinated roles, structures and resources, to create the conditions for successful system change.

This study will examine the relationship between leadership, educational infrastructure and system-wide improvement through case studies of selected innovative system reform initiative implemented in three Mainland Chinese regions – Shanghai, Anhui and Guizhou. They are located in East, Central and West China. The study aims to deconstruct the innovative system reforms carried out in these provinces and examine the role of leadership in designing and deploying infrastructure necessary for successful systemic change. The study will employ a case study design and selects 4-6 municipal/provincial-level or district-level reform initiatives, such as commissioned administration (weituo guanli, which usually involves the commissioning of high-performing public schools to take over the administration of weaker ones), district-level teacher learning collaboration (which mainly refers to an established mechanism for expert teachers to network across schools and exert leadership beyond their immediate school level), as innovative cases for focused research. Data will be collected through observing cross-school collaborative learning activities, conducting in-depth interviews with different levels of leaders involved in the reform initiatives, and collecting documents and field notes.

This study will make a unique contribution to three major bodies of educational literature: system reform; international understanding of system leadership; and educational leadership in China. The research findings will have important implications for system leadership and systemic improvement practices in Hong Kong and other societies.

  1. To investigate the role of different levels of leadership in designing and deploying educational infrastructure towards systemic improvement in Mainland China;
  2. To explore the characteristics of socio-cultural, political and educational systems that facilitate and inhibit the exercise of system leadership;
  3. To develop rich case studies that explicate complex relationships between system leadership, educational infrastructure and systemic improvement; and
  4. To draw lessons about executing leadership and designing and deploying infrastructure that may have implications for leading systemic reforms in Hong Kong and other societies.
Expected Outcomes
  1. Empirical data about how different levels of leaders design and deploy educational infrastructure to create the conditions for systemic improvement;
  2. Explication of meanings of enactment and distribution of system leadership in the systemic reform;
  3. Identification of the socio-cultural, political and systemic aspects of the Chinese education system that enable and inhibit system leaders to exert their leadership roles;
  4. Development of rich case studies that explicate complex relationships between system leadership, educational infrastructure and systemic improvement; and
  5. A set of propositions about what Hong Kong and other societies can learn from the practices of leadership execution and infrastructure deployment of these regions.

The study aims to expand the knowledge base in three domains. The first domain will be system reform. Despite the worldwide interest in Shanghai’s success, the system-wide reform efforts in Mainland China have not been included in international reports (e.g., Mourshed et al., 2010). The study will provide insights extracted from insiders’ views of how to achieve system-wide reform through collaboration and networking. The second domain will be an international understanding of system leadership. System leaders are “in a position of power within the system” and the extent to which they use their influence and extended role of tackling underperformance in network schools has yet to be explored (Cousin, 2019). This study will be one of the first few empirical attempts to connect educational leadership with system reforms that will advance existing theories and practices in system leadership. The third domain will be educational leadership in China. The study will unravel some unique characteristics of educational leadership embedded specifically in the context of China, therefore contributing to the still emerging knowledge base of Chinese educational leadership (Walker and Qian, 2018).