Scratch the surface of an excellent school and you are likely to find an excellent principal. Look into a failing school and you’ll typically find signs of weak leadership. Leaders are thought to be essential for high-quality education. But is this indeed true and, if so, exactly how does leadership work?
School leaders set the tone in a school community. They play a prominent role in defining a vision and driving it forward, but how important are school leaders in promoting learning, and what are the essential functions of a successful leader?
A study commissioned by The Wallace Foundation and conducted by The University of Minnesota and the University of Toronto on How Leadership Influences Student Learning, concluded that leadership is not only an essential for quality education: it is second only to teaching among all school-related factors that contribute to what students learn at school.[i]
There are many labels used to describe leadership (Instructional, Transformational, Democratic, Participative, etc.). These labels are nothing more than adjectives describing a stylistic or methodological approach to accomplish the two essential goals critical to any school’s effectiveness: helping the school set a definitive set of directions and influencing members to move in those directions. After all, it is only by having these two objectives in place that any leader can influence change.
Based upon research of well-documented and well-accepted knowledge about leadership at the school level, we have identified the following categories of practices as important for leadership success in almost all education settings and organizations:
Leadership Within the School: Leaders influence student learning by helping to promote vision and goals, and by ensuring that resources and processes are in place to enable teachers to teach well. Leadership practices that help a school function as a high-quality learning community are:
– Charting a clear course that everyone understands, creating high performance expectations and using data to track progress and performance.
– Developing people – providing teachers and others in the system with the necessary support and training to succeed.
– Making the organization work by ensuring that the entire range of conditions and incentives in districts and schools fully supports rather than inhibits teaching and learning.
– Allowing the “right balance of tightness and looseness??? to tap into the sources of motivational commitment and energy necessary to make positive changes.
– Creating shared meanings and fostering the acceptance of group goals, while also providing individualized support when necessary.
– Understanding that everything is about human capital.
University High School in Irvine, CA is a great example of how leadership practices are implemented to positively influence student learning and motivate a school to focus on high-quality education.
University High School (UHS) was named the best public high school in California and 8th best public high school in America in 2011 by Newsweek.[i] UHS was also the highest ranked institution on the list that was not a charter or magnet school.
The school has consistently made Newsweek’s list of Best High Schools and in 2012 set a national record for the most students (ten) from one school to receive a perfect score on the ACT, a feat that less that 0.1% of all students who take the ACT manage to do.[ii]
John Pehrson, principal of UHS recommends that the best things a leader can do to have the greatest impact on the success of their school are to: Hire the right people and get out of the way; Empower people to exercise their gifts and talents to move a school forward in a positive way; Celebrate accomplishments; Maintain an open door policy; Focus on balance in kids; Encourage and support initiative and risk taking, and welcome mistakes.
Educating Diverse Groups of Students: Many school leaders work with populations that are increasingly diverse and that may not be experiencing success in school. This includes children from low-income families or whose cultural backgrounds or characteristics fall outside of the mainstream. Evidence suggests that successful leaders of schools in highly diverse contexts focus their effort on five sets of tasks:
– Building powerful forms of teaching and learning.
– Creating strong communities in school and strengthening school culture.
– Expanding the proportion of students’ social capital valued by the schools.
– Nurturing the development of families’ educational cultures.
– Identifying and articulating a vision and building collaborative processes that foster open communication.
It goes without saying that leadership practices and the management of a school has a direct correlation on student culture and the expectation for students to achieve higher standards.
It is a challenging necessity to keep students engaged at any level, but in communicating with teenagers and trying to understand “the nature of the beast,??? it becomes even more difficult to instill a love for learning in them. So how does UHS manage to do so? Pehrson sums it up with the following, “I think we instill “it’s cool to be good at whatever you do.??? We celebrate accomplishments. We expect kids to behave and succeed in a certain way and kids respond accordingly. We honor strong character and deal with weak character in a dignified way. We initiate conversations and discussions on meaningful and higher level topics. We attempt to steer conversations and actions from ‘self’ to ‘others’.???
