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May 1, 2006

The Ripple Effect

Schools are interconnected systems. One school's mission may send it to the top of the charts—but end up crippling a neighbor.

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The fates of schools are increasingly intertwined. What leaders do in one school necessarily affects the fortunes of students and teachers in other schools around them; their actions reverberate throughout the system like ripples in a pond. As exemplary or high-profile institutions draw the most outstanding teachers and leaders, they drain them away from the rest. For every magnet or lighthouse school that attracts most of the local resources and attention, dozens of surrounding schools may operate more like outhouses—low-status places in which districts dump their difficult students and weaker staffs. The more school systems run on the market principles of competition and choice, the tighter these interconnections become (Powell, Edwards, Whitty, & Wigfall, 2003; Wells, 2002).

There's a better way to think about school reform. Sustainable education leadership is about being responsible to and for all the schools and students that your leadership actions affect. Sustainability is ultimately and unavoidably about social justice.

Fatal Attraction

With its downtown location in a depressed Northeast rust belt city, Barrett Magnet High School has been through a lot. 1 But as a result of its magnet status and dynamic leadership, Barrett stands proud in U.S. News and World Report's national high school rankings as one of the top 150 schools in the United States. 2

Barrett Magnet sits in one of its city's most concentrated areas of poverty. In the 1970s, lower-income African American students represented 95 percent of the school's population; student violence, poor attendance, low academic performance, and discipline problems were rife. As a result of pressure from the neighborhood association, the district renamed the school, assigned it a charismatic new principal, and eventually granted it magnet status in fall 1981.

With heightened outside interest and a new, inspiring identity, Barrett and its principal were able to attract talented and motivated faculty and administrators. Under Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr., magnet schools were encouraged to compete against other schools for students. Students at Barrett who didn't like the discipline or who couldn't keep up with the pace were assigned to other schools or asked to leave.

The school became a showcase. Its adoption of the prestigious International Baccalaureate program heightened its image of excellence. Local newspapers wrote glowing reports about it. President Bush Sr. made a high-profile visit in 1989, and many other visitors came from far and wide to discover the secrets of the school's success.

When Barrett's founding principal resigned in 1986 because he refused to accept a transfer to another school, the district appointed a new principal, whom most of the staff liked because she put students and instruction first. She believed in and perpetuated the school's magnet mission as well as its International Baccalaureate program. She was successful in raising funds and buffering staff from unreasonable district demands. She emphasized student achievement, the importance of standards, and the need for measurable results. She praised teachers who got good results; she panned those who didn't.

Not all teachers were followers of the new principal, however. Those who taught the special education students, whom the school was required to include because of open enrollment and federal legislation, quickly learned that their students were not part of the principal's or the school's mission. These students and their teachers were assigned to the basement. If the special education teachers questioned the elitist atmosphere, complained about their students' marginalization, or advocated for them too strongly, they were quickly targeted—given the most difficult classes, reassigned to undesirable rooms on the periphery of the school, or banished from the school altogether.

Barrett's magnetic attraction ended up damaging its lower-status students as well as teachers who didn't enhance the school's image or mesh with its mission. But that wasn't all: Barrett's fatal attraction harmed students and teachers in neighboring schools as well.

A Star Extinguished

Sheldon High School is in the same city and district as Barrett Magnet. Change and the geography of competition have set the schools on two different paths, propelling them past each other in opposite directions. In the 1960s, Sheldon was the shining star of the district. Teachers lived locally. Although desegregation and school busing in the early 1970s led to white flight to the suburbs and even to some race riots in the school's cafeteria, teachers were still able to maintain Sheldon's status as the top high school in the city. They did this by providing 10-week electives and thematic courses on such topics as Vietnam, science fiction, slavery, sports literature, and black figures in U.S. history. These programs engaged student interest, connected with students' lives, and catered to an increasingly diverse student body.

All this changed in the 1980s. Further desegregation, the establishment of magnet schools, and the introduction of enrollment policies that allowed parents to rank order the schools that they preferred for their children led to a second “white and bright” flight from neighborhood schools like Sheldon to the magnets around them. Losing its best students to Barrett and to the other magnets, Sheldon also had to contend with the many poor African American students who were bused from a school on the opposite side of town that had closed down as a result of the magnets. By the late 1980s, white students in the school were in the minority, and the number of students in poverty was rapidly on the rise. By the mid-1990s, the school's special education department, which had previously been the smallest unit in the school, had become its largest unit, with 25 special education teachers.

