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April 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 7

Leadership in Challenging Times

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Take this short quiz: Which of the following factors does a leader need to improve student achievement?
  1. More money
  2. More time
  3. Smaller class sizes
  4. More teacher experience
  5. Professional development for teachers
If your answers were mostly "it depends," you're on the right track. For each of these resources, quality matters more than quantity. More time doesn't make much difference if it's not used well. The same with more dollars. And as painful as it is for me to admit, professional development often doesn't make much difference either. (That's a commentary on current quality, not on potential.)
Of course, quantity also matters. We need a basic level of resources, and in some schools today, that level is not being met. But resourceful school leaders can always devise ways to overcome challenges and improve education. They do this in two ways: (1) by making strategic use of the resources they have, and (2) by cultivating the roots that nurture sustained, thriving learning communities.

Working with Existing Resources

The basic resources that school leaders have to work with are people, time, and money.


People are the most precious resource in a school, both in terms of potential value for student learning and in terms of expense. Resourceful leaders invest in people through hiring and staffing, professional development, and supervision and evaluation.
In some school systems, principals have little choice about whom to hire. But no matter how much choice you exercise in hiring and staffing, it's essential that you support the people you have. The more constrained you are on the hiring and staffing front, the more important professional development and supervision and evaluation become.
Educator evaluation is the antidote du jour to the plague of "poor teacher quality." I don't hold out as much hope for evaluation as many policymakers do because I think "teacher quality" is an incorrect diagnosis of the disease, which makes me skeptical of the cure. We certainly have a challenge of teaching quality. But I'm doubtful that teacher evaluation is going to make much of a dent in that problem—in part because we're not making the skill and knowledge investments we need (for example, ensuring that evaluators know enough about effective teaching and how to support it); in part because teacher evaluation tends to put the focus on teaching rather than on learning; and in part because we're relying too much on it without complementary investments in other areas. It's a little like thinking that standardized tests are going to solve all our achievement problems. What's abundantly clear from the last 20 years is that data can help shine a light on problems, but data alone won't solve them.
All that being said, teachers (just like students) can benefit from evaluations that provide formative, ongoing feedback. Ben Levin, former Ontario deputy minister of education and current professor at the University of Toronto, says that one of the most striking differences between Canada (which perennially ranks in the top five on the Programme for International Student Assessment exams) and the United States (which perennially performs in the middle of the pack) is the approach toward teachers. "Teachers in Canada are respected," Levin says. "We don't blame teachers. In the United States, there is so much rhetoric blaming teachers. We don't think that builds the kind of relationships that lead to improvement."
As for the kind of professional development that would lead to improvement, fill in these three sentences:
  • Students learn best when …
  • Teachers learn best when …
  • Principals learn best when …
How are your answers similar? How are they different? Why?
Consider how well professional development in your school system meets your criteria for how teachers and principals learn best. When you look at the tasks adult learners do in professional development sessions, what would you predict adults would know and be able to do if they did those tasks successfully? Too often, the answers to this question are similar at multiple levels of the system: We'd expect students/teachers/principals to be able to listen to directions, to give short answers in response to a question the teacher/facilitator asks, and to recall basic information or apply a procedure in a situation that looks like the one they just practiced.
Learners of all ages are capable of far more than that! And if we're asking teachers and principals to do low-level tasks, how can we expect them to turn around and give high-level tasks to students?


We usually think of time as a constraint rather than as a resource. Although there are many creative ways to think about making the best use of time, here are three places to start:
  1. Analyze your own time expenditure. Log your time use for a day or a week. If you're feeling too busy to do this, note the irony and then analyze your calendar, which will give you a sense of how you planned to spend your time. What does this tell you about your priorities? Is this how you want to be investing your time?
  2. Make meeting time count. Do this math problem: How much is your school or system investing in meetings each week? Each year? Think about the average cost of an hour of time for the adults in the meeting and calculate from there. As my colleague Richard Elmore says, "Time is money you've already spent." Are you getting your money's worth from meetings? If not, what could you do tomorrow to improve the quality of your meetings? (If you're not sure, ask the people in the meetings.)
  3. Gain time by improving attendance. Here's another math problem: How much learning time is missed through absences? It may be easier to influence student and teacher attendance than to add time to the school day or year. Attendance is often relatively easy to focus improvement efforts on because it is easily counted and it feels safer as a starting place than areas closer to the instructional core.


Effective resource use is fundamentally about aligning resources to a clear strategy, and strategy is fundamentally about focus. Look at where you're investing most of your resources, and that will tell you what you're prioritizing.
Reducing class size is one of the most popular changes among parents and teachers. It's also one of the most expensive—and one of the least likely to pay off in terms of student learning unless the class size reductions are very large or are focused on the early grades. Reducing class size by one or two or three students doesn't make much difference, on average, and can be very expensive. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that personalization can matter. Rather than focusing on how many students are in a class, think about ways to individualize students' learning experience and increase the amount of personal attention they get.
Resourceful leadership requires making active tradeoffs. Do we make class sizes a little smaller or use those dollars to support teachers? Do we add pre-K or develop an after-school program? Do we hire a family engagement coordinator or support teachers in engaging families effectively? Or some combination of the above?<FOOTNOTE><NO>1</NO>The nonprofit Education Resource Strategies has created a tool to help principals see and experiment with potential trade-offs. "School Budget Hold 'Em" lets you play with different options—some that cost money, some that save money, and some that are budget neutral but add value.</FOOTNOTE>
Focus is about choosing the few things to invest in that will do the most to move learners from where they are now to your audacious aspirations for them. Focus is also about deciding what not to do, which tends to be even harder than deciding what to do.

