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February 2015 | Volume 72 | Number 5
Improving Schools: What Works?
Carol Ann Tomlinson
Over the years, I've been in scores, if not hundreds,
of schools. I left many of them feeling
that I'd been in a "good school." I left a rare
few with the conviction that I'd been somewhere
In the former group, the school buildings were
clean, attractive, and orderly. People seemed congenial,
interacting readily and positively. Buses
came and went on time. The lunchroom had a welcoming
feel. Lessons showed thought, planning,
and investment of teacher
time. There were ongoing
conversations about quality
teaching and learning.
Parents appeared happy to
have their children in the
Some of these good
schools were old, some
new. Some had financial
resources aplenty; some had
no reserves. I was glad to
have been in all those places
and left them with a sense of optimism about the
health of schools—and with evidence that schools
The rare schools had basically the same traits as
the good schools, but there was something more—something intangible, but nonetheless real. They
were marked by a palpable energy, an urgency of
purpose that made me a conscript. I wanted to
know the people, understand their work, be energized
by whatever it was that caused them to be
both driven and liberated. In these schools, there
was a shared singularity of purpose that had to
do with bettering the prospects of young people;
all efforts focused in that direction, regardless of
countervailing pressures from any external source.
Teachers and administrators alike exhibited "why
not" thinking, and there was a boldness of thought
and action tempered by humility.
Such schools—albeit in small numbers—represented
every geographic and economic category.
I was always sad to leave those schools.
I wanted to—needed to—learn from them, to be
made more fully human by them. I left them with
the knowledge that schools can be transcendent
I muddled around for a good many years trying to
find words to capture what separates transcendent
schools from "good" ones. Then, while I was doing
some extensive reading on
school change, I discovered
the work of Thomas Sergiovanni,1
which gave me
Sergiovanni presents a
hierarchy of five categories
or tiers of leadership. At
the base of a triangle diagramming
the categories is
technical leadership, followed
in ascending order by
human leadership, educational
leadership, symbolic leadership, and, at the
apex of the triangle, cultural leadership.
The technical leader is an accomplished
engineer who plans, organizes, coordinates,
and generally ensures that all systems are
go. The human leader harnesses human relationships
to ensure that people experience support,
encouragement, and opportunity for growth. The
educational leader develops and shares expertise
on the varied facets of schools and schooling. This
kind of leadership ensures that young people get
the instruction they need—and that faculty receive
the professional growth resources they need—to
ensure high-quality education.
Proficiency in these three areas, says Sergiovanni,
is necessary for competence as a
school leader. A deficit in any of the areas erodes
However, the presence of all three
facets of leadership doesn't guarantee excellence in
a leader or a school.
The fourth and fifth tiers of
predict excellence. The
symbolic leader focuses colleagues on
what is most valuable to the school—he or she helps those working in a
school understand the deeper meaning
in what they are doing. This leader
develops a vision to work toward and
communicates in ways that build a
shared sense of purpose, including
enculturating new members to the
A cultural leader moves beyond
symbolic leadership to create a sense
of history, to reflect and perpetuate
an ideology that captures the group's
mission. This leader both refines and
institutionalizes the school's purpose
and its work. People respond with a
sense of motivation and commitment.
The school becomes a distinct entity
that evokes rich meanings and a sense
of belonging to something important.
It's the fourth and fifth tiers that
characterize excellent leadership. Symbolic
and cultural leaders make work
significant for those who engage in it
and enable people to coalesce with a
common spirit and celebrate mutual
success. Sergiovanni proposes that
the stronger a leader is in these two
aspects, the less pivotal the other three
Sergiovanni's theory has helped
clarify my thinking about "good"
schools in juxtaposition with excellent
ones. Good schools are good places.
We need them in far greater numbers.
Extraordinary schools, however, lift
the prospects of all of us. They feed
both the imagination and the soul.
Applying Sergiovanni's work to
thinking about teaching excellence
evoked additional insight for me. It helped me understand that good
teachers also exercise consistent
technical, human, and educational
leadership. The really extraordinary
teachers, however, are also exemplars
of symbolic and cultural leadership—and it's those apex leadership skills
that make such teachers life changers.
The good news is that many educators
who have learned to lead effectively
at the technical, human, and
educational levels—whether as school
or classroom leaders—can learn to
become symbolic and cultural leaders.
To do so is not to dabble with fairy
dust, but to understand and respond to
hungers in the human spirit. This sort
of leadership, I believe, is the genesis
of educational excellence.
Sergiovanni, T. (1999). Rethinking
Glenview, IL: Skylight.
Sergiovanni, T. (1999). Rethinking
Glenview, IL: Skylight.
Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundation, and Policy at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She is the author of The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners, 2nd Edition (ASCD, 2014) and, with Tonya R. Moon, Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom (ASCD, 2013).
Copyright © 2015 by ASCD
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