Evidence continues to mount regarding the critical role school leaders play in influencing academic success. Today, principals and other school leaders are called upon to transform struggling urban schools into places where all students achieve at high levels. In fact, many of the schools that NCUST has studied engaged in their own transformation in the years prior to the award. From the principals of our winning schools, we have learned a great deal about the leadership necessary to influence and guide deep change in school organizations.
Effective Leaders Believe. Principals in America’s highest performing urban schools choose to believe (often in the face of contrary evidence) that all their students could be taught to interact with dignity and decorum, achieve high academic standards, and excel in a wide array of intellectual and creative endeavors. It is important to note that these principals believed their students could excel (not just meet minimal standards). Frequently, principals of the
high-performing schools describe lofty goals that reflect their beliefs about the potential of their students and their school. Even when their students’ academic accomplishments rose beyond district or state expectations, principals believed that their schools could generate stronger teaching and learning results. The principal’s belief in the potential of their students and their school seemed to stimulate similar beliefs in others, especially teachers, staff members, parents, and even students. The principal’s belief was communicated in ways that influenced and inspired belief in others. Teachers, counselors, and other school personnel talked about the ways that the school leader “set the tone” or “established the focus” that influenced the beliefs and actions of others. We observed newsletters, staff memos, bulletin boards, and meeting agendas in which principals conveyed their strong belief in the potential of their school, while subtly inviting or, in some cases openly challenging, others to believe similarly.
Effective Leaders Set Expectations. Leaders of the highest performing urban schools hold expectations that are relatively few in number, consistently discussed and clarified, persistently maintained, and consistently high. By setting and maintaining specific expectations for learning, leaders are able to transition their beliefs, regarding the potential of their schools, into concrete actions. Often, leaders focused attention on the relationships among teachers, emphasizing the importance of frequent, high-quality collaboration among educators. In addition, leaders articulated the same expectations consistently and persistently. These expectations are articulated in observation forms, in notes given to teachers after classroom observations, in messages posted in teacher lounges, in school newsletters, and in professional development agendas. Those expectations often related to what teachers taught, how teachers taught, how teachers interacted with each other or with students, or how students interacted with adults and with each other. The clarity and consistency of the expectations shaped norms of behavior. Ultimately, leaders in these high-performing schools expected to see tangible evidence of learning results. In many schools, leaders articulated their expectations by posting the data related to those expectations and discussing those data regularly. Leaders left no ambiguity about what was important, what needed to be addressed, and what results were most valued at their school.
Effective Leaders Identify and Minimize Barriers and Monitor Implementation. In some schools, when educators do not meet the leader’s expectations, leaders assume that those individuals are defiant, unmotivated, or unwilling to change. In high-performing schools, leaders identified the barriers that impeded progress and worked to minimize those barriers. These effective leaders realize that individuals or groups of educators might lack knowledge, skill, time, confidence, support, direction, or resources. Leaders often used teacher collaboration as a tool for addressing barriers related to knowledge, skill, and confidence. Leaders structured teacher collaboration activities in ways that created an atmosphere of trust, making teachers feel comfortable to seek support from colleagues when help was needed. Similarly, we found rich examples of leaders who identified and minimized barriers to students meeting high expectations related to issues such as social behavior, homework completion, and school attendance, as well as barriers to the constructive involvement of parents in their children’s educational progress. It is important to note that leaders were able to address barriers to student and teacher success, in large part, because they frequently observed, listened, and inquired in ways that helped them identify the barriers. Principals described classroom visitation schedules that led them to see the entire campus regularly. Regular observing and listening allowed principals to identify the issues that could have undermined progress. By identifying issues that were impeding student progress and teacher progress, principals were able to address barriers thoughtfully.
Effective Leaders Measure and Monitor Progress. Principals in high-performing urban schools carefully monitored to determine the quality of implementation, variations in implementation, and the issues that might be impeding implementation to better address barriers and support improvement. In some cases, principals monitored by conducting individual meetings with teachers during which teachers presented data concerning their teaching and their students’ learning results. In other cases, principals monitored by observing classrooms and teacher meetings regularly. Some principals collected and reviewed samples of student work. Others met frequently with students to assess students’ perceptions of their learning. Often principals used digital technology to help them analyze and understand data related to their specific expectations. As principals monitored performances, they gained insight into the barriers that confronted teachers, students, and support staff. As leaders reduced the real and perceived barriers to the achievement of expectations, educators tended to feel more hopeful and more efficacious. Teachers were not fearful of their principals’ high expectations because they perceived that they had the support necessary to succeed.
Effective Leaders Build Capacity. Principals in high-performing schools held high expectations for their
personnel, but they also held high expectations for themselves. They expected themselves to address and minimize the barriers that made it difficult for school personnel to implement their expectations. Professional development was more than an occasional event at these schools. It was ingrained in the culture of the schools. Teachers were constantly learning from each other and with each other. Many of the schools engaged teachers in visiting other classrooms to observe instructional strengths. Leaders created structures to ensure that professional development was focused on key expectations related to curricular rigor, instructional effectiveness, and positive relationships. Also, leaders positioned themselves so that they were frequently available to help teachers succeed in meeting key expectations. Leaders did not assume that a workshop or a seminar alone would sufficiently build the capacity of teachers to improve their performance. Instead, leaders assumed that multiple complementary efforts were necessary in order to ensure that individuals would succeed in meeting the principal’s high expectations. Furthermore, leaders realized that differentiated approaches were appropriate in order to meet the range of needs present among a school’s faculty.
Effective Leaders Persist and Acknowledge and Celebrate Progress. Although many of the award-winning schools we studied looked like model schools, most struggled through difficult times. Leaders helped their school communities persist through setbacks, frustrations, and difficult times. They built systems and routines that made persistence possible. They emphasized cycles of support, practice, feedback, and reflection that helped their schools continue to improve when other schools might have given up. In turnaround situations, some principals persisted by firmly supporting teachers who were meeting expectations, while others resisted and sometimes attempted to ostracize teachers who endeavored to improve. While leaders in these high-performing schools were persisting through difficulties, they were simultaneously focusing attention on the small and large accomplishments of teachers, students, and support staff. Leaders were constantly acknowledging progress toward expectations and celebrating the work of individuals and groups at the school. One way that leaders acknowledged (and tacitly celebrated) successes were by engaging teachers in visits to each other’s classrooms. At the same time, leaders were skillful at finding small evidence of improvement and success and celebrating these victories as well. Leaders were skillful at giving credit to everyone who contributed to successes and rarely accepted credit themselves. They acknowledged and celebrated progress related to student achievement, but they also acknowledged progress related to all of the factors that influenced achievement (including curricular rigor, instructional effectiveness, and positive relationships). Nonetheless, leaders in these high-performing schools refused to be completely satisfied. Even though their schools achieved high levels of academic success, they continued to push for more.