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February 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 5

Research Says / To Go Fast, Direct. To Go Far, Empower

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Years ago, our colleagues at McRELwere locked in a debate about schoolimprovement. One team of experts arguedthat low-performing schools simply neededclear direction—an unambiguous playbook forraising student achievement, which typically consistedof getting teachers to adopt a few simplebut crucial teaching routines (such as directvocabulary instruction) that could quickly boostachievement. Another team insisted that dysfunctionalcultures wereusually at the heart ofpoor school performance;thus, schools needed tocraft a common visionfor success and developshared agreements forworking together tosupport students. Yes, theprocess took longer, butultimately it led to moresustained improvement.
Both teams had evidenceto support theirapproaches. Schoolsworking with the first team had demonstratedrapid achievement gains. Schools working with thesecond team had shown equally dramatic, albeitless immediate, gains.
So which approach works best?

The Case for Direction

First, a caveat: Although we know a great dealfrom rigorous research about what distinguisheshigh-performing from low-performing schools,much less scientific study has been conductedto show how struggling schools become effectiveones. Qualitative research, such as case studies,has generally found that most successful effortswork fast; they demonstrate tangible resultswithin a matter of months and show stakeholdersthat things are changing for the better (PublicImpact, 2007). They also appear to be driven by strong leaders who focus on a "few early winswith big payoffs" (Public Impact, 2008). Althoughsuccessfulturnaround leaders don't exactly takea damn-the-torpedoes approach (they're alsopersuasive and empathetic), these leaders demonstrate"directiveness" and a "take-charge" attitude,setting "clear expectations and holding othersaccountable for performance" and making "necessarystaff replacements" (Public Impact, 2008,pp. 5–6).
In her profile of twodozen "beat-the-odds"(high-poverty and high-performing)schools,Karin Chenoweth (2007,2009) identified a similarlydirective pattern.Many of these schools,especially at the elementarylevel, establishednew instructional routinesthrough a prepackaged,off-the-shelf program likeAmerica's Choice, Successfor All, Everyday Math,Open Court, or Core Knowledge. School leadersmade it clear that every teacher was expected todeliver the new curriculum. Thus, the schools didaway with what one beat-the-odds school leaderin Philadelphia described as the "Burger King"model, in which teachers "got to have it their way"(Chenoweth, 2007, p. 128).
Directiveness and efficiency seem to go hand-in-hand, especially when higher performance istied to better execution of routine tasks. A studyof health care teams in Israel, for example, foundthat teams whose leaders were empowering orparticipatory demonstrated greater reflectionand innovation, yet lower overall performance—presumably because "team reflection may beimportant for more complex tasks, such as innovativeacts, but redundant for routine tasks"(Somech, 2006, p. 151). A similar argument could be made in school settings:To get quick gains in achievement,reflection and innovation may beless important than simply executingteaching routines more effectively andimplementing the curriculum moreconsistently.

