Leadership in
America's Best Urban Schools

Leading schools to become places where all demographic groups of students 1) benefit from a positive transformational culture, 2) have access to challenging academic curricula, and 3) receive effective instruction that results in engagement and mastery is not easy. Even the most energetic, creative, and ambitious leaders cannot lead a school to excellent and equitable learning results without the effort of many others, including teachers, counselors, secretaries, custodians, nurses, administrators (both school-level and district-level administrators), parents/family members, community-agency staff, and students. School leaders, working solo, will not be able to establish the school characteristics or improvement systems necessary to transform their schools. Urban school leaders will not generate excellent and equitable learning results unless they influence a critical mass of the school community members. In particular, leaders face the following four major challenges that influence their ability to make any significant progress.

ONE

LEADERSHIP THAT INFLUENCES THE DESIRE TO CHANGE

One might think that anyone would be eager to embrace an effort likely to reduce the frustration and despair found in some urban schools. There are, however, many school leaders who could describe disturbing situations in which teachers, support staff, administrators, and even parents and students resisted, sabotaged, or fought aggressively against change efforts that promised to bring superior results. Muhammad (2009) explained that people resist change when they are not provided with a clear rationale. Many leaders fail to enact change when stakeholders do not perceive a compelling reason to engage in the hard work of changing ineffective and sometimes, counterproductive behaviors, routines, or practices. Often leaders fail to offer a compelling “why.” Table 1 shares a list of reasons leaders in typical urban schools utilize to encourage changes in behavior, programs, or systems. As well, the list includes some of the spoken or unspoken stakeholder responses that suggest leaders have failed to influence the desire to change.As we have endeavored to coach and support leaders in many typical urban schools, we have seen leaders, overtly and covertly, put forth these reasons for action. As well, we have heard these and similar responses from many stakeholders. Stakeholders need to believe that they are being asked to change their practice for a worthwhile reason. In high-performing schools, leaders articulated and regularly reinforced noble reasons for change. For example, at James Pace Early College High School in Brownsville, Texas, administrators emphasized that they were “in a battle for the education of each individual child.” Administrators sought to help school personnel see a vision in which they were “winning– one goal, one mind, one child at a time.” The importance of the leader’s vision has been described extensively (Cotton, 2003; Hallinger & Heck, 1996; Leithwood, Louis, Anderson, & Walhstrom, 2005; Murphy & Torres, 2015). These studies emphasize, and our studies of high-performing urban schools confirm, that leaders must not only have a vision of a desired state, but they must also lead others to share that same vision. Leaders in very high-performing urban schools succeeded in getting a critical mass of stakeholders (teachers, support staff, administrators, parents, and students) to see and desire a vision of educational excellence and equity: a vision that included a positive transformational culture, challenging academic curricula, and effective instruction that will lead all students to high levels of engagement and mastery.
”Having a great vision is essential, but not sufficient. Leaders must also help everyone whom plays a role in accomplishing the vision see the vision as appealing and worth the requisite effort”
In order to lead their schools to attain strong learning results for every demographic group, leaders must influence a critical mass of stakeholders to rally behind a powerful reason for change. None of the leaders we interviewed claimed that they had succeeded in getting every stakeholder to modify practices, routines, or structures in the ways they hoped; however, the leaders had clearly convinced a sufficient number of stakeholders to do so, thus building the necessary momentum for change. In each high-performing urban school, it was easy to find large groups of teachers, parents, and students who spoke proudly about the direction their school had taken and the vision for excellence that motivated their efforts. Having a great vision is essential, but not sufficient. Leaders must also help everyone who plays a role in accomplishing the vision, see the vision as appealing and worth the requisite effort. Leaders in the high-performing schools we studied framed reasons for change that resonated with various stakeholders.

