Tucker’s Lens: The School Leadership Challenge: Building Organizations in Which True Professionals Can Do Their Best Work

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by Marc Tucker

NCEE, the organization I head, runs the biggest and most successful program for training school principals in the United States, the National Institute for School Leadership. But we see a way to make it even better. We are more convinced than ever that leadership development is one of the most productive of all investments a state or nation can make to improve student achievement, but the work we have done benchmarking the world’s most successful education systems has given us another perspective on what it will take for American school leaders to enable their faculties to match the performance of the schools in the worlds top-performing education systems.

I’ll start by describing our original vision, and then tell you what we accomplished, framed by that vision. And I’ll tell you why we are thinking about the challenge somewhat differently now and what the implications are for what should now be expected of school principals.

We started with the idea that school principals need to understand there is no longer much need for the schools’ main product of the last half century: high school graduates with not much more than 7th or 8th grade literacy. High wage countries like the United States are now charging far too much for workers with that level of literacy in a global labor market in which those skills can be bought much more cheaply elsewhere and automation is taking away the routine work that is not being outsourced. We give our aspiring and serving principals the knowledge they need to create the same sense of urgency in their faculty and community on this point that we instill in them. It comes down to a compelling argument that all students need to reach levels of achievement that only a small elite were expected to reach before. We help them understand how to develop effective plans for getting there and how to develop strategies for building support and minimizing opposition as they execute their plans. Much of what we do is marry the best thinking on leadership from business and the military to the best thinking on school instructional leadership, with careful attention to the moral dimension. We have enlisted in this effort some of the world’s leading experts in these and related fields. We use a blend of face-to-face instruction and digital interactive instruction. There are games, simulations, case studies, and much more.

Four American states are using this curriculum as their statewide school leadership program. Others are actively planning to do so. Little wonder. Independent quasi-experimental studies have shown that students in schools led by NISL-trained principals experience statistically significant achievement gains over those in schools not led by NISL-trained principals. All this at a cost of about $25 per student. It is very hard to get those kinds of gains at that sort of price with any other intervention.

With this kind of success, why would we be thinking about changing anything? Because, although we are getting bigger gains in student performance for each dollar invested than any other intervention we know of, those gains are not big enough to address the problem just posed. They will not put American schools on a par with the average schools in the more then 20 nations that are outperforming the United States on PISA. NCEE may have the best school leadership development program in the United States, but it is not yet good enough.

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NCEE, as the readers of this Newsletter know, has been benchmarking the world’s top performing education systems for more than a quarter of a century. We have learned a few things. Among them, three stand out for the purposes of this essay. First, more important than the design of any single component of an education system is the overall design of the system itself. When the whole system is set to high standards, designed to function coherently and implemented with care, there is a very high likelihood of very good performance across the board. Conversely, when education reform is little more than a welter of unrelated initiatives, no matter how good in themselves, little of lasting consequence is accomplished. The first lesson here is that system design, whether of the school, the district, the state or province, or the nation, is very, very important. School leaders need to see themselves as system designers.

But not all systems are equal. The second lesson is that policies and practices of any given school might be coherent and mutually reinforcing and dead wrong. Schools run by tyrants often answer to that description. So what would a good system—a well-functioning school organization—look like? We know a lot about the answer to that question. I’ll boil it down to a few first principles. First, the expectations for all the students in the school, irrespective of background, need to be high, benchmarked to those in the top performing countries. Second, the faculty must have access to a first class curriculum and associated assessment system that both reflects the high academic standards and constitutes the main resource for achieving them. Third, the teachers must have the knowledge and skills needed to teach that curriculum well to the kinds of students who inhabit their school. Fourth, the faculty need to operate in an environment in which, no matter how well they are doing, they have strong incentives to do even better, want to do better and have the support they need to do better, constantly working to improve their own skills and knowledge, and, thereby, the achievement of their students.

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I think we know how to organize and manage such schools. The best examples available are in Shanghai and Singapore, but there are other places in North America, Europe and Australia that are learning to employ many of the strategies pioneered by Shanghai and Singapore.

I am in a privileged position. Our Center on International Education Benchmarking is supporting two research projects, one led by Ben Jensen, a leading Australian researcher, and the other by Minxuan Zhang, the key figure in the creation of the now famous Shanghai system. These two papers, still in draft form, provide the most detailed and thoughtful examination yet available of the form of school organization I am focusing on here. We are also supporting a large international comparative research project on teacher quality, led by Linda Darling-Hammond, which, though it focuses on teacher quality, will have some very important things to say about the model I am about to describe. The findings of these research programs are utterly convergent. We will let the readers of this Newsletter know when they are finished and become available. To the extent that I draw on them here, you can consider it a tease advertisement for the finished papers. I might also say that I have been privileged to see a manuscript of a new book authored by Dylan Wiliam that also bears directly on the question of how schools should be organized and managed. Wiliam makes a strong case that the single highest payoff investment we can make in raising student achievement is in formative assessment. Jensen makes a no less strong case for professional development of the faculty as the single most potent investment. When you read them side by side, as I have, and look at what each describes as the essential components of successful policy and practice, I think you will agree with me that they are describing, in much the same terms, not simply a new approach to professional development or formative assessment, but rather a whole new approach to school organization and management that is very powerful. I will be writing blogs about each of these books and papers when they become available.

