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Cross-posted at Education Week

In my last blog post, I described our National Institute for School Leadership and its very successful principal training program.  And then I said that we are about to introduce a new perspective into the content of that program, content that will reflect what we have been learning from our long-term study of the countries with the highest student achievement and highest levels of equity.  I concluded by referring to a new approach to school organization and management that will be the focus of our development work.  In this blog post, I will describe that approach.

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.  However, 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.


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 the 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 to 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 must 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.