TABLE 1

Common Reasons for Change and Common Responses

TWO

Leadership that Influences Belief in the Capacity to Improve and Succeed

To establish a positive transformational culture, challenging curricula, and effective instruction that lead to excellent and equitable learning results, stakeholders need to believe that their efforts will not be in vain. Students need to believe that their struggles to comprehend and excel will not lead to more failure experiences. In many cases, parents need to believe that their children have a greater chance for school success than they experienced when they were students. Teachers need to believe that school leaders are not setting them up for frustration and failure. Even if stakeholders perceive that the leader is pursuing the right goal, they are not likely to exert maximum effort if they do not perceive a reasonable chance of success. The students at Dayton Business Technology High School believed that their teachers knew that they had the ability to succeed in life, even when the students had experienced serious academic and behavioral challenges. A teacher at Morris Slingluff Elementary in Dothan, Alabama explained, “The children believe that we believe in them.” At Morris Slingluff, at Dayton Business Technology High School, and at the other high-performing urban schools we studied, principals worked deliberately to cultivate belief in everyone’s capacity to improve and succeed.

Lezotte and Snyder (2011) concluded that high expectations for success included two critical beliefs. School personnel had to believe that students possessed the ability to succeed. Also, the school personnel had to believe that they had the capacity to enable all students to achieve success. We found considerable evidence of these two beliefs in all of the high-performing urban schools we studied.

Cultivating belief, when students, parents, and school personnel have experienced years of failure, can be very challenging. Students may perceive abundant evidence in their prior school performance, their test scores, or their friends’ frustrations that success is unlikely. Parents who live in low-income situations might point to their own shattered educational dreams as proof that belief in their children’s success is unwarranted. Teachers who experienced years of frustration trying to make a positive difference may have surrendered to feelings of helplessness as they consider the multiple, complex needs of their students.

Muhammad and Hollie (2012) explained that school personnel might hold beliefs that are counterproductive to the school’s ability to generate excellent and equitable results. They contended:

This is damaging when staff members hold beliefs and values that are different than those required for success in the school, such as when they discriminate against students based on race, social class, or disability.

We have never encountered a high-performing urban school in which key leaders were shocked to find that their students could achieve at high levels or stunned to realize that their team of educators had the capacity to teach well. Leaders believed, often before others believed.
In order to develop high-performing urban schools, the leaders we studied had to cultivate and sustain a high level of belief that educational success for all was possible. They did so by 1) modeling belief, 2) finding and celebrating evidence for belief, and 3) confronting disbelief.

Why do we work so hard? Well, you know that most of us kids went to other high schools around here and we were kicked out or suspended or other stuff happened. At my old school, the teachers would see me coming and think, “Here comes trouble. Here comes a headache. Here comes my next suspension. Here comes a dropout.” They saw me as another Black statistic. Even though I knew I wasn’t stupid, I pretty much figured they were right. I was never good at school. I had a hard time reading the textbooks. I just didn’t see how I was going to get anywhere at school or in life.

So when I came here, I thought it would be all about hanging with my friends. But then, when I got here, the teachers saw me differently. They looked at me like, “Here comes potential. Here comes a future graduate. Here comes a future college student.” That’s the way they treated me. That’s the way they talk to all of us. So, when you’re treated that way, it just makes everything different. You want to work hard because you want them [the adults] to be right about you. You don’t want them to change their minds.

So, even when we’re allowed to go back to our other schools, almost all of us stay here. I’m going to graduate from this school. Then, I’m going on to college.”

11th grade student,
Dayton Business Technology High School, Dayton, OH

Yes, working at this school is hard, but we love it. We know that, as a team, we make all the difference in kids’ lives. We couldn’t do it if we worked as individuals, but as a team, we’re impressive. Our principal is one of us. She believes in us and we believe in each other. That makes it so much easier for us to believe in our kids. It makes it easier to get up in the morning and drive downtown and be excited for this opportunity each day. Do you know that 59% of our students go on to college? That may not seem like much for a typical high school, but that’s pretty amazing here.Probably fewer than five percent would have said they were going to college a week before they entered this school. We work hard because we see the difference we’re making.

