In an education system shaped by 50 years of communist isolation, Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor BetsAnn Smith is helping develop curriculum for a program that will prepare educational leaders across Albania.
The Center for School Leadership, a project initiated by an Albanian-American Development fund, has created a school leadership certification program. The program has so far graduated over 400 principals and aspiring principals in partnership with six universities across urban and rural regions.
Successful completion of the program, which began in 2019, is required by law for educators who wish to progress to the leadership level in K-12 education.
Founded in 1946, the Fulbright Program has provided countless opportunities for students, artists, scholars, like Smith, and many more with the opportunity to pursue their passions by engaging in research and other activities. On Feb. 10, 2023, MSU was recognized as a top producer of Fulbright Scholars – the ninth consecutive year to achieve this feat and third time Smith has received the award.
This year’s award is an extension of the second time Smith was named a Fulbright Scholar, which was cut short at the onset of the pandemic.
“You’re starting from scratch,” said Smith. “The program is very much informed by research on the importance of school leaders not simply as managers, but as instructional leaders and community builders. But, even before you work with principals, you have to train education faculties who do not have backgrounds in educational leadership. My hope is that it [The Center for School Leadership] develops a stronger network of school leaders across Albania,” she said. According to Smith, the program’s approach is an important step in the future of Albania’s education system.
Not only are educators underpaid and overworked, Smith noted that policies established during communism, which collapsed in 1991, strain the Albanian education system today. One example is the interwoven relationship between public officials and K-12 principals.
“In Albania, principal positions are not yet professionalized; they are tied to political positions and parties. It’s still legally possible for someone in a mayor’s office to remove a school principal without real cause,” she said.
Smith also notes that rote learning and memorization, learning techniques that were common across communist states, still dominate life in classrooms. Both of these have been detrimental to education in Albania, and developing new practices is a significant challenge.
However, she sees the social tide shifting. “People are hungry for a more humanistic education. Albania has a very kind culture, but leaders can be very fault-finding. Part of the program is teaching leaders to validate instead of criticize,” she continued. “A big problem here is that young people don’t have hope for their future. You often hear them talking about their lives only mattering if they leave Albania. That is also a leadership challenge.”
With her visit to Albania coming to a close in June 2023, Smith will be researching the influences of the program by collecting data from program alumni.
Prior to her work in Albania, Smith spent time in Azerbaijan where she helped develop the country’s first master’s degree program in educational leadership and management. She has also worked with school leaders in Kazakhstan.
Upon returning to East Lansing, Mich., Smith plans on hosting international study visits to campus from school leaders from other countries but also to research the implementation of a new school improvement planning model in Michigan. The model aims to integrate a focus on the holistic development of children with planning techniques derived from design thinking and improvement science.
“BetsAnn has established herself as a scholar who engages globally, and I am proud to support her work. Not only does this further the department’s and college’s footprint internationally, but it also aligns with the university’s plan for making a global impact. As a matter of fact, BetsAnn is ahead of the curve in this regard,” said Department of Educational Administration Chairperson Sheneka Williams.