Galen Hunsicker, professor of zoology at Vanguard University for 20 years, and currently a science teacher at UHS, is no stranger to the tactics and necessary nurturing required to keep students engaged. When asked about UHS’s student culture and how it contributes to higher standards, Hunsicker replied, “Just look at the fantastic spirit within the more than 100 clubs on campus! When teachers are completely valued within their respective disciplines, then naturally, they feel encouraged to explore new ways to teach concepts. When the administration models positive and creative leadership, so will teachers in the classroom. All of this funnels down to our precious students, who then will be encouraged to explore, to create, to analyze and think more critically. What follows will be greater willingness for students to own their success and reach for higher standards.???
Accountability: Every school is unique in its own right; however, schools share special challenges and opportunities that require effective responses from educational leaders. One such example may be with policies designed to hold schools more accountable. Leadership practices that help schools succeed when they confront various forms of accountability mechanisms may include:
– Creating and sustaining a competitive school.
– Empowering others to make significant decisions.
– Providing instructional guidance.
– Strategic planning.
In the case of UHS, providing instructional guidance and empowering others to make significant decisions are accountability tools highly regarded by UHS leadership. An example of this is shown as Hunsicker points to three main practices that have had the greatest impact on teachers and staff:
1. An open door policy and giving the teachers a “heads up??? regarding upcoming issues or events.
2. Continuous positive support for effective teaching strategies through summer reading (Teach Like a Champion) and regular, thought provoking articles sent via email.
3. Having confidence in our professionalism and streamlining issues to save us teachers time in doing the things we do best: TEACH. This administration excels at this! “For example, two years ago during WASC accreditation, our UHS leadership developed focus groups each with an effective teacher leading the discussion,??? Galen explained, “Near the end of this process, the leaders of these groups came together to hash out our action plan, which was circulated for editing by any teacher, and released as a final hard copy. We all felt great about our input, time management, and our individual value. At no time was there a sense of a top down style or a central controller. We all had a voice, all of us were important, and as a result, I believe we became more cohesive and more aware of who we really are.???
Galen went on to say that all UHS administration leads with vision, but they also guide and engage… not micromanage. “In my 42 years of teaching at over a dozen colleges and two high schools, University High School is a unique place, for I have never been in such an organized, positive, and uplifting environment.???
We know that school leadership is most successful when it is focused on teaching and learning but there is still much more to learn about the essentials of quality leadership, how to harness its benefits, and how to ensure that there is a holistic approach to placing good leaders into bad systems so that they are able to contribute and enrich in a way that is meaningful rather than having a system that will tear down even the best of them.
But leadership goes beyond just teachers and principals. Schools exist within a district, and effective leadership must occur through networked interactions in which schools and districts work cooperatively towards a common goal. School leaders cannot effectively change their policies, programs, and practices without “permission??? from their districts. A district’s specific actions impact schools and their capacity to implement school change and attain higher standards.
Autonomy vs. centralization
A report written in 2011 by Erin Dillon, a senior policy analyst at Education Sector, studies the correlation between the success of a school and its autonomous capacity. The report suggests that as a whole, successful schools tend to be more autonomous in school management, staffing and instruction. Greater autonomy can free educators to try new approaches with instruction, staffing, and schedules so they can respond quickly and more effectively to student needs. With expanded autonomy, districts let the schools themselves—the principals and the teachers—make big decisions like how to spend the budget, what curriculum to use, and how to hire and train teachers. Those who know students best, the theory goes, are best able to direct resources and take actions on students’ behalf.[iv]
The surge in charter schools and other autonomous school reforms points to the theory that granting schools more flexibility can yield more innovation in school management, staffing, and instruction and thereby lead to greater performance levels by students. Not all schools however, have the capacity to render the resources and effort required by autonomy with actions that improve student learning. Often times, schools don’t have the proper leadership, staff, or vision to make good independent decisions. Union contracts, legal constraints, and financial realities can also limit autonomy, preventing schools from making substantial changes.
