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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 McREL were locked in a debate about school improvement. One team of experts argued that low-performing schools simply needed clear direction—an unambiguous playbook for raising student achievement, which typically consisted of getting teachers to adopt a few simple but crucial teaching routines (such as direct vocabulary instruction) that could quickly boost achievement. Another team insisted that dysfunctional cultures were usually at the heart of poor school performance; thus, schools needed to craft a common vision for success and develop shared agreements for working together to support students. Yes, the process took longer, but ultimately it led to more sustained improvement.
Both teams had evidence to support their approaches. Schools working with the first team had demonstrated rapid achievement gains. Schools working with the second team had shown equally dramatic, albeit less immediate, gains.
So which approach works best?

The Case for Direction

First, a caveat: Although we know a great deal from rigorous research about what distinguishes high-performing from low-performing schools, much less scientific study has been conducted to show how struggling schools become effective ones. Qualitative research, such as case studies, has generally found that most successful efforts work fast; they demonstrate tangible results within a matter of months and show stakeholders that things are changing for the better (Public Impact, 2007). They also appear to be driven by strong leaders who focus on a "few early wins with big payoffs" (Public Impact, 2008). Although successful turnaround leaders don't exactly take a damn-the-torpedoes approach (they're also persuasive and empathetic), these leaders demonstrate "directiveness" and a "take-charge" attitude, setting "clear expectations and holding others accountable for performance" and making "necessary staff replacements" (Public Impact, 2008,pp. 5–6).
In her profile of two dozen "beat-the-odds"(high-poverty and high-performing)schools, Karin Chenoweth (2007,2009) identified a similarly directive pattern. Many of these schools, especially at the elementary level, established new instructional routines through a prepackaged, off-the-shelf program like America's Choice, Success for All, Everyday Math, Open Court, or Core Knowledge. School leaders made it clear that every teacher was expected to deliver the new curriculum. Thus, the schools did away with what one beat-the-odds school leade in 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 is tied to better execution of routine tasks. A study of health care teams in Israel, for example, found that teams whose leaders were empowering or participatory demonstrated greater reflection and innovation, yet lower overall performance—presumably because "team reflection may be important for more complex tasks, such as innovative acts, 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 be less important than simply executing teaching routines more effectively and implementing the curriculum more consistently.

The Case for Empowerment

It's worth noting, however, that a few years after adopting an off-the-shelf curriculum, many of the schools Chenoweth profiled eventually began to adapt their curriculum, working together to better align it with their students' needs. Earlier research by McREL (as reported in Goodwin,2011) had detected a similar pattern of empowerment among high-performing, high-poverty schools. Teachers in these schools were more likely than teachers in low-performing schools to report having influence in school decisions and a shared vision for success. Simply stated, they had learned how to come together to get things done. (However, although the McREL research showed that high-performing, high-poverty schools had more empowering environments, it was unclear whether this had always been the case or whether they had initially benefited from more directive leadership that focused on improving routines and removing uncooperative or incompetent teachers.)
A recent study involving 60 teams of college seniors engaged in a multi-person, military-style computer simulation may shed further light on how empowering leadership styles work. It found that teams led by directive leaders—those who assigned individuals to roles, gave clear directions, and set expectations for compliance—initially outperformed teams led by empowering leaders—those who shared power, encouraged dissenting opinions, and promoted shared decision making. Over the course of repeated trials, however, the performance of teams with directive leaders began to plateau. Meanwhile, teams led by empowering leaders continued to improve and eventually eclipsed those with directive leaders. The researchers concluded that having empowering leaders made teams initially less productive as they sorted out their modes of working together, but ultimately this process supported greater collaborative learning and continuing improvement in performance (Lorinkova, Pearsall, & Sims, 2013).
A similar phenomenon appears to occur in schools. A longitudinal study of 114 turnaround schools in Virginia found that after three years of dramatic gains, student performance in these schools plateaued. Puzzled by the pattern, the researchers called for more studies to determine "how good schools make the leap to great schools" and to help schools that hit a performance ceiling "initiate a second wave of improvements" (Hochbein,2012, p. 104).
The studies mentioned earlier might suggest a reason for this performance plateau: Perhaps these turnaround schools made quick gains from directive leadership, but were unable to pivot to a more empowering style to continue their improvement trajectory. Many who have studied systems reforms worldwide have observed a similar phenomenon at a large scale(Fullan, 2011; Hopkins, Munro, & Craig, 2011; Mourshed, Chijioke, & Barber, 2010).

Leadership in Context

In hindsight, the debate between our two McREL school improvement teams may have been akin to the old "tastes great, less filling" beer commercials. Both teams were right. When it comes to getting quick results, directive leadership may be more effective. But when it comes to breaking through performance ceilings, empowering, collaborative leadership may be necessary.
In the end, what all of this research suggests for school leaders may best be expressed in the old African proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

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

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

Fullan, M. (2011). Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform. East Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Centre for Strategic Education. Retrieved from http://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 and reversion: Longitudinal analysis of school turnaround and decline. Journal of 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 educational improvement. Camberwell, Victoria, Australia: Australian Council for Educational Research Press.

Lorinkova, N., Pearsall, M., & Sims, H.(2013). Examining the differential longitudinal performance of directive versus empowering leadership in teams. Academy of Management, 56(2),573–596.

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

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

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

Somech, A. (2006). The effects of leadership style and team process on performance and innovation in functionally heterogeneous teams. Journal of Management, 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 more than 20 years, serving previously as chief operating officer and director of communications and marketing. Goodwin writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership and presents research findings and insights to audiences across the United States and in Canada, the Middle East, and Australia.

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