Successful School Leadership: A Conversation with an “America’s Best High Schools” Principal – Part 1 of 4

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?

How Leadership Influences Student Learning, a study commissioned by The Wallace Foundation and conducted by The Universities of Minnesota and Toronto, concluded that leadership is not only essential for quality education but second only to teaching among all school-related factors that contribute to what students learn at school.

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
  • Educating Diverse Groups of Students
  • Accountability
  • Autonomy vs. centralization


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. Below are some leadership practices that help successful schools function as high-quality learning communities:

– 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 (UHS) in Irvine, California, 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.

UHS was named the best public high school in California and 8th best public high school in America in 2011 by Newsweek. It 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.


John Pehrson, principal of UHS, suggests 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


We’ll continue this conversation next week, focusing on the topic of educating diverse groups of students. Do you think Pehrson is accurate? Are there other ways for a principal to have the greatest impact on his/her school?

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