The Case for Empowerment

It's worth noting, however, that a fewyears after adopting an off-the-shelfcurriculum, many of the schoolsChenoweth profiled eventually beganto adapt their curriculum, workingtogether to better align it with theirstudents' needs. Earlier research byMcREL (as reported in Goodwin,2011) had detected a similar patternof empowerment among high-performing,high-poverty schools.Teachers in these schools were morelikely than teachers in low-performingschools to report having influence inschool decisions and a shared visionfor success. Simply stated, they hadlearned how to come together to getthings done. (However, although theMcREL research showed that high-performing,high-poverty schools hadmore empowering environments, itwas unclear whether this had alwaysbeen the case or whether they hadinitially benefited from more directiveleadership that focused on improvingroutines and removing uncooperativeor incompetent teachers.)
A recent study involving 60 teamsof college seniors engaged in a multi-person,military-style computersimulation may shed further light onhow empowering leadership styleswork. It found that teams led bydirective leaders—those who assignedindividuals to roles, gave clear directions,and set expectations for compliance—initially outperformed teamsled by empowering leaders—thosewho shared power, encouraged dissentingopinions, and promotedshared decision making. Over thecourse of repeated trials, however, theperformance of teams with directiveleaders began to plateau. Meanwhile, teams led by empowering leaderscontinued to improve and eventuallyeclipsed those with directive leaders.The researchers concluded that havingempowering leaders made teams initiallyless productive as they sortedout their modes of working together,but ultimately this process supportedgreater collaborative learning and continuingimprovement in performance(Lorinkova, Pearsall, & Sims, 2013).
A similar phenomenon appearsto occur in schools. A longitudinalstudy of 114 turnaround schools inVirginia found that after three years ofdramatic gains, student performancein these schools plateaued. Puzzledby the pattern, the researchers calledfor more studies to determine "howgood schools make the leap to greatschools" and to help schools that hit aperformance ceiling "initiate a secondwave of improvements" (Hochbein,2012, p. 104).
The studies mentioned earlier mightsuggest a reason for this performanceplateau: Perhaps these turnaroundschools made quick gains fromdirective leadership, but were unableto pivot to a more empowering style tocontinue their improvement trajectory.Many who have studied systemsreforms worldwide have observed asimilar phenomenon at a large scale(Fullan, 2011; Hopkins, Munro, &Craig, 2011; Mourshed, Chijioke, &Barber, 2010).

Leadership in Context

In hindsight, the debate between ourtwo McREL school improvementteams may have been akin to the old"tastes great, less filling" beer commercials.Both teams were right.When it comes to getting quickresults, directive leadership may bemore effective. But when it comesto breaking through performanceceilings, empowering, collaborativeleadership may be necessary.
In the end, what all of this researchsuggests for school leaders may best beexpressed in the old African proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone. If youwant to go far, go together.
References

Chenoweth, K. (2007). It's being done: Academicsuccess in unexpected schools. Cambridge,MA: Harvard Education Press.

Chenoweth, K. (2009). How it's being done:Urgent lessons from unexpected schools.Cambridge, MA: Harvard EducationPress.

Fullan, M. (2011). Choosing the wrongdrivers for whole system reform. EastMelbourne, Victoria, Australia: Centrefor Strategic Education. Retrieved fromhttp://edsource.org/wp-content/uploads/Fullan-Wrong-Drivers1.pdf

Goodwin, B. (2011). Simply better:Changing the odds for student success.Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Hochbein, C. (2012). Relegation andreversion: Longitudinal analysis ofschool turnaround and decline. Journalof Education for Students Placed at Risk,17(1–2), 92–107.

Hopkins, D., Munro, J., & Craig, W.(Eds.). (2011). Powerful learning:A strategy for systemic educationalimprovement. Camberwell, Victoria,Australia: Australian Council for EducationalResearch Press.

Lorinkova, N., Pearsall, M., & Sims, H.(2013). Examining the differentiallongitudinal performance of directiveversus empowering leadership inteams. Academy of Management, 56(2),573–596.

Mourshed, M., Chijioke, C., & Barber, M.(2010). How the world's most improvedschool systems keep getting better. NewYork: McKinsey and Company.

Public Impact. (2007). School turnarounds:A review of the cross-sector evidence ondramatic organizational improvement.Lincoln, IL: Author.

Public Impact. (2008). School turnaroundleaders: Competencies for success.Lincoln, IL: Author.

Somech, A. (2006). The effects ofleadershipstyle and team process onperformance and innovation in functionallyheterogeneous teams. Journal ofManagement,32(1), 132–157.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for 15 years, serving previously as Chief Operating Officer and Director of Communications and Marketing. 

He has authored or co-authored several books, including Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student SuccessThe 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, Balanced Leadership for Powerful Learning: Tools for Achieving Success in Your School and The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020. Goodwin also writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership magazine. 

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