So, the key question is, just how much freedom do you give a school? There are several models to approach school autonomy (success-based, site-based, partnership schools, collaborative, etc.), so how do you reach a point where individual, autonomous schools are capable of making decisions to improve student performance and where the district can give them the support they need to do so? And even more so, is autonomy in school reform really the answer.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, based on interviews with the leaders of five highly successful charters, identified seven “autonomies??? essential to success: freedom to develop a great team; freedom to manage teachers as professionals (including giving them merit-based raises); freedom to change curriculum and classroom structure; autonomy over scheduling; financial freedom; freedom of school boards to focus on education instead of politics; and freedom to define a school culture.[v]
But the struggle to make autonomy work must be approached with caution. There must be a balance between autonomy and centralization. It is proven that when those closest to the children are capable of making decisions, student performance improves, as is the case in many charter-based schools. However, there are proven cases whereby increasing centralization and reducing autonomy has led to improvement as well.
In studying winners of the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education, a $1 million award given annually to an urban district demonstrating high student achievement and progress in closing racial and economic achievement gaps, most of the public school district recipients showed significant gains in test scores, particularly among low-income and minority groups and significantly narrowed the achievement gaps between these groups and white and/or higher-income groups, respectively.
But these improvements did not come from granting schools more autonomy. On the contrary, the districts sought to standardize practices across the district and increase central office control, building a stronger accountability system and focusing on strengthening and energizing its personnel and leaders.
Does the success of these Broad-prize winning districts mean that centralization, rather than autonomy, is the most effective strategy for school reform? Yes and no. Although centralization took place across a district, the common factor among these schools was that each allowed programs, intervention plans, and capacity building initiatives to be implemented to meet the needs of individual schools.
Steve McLaughlin, Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Newport-Mesa Unified School District in Orange County, California agrees with the notion that it takes a healthy balance of autonomy and centralization for a school to be successful.
As a district that serves schools at varying ends of the socio-economical scale, Newport-Mesa has made great strides over the last few years in striking a delicate balance between autonomy and centralization. Their increase in statewide test results and overall academic performance is proof that their approach and philosophy of “All kids are successful??? is working.
In order to narrow the disparity between schools in lower socioeconomic communities and the more affluent ones, Newport Mesa has had to maintain a clear organizational vision, while providing the appropriate support to individual schools so that they may better serve their communities.
“It’s important for schools to understand the needs of its community,??? explains McLaughlin. “Schools are a resource to the community and the more welcoming, approachable, and accessible they are, the better they instill the ‘we are here to serve you’ mentality.???
But this type of support and communication has to begin with the district. This service-oriented model must come from the central office and continue to be instilled into each site in a way that is meaningful and achievable. “Because our sites present varying backgrounds, it’s essential for them to have the ability to create local programs A district must offer guidance, support, service and accountability and then work with individual schools to personalize the framework,??? says McLaughlin, “Its imperative for districts to use data to cultivate conversations around school needs and then work with the staff to develop programs that help target identified areas.???
Autonomy is a mantra among highly successful schools, and few leaders of the most successful charter schools and district schools would say that they could have achieved highly effective results under typical district rules and regulations, but autonomy is NOT the shoe that fits every school.
Leadership at any level takes time… but the one thing that effective leadership cannot stand without is trust. Trust trumps everything. And everything flows from trust — learning, credibility, accountability, a sense of purpose and a mission that makes “education??? bigger than oneself.
[i] Kenneth Leithwood, Karen Seashore Louis, Stephen Anderson and Kyla Wahlstrom, How leadership influences student learning (2004)
[ii] America’s Best High Schools – Newsweek (2011)
[iii] Stevens, Matt (June 8, 2012). “10 Irvine high school students earn perfect ACT scores – latimes.com???. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 16, 2012.
[iv] Erin Dillon, “The Road to Autonomy: Can Schools, Districts, and Central Offices Find Their Way?,??? Education Sector Reports (June 2011).
[v] Joe Ableidinger and Bryan C. Hassel, Free to Lead: Autonomy in Highly Successful Charter Schools (Washington, DC: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, April 2010).