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May 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 8

The Courage to Lead

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How can schools sustain promising reforms over the long term? In exemplary schools, committed leaders engage in extensive preparation to set the course for success.

In 1805, Meriwether Lewis received a presidential commission to explore and map the Louisiana Territory and parts west, from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. Before beginning his expedition, Lewis spent nearly a year in discussions with President Thomas Jefferson and with experts in botany, geography, astronomy, native cultures, language, trade, and health. He chose provisions and hired a select crew of 25. He had a boat built to his specifications; it was made of metal with great capacity for storage of food and supplies and could be navigated by paddle, sail, or pole or carried over low water and dangerous currents. Last, he hired General William Clark as cocommander and gave him equal authority on all matters—planning, traveling, supervising, and mediating encounters with native tribes and French, Spanish, and English fur traders (Ambrose, 1996).
Lewis and Clark's expedition was a great success in accomplishing its ambitious goal.The story of Lewis's leadership has much in common with stories about the beginnings of exemplary schools that have had long-term success in sustaining progressive reforms—schools that I call Great American Schools.

Identifying Great American Schools

My interest in identifying Great American Schools was sparked by my experience with colleagues working with the Georgia League of Professional Schools, a school renewal network predicated on democratic education values (Glickman, 1998a, 1998b). I wondered why many of the schools in the network that showed great promise in the first three to five years failed to sustain their innovative programs. Typically, when a new superintendent or principal was hired or a new school board was elected, the school's focus on democratic education was eroded or lost.
Some schools, however, succeeded in sustaining their efforts through economic, demographic, and political changes and through a succession of leaders and staff. Curious about what made these schools exceptional, I went exploring to discover what I eventually called Great American Schools.
  • A history of 10–30 years of sustained reform consistent with the school's initial core values.
  • Progressive education, characterized by such features as activity-based and participatory learning, team structures, links between school and community, performance-based assessment, and inclusive, heterogeneous placement of students.
  • Operation under the governance of a school district, with the same funding and student enrollment conditions as other schools in the district.
  • Documented student results better than those of comparable schools on a wide range of measures, including student test scores, student performances and demonstrations, success in later life, lower dropout rates, and parent and student satisfaction.
Ultimately, I selected 20 schools that met the criteria and also represented the geographic, economic, and ethnic diversity of the United States. I interviewed various students, teachers, parents, administrators, and other education and community leaders who had been part of each school at different times in its history. I followed with visits to classrooms in 15 of the schools, where I conducted more interviews and collected written case studies, newspaper accounts, internal memos, and other communications about significant events. Throughout my visits and interviews, I was amazed at how honest and insightful people were in helping me uncover the often hidden and complex relationships between leadership and sustained school improvement.
Each of these schools had a different set of specific circumstances that contributed to its successful reform efforts over many years. But all their stories point to the importance of careful preparation in laying the foundation for sustained success.

Preparation Is Key

Let's return to the Meriwether Lewis analogy. After gathering a crew and supplies, Lewis still delayed. His impatient crew waited on the banks of the Missouri River in St. Louis in ideal traveling weather for nearly six weeks. Lewis was determined to make all the necessary arrangements, including having the Osage tribal chief meet with President Jefferson, testing and evaluating crew members for the various tasks ahead, and replacing several crew members with two multilingual scouts. He needed time to assign and establish working relations with junior officers. And finally, he refused to depart until an additional shipment of nails and mosquito nets were on board.
This insistence on detailed preparation is typical of many great leaders. They minimize the chances of failure through extensive planning and thus are ready to respond and adjust to the many unanticipated day-to-day problems that will occur en route. The same kind of painstaking preparation characterizes leadership in the group of Great American Schools.

Laying the Foundation for Sustained Change

  • A covenant of beliefs;
  • A governance structure for schoolwide decisions; and
  • An action research process for continual internal study (Glickman, 1998a, 1998b).
The covenant is developed through the broad participation of stakeholders and defines a good education and expectations for student learning. The governance structure makes clear where decision-making authority lies in bringing the covenant to life, dealing with such practical matters as teaching methods, technology, curriculum development, staff development, schedules, grouping/placement practices, assessment and reporting of student learning, hiring and staffing, peer coaching, instructional materials, use of classroom and school space, and the allocation and expenditures of the school budget. Action research is the ongoing process of assessing and refining the school's practices on the basis of external research and the school's own continual collection and analysis of student data.
When school members feel stuck in the course of implementing reform, they can refer to their covenant of beliefs for guidance. Their governance structure gives them a routine procedure for making tough decisions. And when they identify problems, they can turn to their action research process, learning from other schools and studying their own students' performance, to determine what improvements might work.
The framework of covenant, governance structure, and action research provides vital support for sustaining the school's focus. Some examples from the Great American Schools show how this works.
During the second year of reform efforts at one elementary school in the northeastern United States, a vocal parent complained about a student-designed mural being hung on a classroom wall and used by a classroom teacher. The mural, developed in a literature unit on the American family, depicted a range of families, including gay and lesbian couples with their children. The parent went to the principal and insisted that the mural be taken down.
The principal did not play the role of knowing what is best for everyone else. Instead, she referred to the school's covenant, which clearly stated, “Education in a democracy must promote understanding and respect for all people.” The principal told the parent that if he believed that the school should change its covenant, that would have to be done through the same governance process that created the beliefs and purposes, and the parent could petition the School Improvement Team to do so. If not, then the matter was resolved and the mural would remain.
Note that the principal did not impose her own beliefs or try to negotiate between the parent and the teacher to find a resolution that would satisfy both. To do so would have undermined the collective operations and the democratic community of the school. The principal's handling of this incident, which happened early in the reform process, sent a clear message about how the school worked. The same values are still evident in the school almost 30 years later.
In a large elementary school in the western United States, the teachers were amazed in their second year of school reform to find themselves at odds with their much-admired, forceful, and charismatic principal about scheduling time for curriculum planning. They had proposed canceling the monthly half-days specified in their contracts and instead meeting every Wednesday for two hours. They would select parent volunteers to be trained as certified substitutes to provide a weekly period of electives to students. This plan would free the staff for the last hour of school time and, combined with an extra hour after school, allow more continuous and frequent planning.
The principal adamantly opposed the plan. He believed that the school board and teachers' union would not allow a variance from the district contract and, even if the plan were approved, that it would take too much time to prepare parents as unpaid substitutes, establish an elective schedule, and work out the placement of students.
At loggerheads with each other, the teachers and the principal agreed to take the issue to the larger school governing body, the School Team, which had been established the year before and was composed of 11 members, including students, parents, teachers, staff, administrators, and community and business representatives. The team listened to the proposal and the objections and referred to the school covenant, which strongly endorsed the importance of school/community partnerships and parents as a child's first teachers. The team deliberated and agreed by consensus to support the plan.
The principal stated that although he was still personally opposed to the plan, he would support the School Team's decision and do everything he could to make it work. Such action sent a loud and clear message that the school was a learning community, not a collection of individuals and groups trying to out-control one another.
The school board approved the proposal and the teacher union supported the variance. Within three months, parents with a large array of impressive talents and interests were certified as substitutes and began Wednesday afternoon electives. Seventeen years later, Wednesday afternoon community electives for students have continued to thrive as a proud tradition of the school.