Teacher,
Dayton Business Technology High School, Dayton, OH

THREE

Leadership that Influences Clarity about Roles and Responsibilities:

Leaders in high-performing urban schools, like the principal at Horace Mann Elementary, helped stakeholders understand their specific roles and responsibilities in establishing a positive transformational culture, challenging curricula, and engaging, effective instruction. Not only did leaders build the desire to improve and the belief that improvement was possible, they also developed shared understandings of the essential work to be done in order to realize improvements.
Generating clarity about the most critical aspects of roles and responsibilities takes careful thought and precise communication. Popular professional development programs offer dozens of prescriptions as educators seek to improve learning results (e.g., differentiated instruction, data-based decision making, professional learning communities, English language development, project-based learning, integrated instruction, small-group instruction, personalized instruction, gradual release of

responsibility, higher-order questioning strategies, etc.). Often school personnel are overwhelmed with the multitude of programs and approaches they are asked to integrate into their daily work. As well, clarity is often evasive, as inconsistent definitions, images, or representations of quality implementation are commonplace in schools. For example, three teachers might all believe that they implement Program Z well; however, they might all have different understandings of Program Z, its components, implementation criteria, and rationale. Each teacher might have different understandings of what can and cannot be modified, adapted, omitted, or supplemented. They might have very different understandings of what might represent quality implementation, and they might not have any understanding of how quality implementation might be measured. Yet, all three teachers attended the Program Z workshops. They all have the Program Z Certificate on their classroom walls. And, they all consider themselves knowledgeable, if not expert, about Program Z. Consequently, the naïve leader who enters the school, suggesting that Program Z be implemented, is likely to encounter a “been there and done that” response, even if teachers are implementing Program Z poorly or inconsistently.

In the absence of clarity and consistency about the factors that will influence development of culture, curricula, and instruction in ways that lead to excellent and equitable learning results, schools are not likely to make sustainable progress. Even as leaders convince stakeholders that their efforts are worthwhile and that success is attainable, leaders must also help stakeholders understand what they must do in order to support student success. Roles and expectations must be clearly communicated and consistently understood.

Generating clarity about the most critical aspects of roles and responsibilities takes careful thought and precise communication. Popular professional development programs offer dozens of prescriptions as educators seek to improve learning results (e.g., differentiated instruction, data-based decision making, professional learning communities, English language development, project-based learning, integrated instruction, small-group instruction, personalized instruction, gradual release of responsibility, higher-order questioning strategies, etc.). Often school personnel are overwhelmed with the multitude of programs and approaches they are asked to integrate into their daily work. As well, clarity is often evasive, as inconsistent definitions, images, or representations of quality implementation are commonplace in schools. For example, three teachers might all believe that they implement Program Z well; however, they might all have different understandings of Program Z, its components, implementation criteria, and rationale. Each teacher might have different understandings of what can and cannot be modified, adapted, omitted, or supplemented. They might have very different understandings of what might represent quality implementation, and they might not have any understanding of how quality implementation might be measured. Yet, all three teachers attended the Program Z workshops. They all have the Program Z Certificate on their classroom walls. And, they all consider themselves knowledgeable, if not expert, about Program Z. Consequently, the naïve leader who enters the school, suggesting that Program Z be implemented, is likely to encounter a “been there and done that” response, even if teachers are implementing Program Z poorly or inconsistently.

In the absence of clarity and consistency about the factors that will influence development of culture, curricula, and instruction in ways that lead to excellent and equitable learning results, schools are not likely to make sustainable progress. Even as leaders convince stakeholders that their efforts are worthwhile and that success is attainable, leaders must also help stakeholders understand what they must do in order to support student success. Roles and expectations must be clearly communicated and consistently understood.

