Leadership Moves… Leadership that Influences the Desire to Change.
It’s all about leadership. She [the principal] came in here with a vision and the rest of us followed suit. She came with a vision. She changed patterns, she changed mentalities, and she changed perceptions. Students started buying into it. Teachers started buying into it. They started being proud of it.
Assistant Principal, James Pace Early College High School, Brownsville, TX
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. Fiscal resources are important but are clearly not sufficient. A report by Stanford researchers indicated that some of the nation’s largest achievement gaps are found in some of the wealthiest districts (Sparks, 2016). Many of these wealthy districts boast about their well-paid and highly qualified teachers and principals; however, they do not come close to generating equitable learning outcomes for the diverse groups of students they serve.
Previous articles described the characteristics of schools that achieve excellent and equitable learning results. As well, we have described the elements of the coherent educational improvement system that helped the schools nurture these characteristics across classrooms, grade levels, and disciplines. Our studies of high- performing urban schools suggest that leaders are not likely to achieve widespread, sustainable evidence of excellent and equitable learning results without developing these school-wide characteristics. As well, success is unlikely without the development of a coherent educational improvement system that includes attention to each of the five elements.
Additionally, we believe our readers need to understand the day-to-day leadership challenges that influence whether or not schools escape the quagmires that characterize so many urban schools.
This article focuses upon the first of these leadership challenges: building 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.”
This table 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.
Common Reasons for Change and Common Responses
Common Reasons Offered by Leader’s For Why Change is Essential
Common Responses from
We have to improve student
“Test scores aren’t a real measure of what’s important.”
“We care about student learning, not test scores.”
“They’re just looking for more ways to prove that we’re failures.”
“Those tests were created for middle-class kids.”
“Our kids were never intended to succeed on those tests.”
“I’m probably going to end up dropping out just like my older brothers. Why should I worry about test scores?”
We need to change in
“The state has been threatening this school for years and nothing happens because they don’t care about these kids.”
“If the state chooses to do anything, it will likely be you [the principal] who gets fired. We’ll be fine because we have a contract.”
“I didn’t become a teacher because I wanted to achieve AYP.”
“The state doesn’t care about our community. Why should we care about what the state wants?”
“Who cares how the state rates this school?
“Everybody already knows it’s a lousy school.”
“We’ll have a new superintendent again in a year and a half and this will be forgotten.”
“The superintendent doesn’t even know where this school is. She certainly doesn’t know what our kids need.”
“The superintendent doesn’t care about our community. The school board only cares at election time.”
This proposed change is research-based.
“The researchers never met our kids and our parents. It probably worked in some affluent suburban school with abundant resources.”
“Nothing ever works at this school.”
“How could researchers know what would be best for our children and our community?”
You need to do this because I am the principal.
“That’s what the last principal said, and the principal before him, and the principal before her. They’re all gone and we’re still here.”
“The principal just wants us to make her look good so she can get a better job in the suburbs.”
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.” As the quote at the beginning of this chapter illustrates, 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 who 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.