Demonstrating Commitment

Any school leader planning to implement major school reforms will meet with confusion, skepticism, or outright hostility from some parents and staff members. Open discussions and dissenting opinions are all part of forging a school agreement, but once a decision is made, the leader must be prepared to deal with challenges from those who continue to resist or refuse to participate. If the school has begun by laying a solid foundation of common beliefs, leaders have the moral authority to support the school's vision of education.
At one high school in the southern United States, reform efforts were almost stopped in their initial year by 10 parents who objected to the heterogeneous grouping of students in core, interdisciplinary courses. They wanted separate classes for their children, who they believed were particularly advanced and talented. After meeting with the parents, the principal asked them to bring their request to an ad hoc group of students, parents, and faculty members. The ad hoc group listened, deliberated, and then explained to the parents its reasons for not acquiescing to a request of a few parents that would disrupt the entire school plan. The group recommended that the parents and students sit down with their classroom teachers and develop more individualized activities that would go beyond the requirements of the classes.
Because the parents were not happy with the recommendation, the ad hoc group and the principal recommended to the superintendent that the school board hold a referendum, polling all of the school's parents on whether they were satisfied with the new instruction program. The superintendent and school board agreed. The principal and staff felt confident that the majority of parents would approve the current program, but they were amazed when the results were tallied and 92 percent of the parents supported the school. The board then suggested that the dissenting parents either keep their children in the school as structured or transfer to one of the two other high schools. The message to everyone, at this crucial time, was that the school would not turn back from its commitment to reform.
A middle school in the midwestern United States had a record of poor student achievement. A small percentage of the staff, led by the veteran guidance counselor, refused to implement new performance-based report cards or draw up new flexible schedules of course time, which the majority of the staff had endorsed. The guidance counselor lodged grievances about almost every decision that the principal and staff made.
The principal knew that many teachers believed strongly in the changes but were intimidated by the counselor. After discussing the situation in private with the superintendent of schools to secure district support for her decision to confront the guidance counselor, the principal met with the counselor and suggested that he support the school's decision, resign, or take early retirement. She explained that she would not tolerate his obstructionist tactics and would document his performance closely for possible dismissal proceedings. In the interim, she removed the counselor from his duties and reassigned him for the rest of the year as her administrative assistant.
The rest of the school faculty, staff, and students were shocked by the reassignment. After one more incident and meeting between the principal and counselor, the principal began formal termination proceedings. Now everyone in the school knew that the commitment to change was real. During the following three years, several more teachers, uncomfortable with the school's open collegiality, team planning, and peer coaching, were asked to leave or left by choice. Teachers enthusiastic about the new program replaced them. This school grew into one of the most accomplished examples of high-quality education in its state.

Overcoming Obstacles

It might sound overly dramatic to compare the leaders of exemplary schools to the leader of an expedition to explore a continent, but I don't think so. In both circumstances, the task is daunting, and careful planning and commitment are crucial to success. Leaders cannot know all the obstacles they will encounter, but they certainly need to be aware of the large ones that have stopped reform efforts at other schools. By establishing a framework that anticipates these obstacles, leaders create the conditions that enable their schools to sustain promising reforms and attain their goal—unleashing the power of student learning.

Ambrose, S. E. (1996). Undaunted courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the opening of the American West. New York: Touchstone.

Glickman, C. D. (1998a). Renewing America's schools: A guide for school-based action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Glickman, C. D. (1998b). Revolutionizing America's schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

End Notes

1 It is important to note that success in accomplishing one's goals may not always equate with an ethical outcome, especially as judged by history. In the end, the Lewis and Clark expedition furthered the inhumane treatment of Native Americans and the loss of their lands.

2 The identity of persons and locations of schools are changed to protect confidentiality.

Carl Glickman is professor emeritus of education at the University of Georgia. He is the author of the bestselling ASCD books Leadership for Learning: How to Help Teachers Succeed and Developmental Supervision.

Overall, he has written 13 books, three of which were recognized by national education organizations as outstanding education books of the year. His supervision text, coauthored with Gordon and Ross-Gordon, is in its 10th edition and continues to be the leading text in the field. Glickman, once active in ASCD, has keynoted to audiences in the thousands at various conferences, including five major presentations, and served as a featured general assembly presenter.

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