How do we make the right things happen? How do we structure our school so that these right things are always kept alive? When I started at Horace Mann, we were the lowest school in the district. We were really struggling. We made a lot of excuses. My job was to figure out what we were going to do about it. So, we started looking at data. We found that reading comprehension was very low. Vocabulary and writing were also areas of need. The achievement gap was a big concern, especially for our Hispanic students. In the classroom, there was a lot of inconsistency. Some teachers did one thing and others did something completely different. Everyone was an independent contractor. Rigor was not there. Lesson delivery was all over the map. So, what were the right things that we should focus upon? We focused on making sure that we all had a clear instructional focus. We focused on standards: identifying and learning the Common Core standards… What do they look like? What do they look like in the classroom? How do we make the right things happen? How do we structure our school so that these right things are always kept alive? When I started at Horace Mann, we were the lowest school in the district. We were really struggling. We made a lot of excuses. My job was to figure out what we were going to do about it. So, we started looking at data. We found that reading comprehension was very low. Vocabulary and writing were also areas of need. The achievement gap was a big concern, especially for our Hispanic students. In the classroom, there was a lot of inconsistency. Some teachers did one thing and others did something completely different. Everyone was an independent contractor. Rigor was not there. Lesson delivery was all over the map. So, what were the right things that we should focus upon? We focused on making sure that we all had a clear instructional focus. We focused on standards: identifying and learning the Common Core standards… What do they look like? What do they look like in the classroom? How are we going to teach them? We wanted to make sure that everybody understood what they needed to do to help us improve. We specifically identified standards that are critical, that we as a staff were going to focus on. It doesn’t mean that we don’t address the other standards, but we really get to know these specific standards and we are teaching those standards at a designated time and we are assessing those standards. These are the high priority standards. Our teachers work on understanding what the standards look like.We extend our school day so that we bank minutes and then, one day a week, we have a shorter school day. During the shortened day, we have meeting times. During the banking meeting time, all the time is used for collaboration. So teachers are designing lessons based on the focus standards. They’re working as a team to identify the objectives in the standards. They’re asking, “What do we need to teach in great depth?” They’re also looking at planning the lesson. They create the “How-to-do-it Steps.” Then, they’re also developing the assessment. How do we know they got it? Then they come back and identify which students got it and which students didn’t. So, now what? Teachers know exactly what we need them to do in order for our students to succeed.

Principal,
Horace Mann Elementary School, Glendale, California

FOUR

Leadership that Builds Capacity to Succeed

Leaders who influence outstanding results for all demographic groups help stakeholders believe they have abundant support, and, consequently, abundant capacity to succeed. Students are willing to work hard and achieve remarkable academic results when they perceive they have multiples avenues for obtaining quality support (e.g., support from teachers, support from other school personnel, support for non-academic needs, study aids, tutoring, exemplar work samples, rubrics, technological tools, avenues for learning pre-requisite skills, and no-risk opportunities to try new skills) that will help them succeed. Teachers are willing to pursue the lofty expectations of their administrators when they perceive they have everything they need to meet and exceed those expectations (e.g., training, materials, time, exemplar work samples, no-risk opportunities to try, feedback, technological support, peer support, and support for addressing students’ non-academic needs).

"The perception that “we can succeed” dramatically propels schools forward."

In high-performing urban schools, a powerful surge of energy emerges each time a student, parent, teacher, or support provider concludes that they have the capacity to do whatever it takes to produce outstanding results. According to Bandura (1977), efficacy is the belief in one’s capabilities to marshal the motivation, cognitive resources, and courses of action needed to successfully achieve expected outcomes. As mentioned in Chapter 5, the collective efficacy of a school team can be more powerful than socio-economic factors in predicting student achievement (Goddard, Hoy, and Hoy; 2000). The perception that “we can succeed” dramatically propels schools forward. As shared in the story at the beginning of this chapter, the principal at Finney Elementary in Chula Vista influenced the collective efficacy of her team. In virtually all of the high- performing urban schools we studied, leaders made conscientious, persistent efforts to build the efficacy of school personnel and promote a “we can succeed” transformational culture.\

Efficacy, however, is situational. A team can feel quite effective in one setting and feel ineffective in another. For example, educators might feel efficacious when they teach well-behaved, middle class, White students, who live with two college-educated parents, and who demonstrate thorough mastery of important pre-requisite skills. The same team of educators might feel quite differently in a school where students who meet this description haven’t enrolled in years. Leaders in urban schools may face a considerable challenge as they seek to influence a sense of collective efficacy. To bring about excellent and equitable learning results, leaders must provide a quantity and quality of support that helps stakeholders perceive that, together, they can and will succeed.

In the absence of high-quality support, human beings may not exert the requisite effort to achieve excellent and equitable learning results, even if they are convinced these results are desirable, they believe the results are attainable, and they know what they need to do to contribute to the attainment of the results. Only when individuals feel that they have a reasonable likelihood of success are they likely to engage fully and energetically in improvement efforts. Therefore, school leaders are challenged to create an environment within which stakeholders perceive that they have the support they need to achieve what they have never previously achieved, for populations of students they have never served well, amidst all of the frustrations that typically confront urban schools, districts, and communities.