With Sheldon's lost reputation went its ability to attract outstanding staff. As student achievement deteriorated, veteran teachers became demotivated and nostalgic for the 1960s and 1970s. Six superintendents—often with contradictory agendas—rolled in and out of the district within a 15-year period; autocratic and iron-fisted principals gave teachers little opportunity for leadership. In 1986, when the district sought to reverse the decline by transferring Barrett's charismatic African American principal to Sheldon, the principal promptly resigned and moved out of the district altogether.

By the late 1990s, Sheldon's teachers found themselves teaching in extremely difficult circumstances. Meeting the state standards was much harder at Sheldon than in the magnets, and the school's staff didn't have the curriculum flexibility that Barrett enjoyed. Standards turned into standardization. Innovative teachers became demoralized as they were deprived of the freedom to adjust to student needs. “I'd much rather be teaching a book or a story or something they might enjoy,” one English teacher said, “but we've got to prep them for the tests.” Teachers who taught by the book, meanwhile, found that the standardization process enabled them to become more tradition-bound still. By the early stages of No Child Left Behind, Sheldon's downward trajectory was moving it toward designation as an underperforming school. Its major challenge now was survival: avoiding being turned over to the state or a private company, being replaced by a charter school, or being closed down altogether.

Status Quote

Status Quote - The Ripple Effect

The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order.

Alfred North Whitehead

Socially Just Leadership

The Barretts and Sheldons of this world are not unfortunate coincidences or historic accidents. They are interconnected and indivisible alter egos—like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The fortunes of one are perversely linked to the failures of the other.

The challenge of education leadership, therefore, is not just to care for the private good of one's own students and their parents, but to commit to the public good, caring for students and teachers in neighboring schools whom your leadership choices affect. Responsible leadership 3 is synonymous with socially just leadership and requires that school leaders ask themselves some tough questions: What imprint does your leadership leave on the surrounding community's scarce resources of motivated students and talented teachers and leaders? Does your district lure talented teachers and leaders away from the inner cities with higher salaries and other rewards? Does your oversubscribed school, with its selective strategies, deprive other schools of student talent? Do you take your fair share of emotionally disturbed or socially disadvantaged students compared with schools around you—and do you serve those students well?

Becoming More Just

Socially just education leaders stretch beyond their individual schools, distributing their leadership and its effects across many different schools—strong and weak, black and white, rich and poor. By promoting practical and positive strategies, socially just leadership can have an actively restorative effect on neighboring schools.

Paired Schools

Successful schools can coach struggling schools to help them improve. This is most effective when the schools serve similar students and communities. Under the leadership of coordinator Dave Blackburn, Virginia's Newport News School District has pioneered just such a model of paired schools (Blackburn, 2003). With district support, underperforming schools choose a higher-performing partner. The high performer doesn't just send in a small administrative team to evaluate and turn around its underperforming peer in a quick-fix way. Instead, this model promotes shared and distributed leadership: Leaders coach leaders; counselors coach counselors; departments coach departments. Peer assistance is the key principle. And the learning runs in both directions; even under-performing schools have pockets of excellent practice from which their higher-performing partners can benefit.

Paired schools, peer assistance, and shared leadership have raised student performance on standardized achievement tests in the Newport News School District. With the support of the Hope Foundation and its professional development model, these practices have spread to dozens of school districts across the United States as well as to other parts of the world.4

Networked Districts

Under England's Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, which includes more than 1,000 specialist secondary schools, almost every school has its own emphasis, be it sports, technology, arts, or the environment (Wilce, 2004). For some communities, this kind of niche marketing will encourage schools to hunt for the best students, leaving secondary schools in poorer communities with lower achievers who have not been chosen elsewhere.

To ensure social justice, we need to break the assumption of the essential bond between one student and one school. Instead of establishing specialist schools in isolation or in competitive relationships to one another, Knowsley Education Authority (equivalent to a U.S. school district) near Liverpool, England, is creating interrelated and networked centers of learning (Whittaker, 2004). Although students will have one school as their base, they will have access to varied learning resources across the district. For example, students based in one school might attend another one in the afternoon for a specialized sports or technology program with concentrations of teachers who have expertise in these areas. These networked learning communities use choice and diversity to discourage rather than promote elitist competition and thereby bring about greater social justice.

Community Consultation

Schools of choice, purpose-built innovative schools, and charter schools should actively consult, contribute to, and avoid harming the wider communities in which they are located. One charter school we know avoided raiding the best talent from nearby urban public schools by ensuring that it advertised its teaching positions far beyond the district. Actively considering the needs of the community not only contributes to social justice and the public good but also benefits the long-term reputation, viability, and sheer endurance of the newly established schools.

