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Developing school leaders: Rethinking our focus to improve schools

course correction 21st century skills

Are we undervaluing a critical component of school leadership?

In today’s movement to transform school districts to meet the needs of all children and prepare them with new skills to succeed, important conversations on developing dynamic leaders have taken a backseat to short-term and non-systemic reform efforts.  

School district leaders typically start school improvement efforts by replacing principals. But, we often make these changes with very little understanding of the leadership qualities required at the building level to improve our schools. More to the point: We’re not preparing leaders with the skills needed to lead the educational designs of today’s schools.

Few would argue with the idea that teachers have the most critical impact on a student’s education. Bar none, their daily interactions with students change lives. Still, it takes effective leaders to develop and sustain cultures where teachers and students can grow and flourish.

According to the Wallace Foundation, effective principals perform five key functions:

  • Shape a vision of academic success for all students
  • Create a climate hospitable to education
  • Cultivate leadership in others
  • Improve instruction
  • Manage people, data, and processes to foster school improvement

Looking back at my own my career, over time I developed a clearer understanding of the totality of the role of an effective school principal.

As a biology teacher, I appreciated leaders who questioned me, yet gave me autonomy.

As a principal, I believed I served the most important function in building a culture where all students were successful.

As a superintendent who developed and evaluated principals, I understood how principals were essential to creating cultures where teachers collectively engage in designing successful learning experiences for all students.

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Now in my work with schools and in writing about education leadership, I have greater clarity in the actions required for school leaders to support the transformation of their schools.

What building leader actions do you view as critical to transforming your schools?

Insulate teachers from parents to minimize disruptions in the learning process.
OR
Engage parents and teachers collectively to improve the learning process.

Walk the halls for much of the day to ensure an orderly environment for all students.
OR
Visit classrooms most days to ensure a challenging and engaging environment for all students.

Delegate curricular decisions to instructional experts in the building.
OR
Lead processes to make curricular decisions that include instructional experts.

Monitor teacher planning.
OR
Engage in teacher planning.

Approve and arrange for professional development.
OR
Participate in professional development with teachers and staff.

Support digital tools for current instructional practices.
OR
Incorporate digital tools in designing new instructional practices.

Ensure all students have distinct career paths.
OR
Inspire students to see multiple career opportunities around their interests

Define narrowly how, when, and where learning occurs in finite ways.
OR
Understand learning occurs at anytime, anywhere, and from any place.

Evaluate school performance solely on test scores.
OR
Develop multiple metrics for evaluating school performance.

Connect every data point to a student.
OR
Understand the uniqueness of every student by using multiple data points.

The right choices in this list should be clear.

In working with Dr. Sally Zepeda and Dr. Albert Jimenez, we determined that effective teaching environments thrive when principals create a culture where they can ultimately:

  • Establish a strong foundation through trust to grow partnerships with teachers, parents, and students, site and system principals, and the central office.
  • Allow students and teachers to take risks by putting safety nets in place.
  • Focus on monitoring results and establishing a readiness to be able to make mid-course changes.
  • Create  readiness  for classroom  transformations based on new instructional practices and assessments.
  • Align all efforts with the strategic plan to build system coherence.

According to Hallinger (2011), principals are second only to teachers in improving student achievement. Therefore, the challenge in transforming schools is not whether to replace the principal or not; rather, it is about understanding the new skills needed by building leaders and helping leaders develop those skills. District administrators need to take the lead in new and courageous conversations about preparing leaders to educate students for the world in which they will live.

Do you agree with Dr. Lanoue? What do you think are the most important skills a school leader needs in today’s education environment? Tell us in the comments.

About the Author

Dr. Philip D. Lanoue
Dr. Philip D. Lanoue is a nationally renowned education leader. He is the co-author of the new book The Emerging Work of Today’s Superintendent: Leading Schools and Communities to Educate all Children and the 2015 AASA National Superintendent of the Year. For more about Dr. Lanoue visit https://pdlconsultants.com.

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