Bandura (1997) asserted that self-efficacy beliefs derive from four types of experiences: performance accomplishments, vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion, and psychological experiences. Tschannen-Moran and Gareis (2005) found that performance accomplishments, or mastery experiences, were particularly potent sources of self-efficacy beliefs in school settings. But, how does a leader build self-efficacy beliefs or the collective efficacy of school personnel in settings where successes have been rare? In schools where underperformance has been common and despair has established a foothold, how do leaders make a difference? In the high-performing schools we studied, leaders employed four strategies that helped them build the capacity of stakeholders to succeed and create a high level of both self-efficacy and collective efficacy: Specifically, leaders identified and addressed the reasons stakeholders did not undertake essential roles and responsibilities well. Leaders also developed platforms for the leadership of others in ways that maximized the support available to school personnel and other stakeholders. Critically, leaders provided enough support to reduce fear and magnify enthusiasm among all groups of stakeholders. And finally, leaders skillfully integrated professional development, collaborative planning, and observation and feedback in ways that built the capacity of educators to generate learning successes for all groups of students. While these four strategies are described separately in this chapter, in practice, they are interwoven into the fabric of high-performing urban schools. Throughout the chapter, we broadly mention the importance of building the capacity of all stakeholders, including students and parents. For many school leaders, however, the most critical challenge is building the capacity of school personnel. For this reason, most of the examples provided in this chapter focus on the efforts leaders made to build capacity of teachers and other school personnel.

When I arrived at Finney, a model was in place to allow teachers time to get together during their day in grade levels for planning. As I observed the sessions, I noticed that they were planning just for one content area: writing. I was looking for evidence that the structure was grounded on the professional learning community practices, so by attending those meetings, I began building a relationship with my team. Initially, I did not observe in their plans a method to gauge whether or not students were meeting the intended outcomes. I encountered more of a calendaring of activities, driven by a desire to cover all of the content on the summative state test. The state’s released test questions were driving the conversations. I wanted to see more of a relationship between the planning and impact in the classrooms. I recognized right away that this was just test prep. But, I knew that relationship building was important. I had to get to know my team and I had to begin the process of evolving my team without fracturing any of the relationships I needed. I knew we had to go deep and I knew I had to get them all on board. My challenge was always the relationship piece balanced with the pressure I felt because I knew that the kids couldn’t wait. They needed help right away. The teachers needed a better picture of what a PLC should be. So, we studied Marzano’s work and we studied other models for PLCs. Once we better defined what a PLC should be and accomplish, we committed to extending the planning focus. So, over the years, we went from a writing focus, to a merged literacy block, (it’s an integrated close reading and writing segment). And, we also plan together for math and English language development. This evolution was supported by our data analysis. As we studied our data, it became clearer to us how we needed to broaden our planning efforts in a way that would improve our teaching.

We also needed to have a clear picture of how the planning should connect with the learning. So, we engaged in ghost walks, during which we visited each other’s classrooms after school when the students were not there. We would enter, look at and read the room environment, and try to connect with the thinking, teaching, and learning based on the anchor charts the teachers were displaying.

The teachers began to realize why I was asking the questions I asked during the planning meetings. They understood how their planning had been disconnected. For example, they realized that they really did not have a mechanism to provide response to intervention. We really didn’t have a pathway to connect with the bilingual teachers.

They also realized that this was very complicated. They weren’t connecting with student learning. It was more about covering discrete skills. So, it made sense to them that the climate and the culture were in a state of disconnect.

I tried to convey to them that I was here to support them. It took me about a year and a half to convince them that the vision was the right vision for our students and for each other. And so, now our brand is this very strong teacher collaboration model that is comprehensive. They work really hard, but I make sure that I’m nourishing them with food and praise, and promoting what’s going on in classrooms. The work they’re engaged in is phenomenal. The depth of the conversations and the outcomes we’re observing are strong indicators that the children are in a better place because of our efforts.

Principal,
Myrtle Finney Elementary, Chula Vista, California

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