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Diane Halpin, DirectorChange the way we serve learns with Autism!

Why School Improvement is so Challenging
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"Education must enable young people to effect what they have recognized to be right, despite hardships, despite dangers, despite inner skepticism, despite boredom, and despite mockery from the world. . . ."   - Kurt Hahn

e are now beginning to understand how to accomplish system-wide improvements to improve learning for all students across states and across the country.  This is the result of several large scale studies that examined deeply the context of change measures and how leaders led them.  However, we have a long way to go to bring this knowledge to every leader in our public school system.  It is time to take off the gloves and learn how to effect change with enhanced leadership skills.  This is one of the primary reasons to initiate BOSS as the national organization for coaching and mentoring and a world class organization serving the professional development needs of active superintendents. In 2004, the Universities of Minnesota and Toronto collaborated on a study of how leadership influences student learning.  Researchers found that leaders achieve impact in a school system when they set clear direction, high expectations, and use date to chart progress and performance.  Leaders also impact the system by developing people and providing high quality training and professional development.  Their findings were that successful leadership plays a significant role in improving student learning, second only to effective classroom instruction. Waters and Marzano (2006) identified three primary findings from a large scale meta-analysis of 27 studies conducted since 1970.  The three major findings were: ​

  1. District-level Leadership Matters,
  2. ​Effective Superintendents focus their efforts on creating goal-oriented ​districts, and ​
  3. Superintendent tenure is positively correlated with student achievement.    

Douglas Reeves (2007) at the Center for Performance Assessment has studied more than 200 schools covering 130,000 students and identified leverage leaders hold in closing the achievement gap.  His findings reinforce the notion that in a standards driven industry like education, leaders must examine both achievement outcomes and implementation processes.  The secrets for change are found in the implementation practices and what must be changed in order to improve results for students. Schools are complex organizations that require thoughtful decisions by leaders at the school level and district level.  McKinsey and Company analyzed 20 school systems from around the world to understand precisely which interventions occurred in each school system, and when, and how these interventions interacted with each other and with the system's context to deliver better outcomes for students. They found that injection of new leadership to be the most important factor in jumpstarting reform (p.28).  Once this occurred, the leader must be in place for at least six years for the change  and desired outcomes to take place. Another complexity in school organizations is that power for public education is distributed among the federal government, governor of each state, legislators, an appointed or elected education commissioner, state boards, public policies, bargained labor agreements, community advocacy and sometimes by the narrow views of some members of a particular community.  It is easy to just wait to be told what to do rather than risk losing a valued job. This is one of the challenges of local control of public education in the US.  While we have great authority and responsibility to take action on important school improvement issues, we many times are waiting for the legislative or state authority to provide the direction.  In this scenario, local control no longer exists and superintendents and schools boards provide a level of mid-management for both state and national education priorities.  However, local control does exist within the realm of changing structures, processes and delivery of the organization to improve student performance. This is where true leadership lies. It is true. 

"I regard it as the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self denial, and above all, compassion."
- Kurt Hahn

People in this country really care about their public schools.  And all that caring typically in the form of public participation has made for many grievous leadership errors along the path of school improvement efforts.   As neighbors, professionals, parents, bureaucrats and policy makers, we make claims about "fixing" education as if opinions matter as much as facts or real evidence. How many times have you heard or read about a local decision that only reinforced an already under performing group of employees?  Or, discouraged a high performing team of educators from doing their best work? How do we define governance at the local level and to what degree do we allow our school leaders to make the right decisions?  What support do we give to school superintendents to lead schools effectively into the future? Many people want public schools to get better fast and with no more tax money than already allocated.  The writers heard a speaker many years ago that stated:  "You know when your business system is under performing and in decline.  You are spending the same or more resources and getting the same or less in results."  Generally, as citizens we do not think about the costs of delivering public education in this way.  But, should we as leaders think about the impact of this belief as a "nonnegotiable" in our school systems? Given the continuing fight over tax revenue in every state and a desire for real improvement, perhaps it is time to do so.  We argue that to do so means skilled leadership in every school district who receive high quality professional development, make a commitment to cohort learning, and learn with the help of a skilled coach and mentor.  Over time, we see the collaborative efforts will result in improved performance in public schools.
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