New Leaders for New Schools
Seeing the Big Picture
In a series of columns in ASCD Express, the cofounder of New Leaders for New Schools shares promising practices for improving some of the nation's most challenged urban schools.
Imagine for a moment that you're a new principal at a high-poverty, low-achieving, urban public school. You've sought out this position because you believe deeply in the power of a quality education and hope to make a difference in the lives of underserved children. You've read all the available research and are familiar with the effective practices identified by readings on "beating the odds" and "90/90/90 schools" (that is, more than 90 percent of students are low-income, more than 90 percent are minorities, but over 90 percent achieve proficiency). Your first few weeks on the job are a success—you build relationships with your staff and make some initial quick wins around the building. But your school is still a long way off from those you consider to be your models. At this point, what may work in high-performance schools seems practically impossible to carry out for your school's foreseeable future.
Diagnosing a School's Needs
To address the problem of developing a long-range vision, New Leaders for New Schools has, over the past two years, studied principals' actions and school practices in more than 60 schools led by our principals in 10 urban districts across the United States. We compared schools in which students are making incremental achievement gains to schools demonstrating the breakthrough performance necessary to move the whole student body toward college readiness. The comparisons suggested that schools pursuing positive changes go through multiple stages of development, from those just beginning to move out of chaos to those performing exceptionally well. We’ve named these phases of improvement the Urban Excellence Framework to help school leaders identify where their schools currently stand.
The framework can help both new principals and veteran leaders envision not only their end goal but also the road map for how their school will get there. Of course, the framework is a general guide; each school's improvement process will be unique to its particular issues, such as professional development needs, frequent leadership turnover, or student demographics. The levels in the Urban Excellence Framework are as follows:
- Stage 0: At this stage, the environment is chaotic and low-achieving; a successful turnaround effort has either not yet begun or is in its earliest phases. Few instructional strategies or cultural practices—such as implementing an adult and student code of conduct, or rituals for reinforcing the school’s mission of high aspirations and hard work—are shared across the school. At this point, the school leader seeks to move quickly to implement Stage 1 practices.
- Stage 1: Crucial Stage 1 practices include building a shared approach to school culture among all the adults in the building; that is, reaching a common understanding about what students need to know and should be able to do, and then developing key data streams to inform instructional practice and schoolwide decision making on those goals. Also, the principal gets to know each teacher well enough to address the most urgent development needs for individual teachers and across the faculty. The principal also identifies emerging leaders—strong performers who can serve on the instructional leadership team.
- Stage 2: The Stage 1 practices are deepened and supplemented by creating clear, personalized learning plans for every student's academic growth and each teacher's professional development. A principal also strengthens the school's systems for academic intervention and support and broadens the base of instructional leadership throughout the faculty.
- Stage 3: At this stage, a high-functioning leadership team drives a school's culture and learning program as it nears its goal of preparing every student to reach college and career readiness. The principal's ongoing investment in finding and supporting teacher leaders is paying off through distributive leadership. For example, teacher leaders can observe classrooms and guide other teachers. A culture of high expectations pervades the school, so that students and teachers embrace their personalized learning plans to take ownership of their own learning. Staff are expected to make data-based decisions.
From Chaos to Stability
Moving a school from chaos to stability, or even from good to great, may take years of hard work by all the adults and children in the community, and there will undoubtedly be missteps along the way. So a school leader needs to be adept at continually diagnosing a school's evolving needs to make adjustments or initiate a new practice, and then take time to reflect and evaluate its effect on students and staff. For example, principals in their first year typically succeed in directing teachers to use data broadly to make instructional decisions, such as reteaching what students didn’t understand the first time around. However, it is often not until the second year that a principal realizes that teachers still need further guidance in how they can use a variety of data to differentiate instruction for individual students.
An ongoing and nuanced diagnosis of school practices is not meant to be a judgment on the principal; rather, it is necessary to help the school continue to improve. By clearly identifying an area of greatest need, strong leaders can direct their energies to solving issues with the goal of increasing student learning.
Ben Fenton is a cofounder and chief strategy and knowledge officer for New Leaders for New Schools.