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October 2009 | Volume 67 | Number 2
Developing School Leaders
Washington, D.C., Chancellor of Education Michelle Rhee looks out from the iconic
Time magazine cover (December 2008) with determination on her face and a broom in hand—the kind you might use to clean the garage. That picture of a leader masterfully poised to sweep in reform and sweep out incompetence, inefficiency, and who-knows-what-else is symbolic of a new confrontational model of school leadership.
The cover of this issue of Educational Leadership shows something more upbeat: a leadership team—Principal Nardos King with a few of the administrators, teachers, and support staff who run Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, Virginia. In their hands are not brooms but walkietalkies—those low-tech devices that help them not only know what is going on in a school of 1,700 kids and 230 staff members but also help them make sure teaching and learning take place there every day.
This issue of Educational Leadership is all about developing effective school leadership. It is a subject that is easier to talk about in the abstract than to accomplish in reality. Our authors look at what research, practice, and informed opinion point to as characteristic of effective leadership. Here is what they prescribe.
Care for others, but get things done.
Visiting schools across the United States as North Carolina teacher of the year, Cindi Rigsbee observed that in the schools that she most admired, "the school was a family." Not only were leaders in the halls and classrooms every day, but they also established a community where people felt happy to be. How does one achieve such a collaborative environment in a time that celebrates take-no-prisoners leadership? Gordon Donaldson and colleagues (p. 8) discuss some of the challenges facing leaders who must take bold action to improve the school's performance and then find that they have alienated the staff who must sustain the reforms. "Conflict is a constant in school reform," they write. Unless leaders have thought through how they will maintain respectful relationships as they simultaneously require action and change, they may find themselves in an us-versus-them situation. To manage the tension between caring for others and getting things done, leaders need to "step back regularly, to reconnect with their touchstone values, and recommit to a schoolwide 'us.'"
Distribute the work.
Leaders today are required to be both good administrators and good instructional leaders who focus intently on teaching and learning. A 2008 Public Agenda report characterizes leaders in two ways—as
transformers or copers.
Transformers have an explicit vision of what their school might be like and a can-do attitude. Copers find it impossible to free themselves from daily burdens to focus on the tasks they regard as most important.
Thomas Hatch (p. 16) discusses one challenge that leaders who want to be transformers face: managing outside influences—from new assessment requirements to shifts in student population to budget cuts to puddles on the playground. Thus, it is essential to have the capacity to scan the environment—learn about outside concerns and new developments— and seed the environment—put advocates into positions of power and influence. He enumerates what successful leaders have done to draw in parents, community members, district administrators, and other educators to develop a larger school community and share the responsibilities.
Know your priorities. In their study of high-performing, high-poverty schools, William Parrett and Kathleen Budge (p. 22) discovered that sustained school improvement usually began when leaders focused on essentials. These leaders rallied the staff to address such basic questions as, Are we eliminating policies and practice that manufacture low achievement? Can all our students read? Have we provided extended learning time for students who need more help? Have we fostered a bond between students and school? "Whether surviving budget cuts, carefully targeting new stimulus funding, or both, leaders in all schools may benefit from reflecting on those questions," they write.
Seize your authority. Frederick M. Hess (p. 28) reminds us that broom-wielding leadership can indeed be beneficial. Education leadership is too often marked by a debilitating timidity. "In district after district," he writes, "much that might be done goes untried. … Superintendents and principals learn early to tread gingerly, pursue consensus, get clearance before acting, and abide by established procedures." Instead, he urges that school leaders look beyond the usual boundaries of what is permissible and welcome nontraditional thinking and leaders, especially from those outside the profession.
Whether you believe in shaking things up or building consensus or doing both, you will find in this issue inspirational models and cautionary lessons. We hope that these articles will also bring your own practice into focus. Effective leadership is a work in progress and the definitive picture has yet to be taken. What you are doing counts.
Copyright © 2009 by ASCD
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