So what is that approach to which I am referring? First, let me frame the argument behind the approach. For fifty years or more, most industrial countries have been happy to get a large fraction of their high school graduating classes to a 7th or 8th grade level of literacy. That was more than enough to enable graduates to participate in the political life of their country and to do the jobs that sustained them. For the reasons I described above, that is no longer the case and much more is now required. But most teachers were not recruited to produce elite levels of learning in students from modest backgrounds, nor were they educated or trained to do so. In some countries—Japan, Finland, Estonia, and China come to mind—history transmuted into settled culture made for unusually high status for teachers in the society and made it easier than it might otherwise have been to recruit to teaching many of the more talented high school graduates.

But success, even in those countries blessed with unusually well-educated teachers, does not rest just on the character of the pool from which they were selected and their initial education and training. It most importantly rests on how teachers do their work, on the way the school is organized and managed, on the incentives—of all kinds—that teachers face in school and the rewards—mostly intrinsic—that teachers get for making the extraordinary effort that is required to sustain really good teaching day after day, for constantly working to improve their craft and for working with other faculty members to make sure that their combined efforts are far more successful than their separate efforts ever could be.

The fact is that, if we were to be successful in an all-out effort to greatly improve the quality of new teachers, it would be many years before the results were apparent in student performance. That is not a reason not to make the effort, but it argues for concentrating on improving the performance of the teachers we already have. I argue here that this is the most important job of the school leader, beside which all others pale.

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The key is to create for our teachers an environment—the school—that is a true professional workplace. By professional workplace, I mean the sort of work environment that accomplished engineers, accountants, architects, medical doctors and attorneys work in. This is critical for two reasons. First, because, to get the job done, we need to attract to teaching more of the high school graduates who would otherwise have been able to pursue high status professional careers. Second, and more important, when professional workplaces are organized well, the people in them not only do their best work, but they work hard—all the time—to improve their skills and knowledge so they can get ever better at their work.

Professional workplaces offer real careers in the profession. You enter many professional firms at the bottom of the professional hierarchy and can go all the way to top, step by step. You get there by showing as you go up the ladder that you have the skills and knowledge needed to take on more responsibility. Sure, you get more money, but going up the ladder is also a mark of the esteem in which you are held by your colleagues. In return, you are expected to mentor the beginners and other professionals below you, keep learning all the time—mostly on your own and your own dollar, working with colleagues on projects the leadership team think are important. You are evaluated on a host of criteria—how many clients you bring in, the success of your projects, the degree to which your work improves the profile of the firm, your leadership skills, your skill and commitment in mentoring the newbies. The firm is trying to build an effective team, and the partners know that the firm will have much more success if different people are outstanding at different things than if all members of the team are equally good at everything.

The incentives in such a system are all pulling in the right direction. Let’s look at what would happen if they were applied to education. If the only way to earn more money, more responsibility and more esteem in the eyes of your colleagues without leaving teaching were to move up a clearly defined career progression, you would do what it takes. If moving up that progression required working in teams with your colleagues to tackle problems you could not solve as well in another way, you would do that. If the people who were going up the progression fastest were those who could always be found in the classrooms of the best teachers watching them teach, you would do that. If you were offered an assignment leading a team of math teachers who were working together to create a first rate math curriculum for a whole grade span—a better one than any of them could create separately—you would take it in a minute. If you thought that moving up the teachers career ladder to the coveted number two step required you to learn a lot more about how the top-performing schools in the United States tackle a particular challenge, you would not wait for the central office to schedule a workshop on it on school time; you would find the time in the evenings or on the weekend to do the necessary research.

A system like this cannot work unless teachers have a lot more time to work together on the things and in the ways I have described. It will not work unless school leaders see themselves not as the instructional leader but as a leader who can inspire his or her team to be the best they can be, who can earn their trust, who can find the time in the school day for teachers to work together collaboratively, who can get strong consensus among the faculty on what problems most need to be worked on, and who can organize the faculty into a changing array of teams working on the most important challenges the school faces. Teachers’ doors need to be open and all the teachers need to feel welcome in other teachers’ classrooms. Success needs to be celebrated and used as a staging ground for the next attempt on a yet higher mountain.

School districts serving tens of millions of students are organized this way and their students are achieving at the world’s highest levels. They provide the world’s highest quality of professional development—because it is an integral part of the work teachers do, not a distraction from that work—but it is not a professional development program. It leads almost ineluctably to very high quality formative assessment—the kind that can and should lead to highly individualized real-time course correction during a class—but it is not a formative evaluation system. It requires big changes in the way time is used in the school and the way in which teachers use that time, but it is not per se a time initiative. It cannot be pulled off properly unless the best teachers in the school spend a lot of their time mentoring new teachers, but it is not a mentoring initiative. It requires development of a professional learning community, but it is not about professional learning communities.

It is a system for the organization and management of a school. All of these components are necessary, but each much be designed and implemented to work in harmony with the others. The whole must be more than the sum of the parts. When that happens, the results are very impressive.

So it will not surprise you to learn that we plan to teach the aspiring and serving principals with whom NISL works how to organize and run schools that look like this.