Blue Mountain Secondary School in Ontario, Canada, was established as a learning organization and community in 1995, with the license to handpick its leaders and teaching community. The school had seen other innovative schools fade over time because they failed to involve the surrounding communities, which became suspicious of them, or to consult neighboring schools, which subsequently envied and resented them. Blue Mountain therefore took great care not to lure all the best teachers, leaders, and students from nearby schools. In consultation with the school district and with other high school principals, Blue Mountain's principal operated a quota system to ensure that the school would not draw disproportionately from any one school or from any one age group of teachers in the district, be they beginners or veterans.

Collective Accountability

In early 2004, a number of schools in England's Birmingham Education Authority became concerned that individual school accountability was making them compete with one another, undermining their collective capacity to learn and improve. These schools lobbied the government to pool their standardized achievement scores. The collective accountability would encourage schools of greater and lesser performance and advantage to work together to narrow achievement gaps and improve their overall performance—directly benefiting the entire community (Reed, 2005).

Similarly, in Melbourne, Australia, in the 1990s, a group of contiguous high schools had been spending their budgets on advertising for students in a system of competitive school choice. The principals discovered that their advertisements were almost identical. In response, rather than frittering away the rest of their resources on enhancing their individual images, they courageously decided to work together as a federation of schools dedicated to shared improvement for the entire community (Hargreaves, 2003). Federated schools, rather than fragmented and competitive ones, offer a positive and creative way to achieve greater social justice for our students. This approach might be a more equitable and inclusive option for U.S. school districts and school networks in the future.

Environmental Impact Assessment

In many countries, before starting a construction project or creating a new business, the developers are legally required to undertake an environmental impact assessment of the project's effect on the surrounding community. We propose that all newly established schools—charters, magnets, or schools that have moved into new buildings—do the same. They should examine the effects that this new venture will have on surrounding schools and on the community at large, including the effects of the school's physical design and policies for selecting students and staff. In this way, schools will avoid harming their communities and make an active and socially just contribution to the wider public good.

Learning to See

As sociologist Arlie Hochschild reminds us, we are all connected in chains of care, not only to friends and family around us, but also to other people whom we cannot see (Hochschild, 2000): the exploited children who make our clothes, the impoverished communities that live amidst our exported waste, and the disadvantaged students in neighboring schools whose best teachers and peers have been taken from them.

The hardest part of sustainable leadership and improvement is the part that provokes us to think beyond our own schools and ourselves. We need to perform not merely as managers of organizations or as professionals who produce performance results, but also as community members, citizens, and human beings who lead to serve and promote the good of all.

References

Blackburn, D. (2003). School leadership and reform: Case studies of Newport News paired-school model [Occasional paper]. Newport News, VA: Newport News Schools.

Hargreaves, A. (2003). Teaching in the knowledge society. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hochschild, A. (2000). Global care chains and emotional surplus value. In T. Giddens & W. Hutton (Eds.),On the edge: Globalization and the new millennium (pp. 130–146). London: Sage Publishers.

Powell, S., Edwards, T., Whitty, G., & Wigfall, V. (2003).Education and the middle class. London: Open University Press.

Reed, J. (2005, April 8). Sense and singularity. The Times Educational Supplement. Available: www.tes.co.uk/search/story/?story_id=2088555

Wells, A. S. (2002). Where charter school policy fails. New York: Teachers College Press.

Whittaker, M. (2004, Oct. 15). Take a risk and talk to heads. The Times Educational Supplement. Available: www.tes.co.uk/search/story/?story_id=2042414

Wilce, H. (2004, Nov. 19). Prophet of the specialist schools. The Times Educational Supplement. Available: www.tes.co.uk/search/story/?storyid=2053058

End Notes

1 This article draws on research from Change Over Time? A Study of Culture, Structure, Time, and Change in Secondary Schooling (Andy Hargreaves and Ivor Goodson, principal investigators). The project was funded by the Spencer Foundation. Barrett Magnet and Sheldon High School are pseudonyms.

2 This article draws on research from Change Over Time? A Study of Culture, Structure, Time, and Change in Secondary Schooling (Andy Hargreaves and Ivor Goodson, principal investigators). The project was funded by the Spencer Foundation. Barrett Magnet and Sheldon High School are pseudonyms.

3 For more information about responsible leadership, see R. J. Starratt's Ethical Leadership(Jossey-Bass, 2005).

4 For more information about the Professional Learning Communities of HOPE model, visit the HOPE Foundation Web site at www.communitiesofhope.org.

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