Nourishing Roots

In both my practice and my research, I've found that when it comes to resource use, you can do everything right—you can be intentional, be resourceful, and invest in ways that should make a difference—and you still might not get far in improving learning. Why?
Real improvements in learning and teaching usually require changing practices and changing what people believe to be possible. Even thoughtful, hard-working leaders who understand how to invest well in people, time, and money don't necessarily know how to change practices and beliefs.
From a research study in which I followed two principals and their resource use for a year (City, 2008), I learned that investments in five areas are crucial to create the conditions for improvement: vision, hope, trust, ideas, and energy. Although they're all important, the two areas I'm most focused on these days are hope and energy because both seem to be in such short supply.


Hope is the belief that something different and wonderful is possible and that what we do matters for that success. In the two schools in my study, which I call Tech High and Health High, neither the students nor the teachers had a lot of hope. At both schools, no amount of inspirational speeches, modeling, or cajoling from the principals—and no amount of time and money spent adding instructional coaches or technology—made much difference. Students and teachers had to see and believe that something different actually was possible.
Tech High spent about $125,000 on a variety of coaches, most of whom by all accounts made little difference in practice—except for one small investment. The writing coach organized a writing contest for high school seniors. She worked with students to write and rewrite multiple drafts, and then she gathered the whole school for an awards ceremony. The mayor and superintendent presented small cash prizes (a total of $300), and the winners read their essays.
After the ceremony, a teacher approached the principal and said, "I didn't think my kids could write like that, but if her kids can do it, mine can, too. I want to start working with that writing coach" (something that had been an option all year). Now that the teacher had hope, the school's investment in building her skill had much more fertile ground in which to take root.
Similarly, at Health High, large investments of money and time in building teachers' knowledge and skill made little difference in practice—until the robotics contest. The principal of Health High recruited a group of students (none of whom were doing well academically) and two teachers (neither of whom had ever built a robot) to form an after-school robotics team. They built a robot and entered it in a competition with 43 other schools, and their robot outscored many other schools' robots in one-on-one games of shooting baskets. Ultimately they placed 19th, higher than any school in their district, including the elite exam school. They earned a Judges Award for being the team with the most potential.
The principal described the importance of the robotics project: "There's not a culture here of valuing academic achievement…. Being on the robotics team helped build kids' confidence, and beating other schools showed them they can compete with kids they don't even usually encounter." For a $1,500 robotics kit and students' and teachers' after-school time, Health High had planted the seeds of hope, both for the people involved and for others in the school who saw their success. This initial project spawned a robotics class and more student interest the following year.
In both schools, college admissions were another area in which hope took root. From the sheer force of will and time that the principals and a few educators in the school invested in making sure that every senior applied, almost every senior was accepted to a college. As other students saw the seniors' success, they said things like, "If she can do that, I can do it too. I'm going to college," and "I'm so proud to go to a school where students work hard and succeed."
Each of these highly visible wins seemed to grow hope. In each case, the following ingredients were key: students as a focus of the investment, public recognition of success, and some measure of externally validated performance.


Energy is directly related to performance, a fact we often overlook when we take a "work harder" approach to the urgent challenges we face every day in schools. The two principals in my study, like most principals I know, couldn't have worked any harder. They worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day. And they burned out. Both left their roles after a few years. One is now back in the system as a school leader; the other left the profession entirely.
Jack McCall (1994), a longtime developer of principals and education leaders in North Carolina, used to tell this story to illustrate the problem with the "work harder" approach:
Once upon a time, two loggers had a contest to determine who could cut the most logs in a 4-hour period. Henri worked continuously for 4 hours without a break and cut 124 logs to specification. His opponent, Jacques, chopped just as hard but for only 50 minutes of each hour. Jacques took four 10-minute breaks but cut 144 logs to specification. Henri lost the contest and was furious. Henri complained that he was cheated since Jacques could not have cut that many logs because there were periods in which he was not chopping. Then Jacques explained that during his breaks, he didn't rest. He sharpened his axe. (p. xv)
As someone who identifies more with nonstop Henri than with axe-sharpening Jacques, I'm sympathetic. But I'm also adamant that most of us need to be more attentive to our energy if we're going to sustain ourselves and others in the profession. Research from sports and the business world confirms that paying attention to energy, in particular to down time, pays off in terms of performance (Loehr &amp; Schwartz, 2001). Here are a few places to start:
  • Limit when you send e-mails. This will help both you and the people you work with. Try a "Sabbath rule"—no e-mail between sundown Friday and midday Sunday—or a silent weekday time between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. that is only violated for real emergencies.
  • Drink more water.
  • Get more sleep.
  • Move more.
  • Take one day a week totally off.
Easier said than done, I know. But try one thing, and see whether it makes a difference in your performance.

The Upside to Challenging Times

Almost every educator I know is feeling the pinch of sustained tough budget times. But the good news is that tight resources force us to make choices, to focus, and to become more strategic and intentional.
Resourceful leaders focus on quality and cultivate the roots from which wise investments will flourish over time. In doing so, they help their learning communities survive and thrive, even—perhaps especially—in challenging times.

City, E. (2008). Resourceful leadership: Tradeoffs and tough decisions on the road to school improvement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Loehr, J., &amp; Schwartz, T. (2001, January). Making of a corporate athlete. Harvard Business Review, pp. 120–128.

McCall, J. (1994). The principal's edge. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

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