A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Fitting the Pieces - October 1996

Lesson 1: Leadership

Strong leadership enhances the prospect of successful reform.

School reformers usually start out with high levels of energy and commitment to the process. Unfortunately, institutionalizing change is a long, arduous process, and over time competing responsibilities and the slow pace at which gains are made can drain enthusiasm. Strong leadership can help ensure that initial reform objectives are achieved. In addition to making key decisions and following through on their implementation, effective leaders build consensus, promote buy-in, and delegate authority among participants. Ultimately, strong leadership is about good management. This lesson details the essential attributes of reform leaders, and describes how a well-administered project can motivate others to internalize reform goals.

Strong Leaders lay a groundwork for reform

Teachers, administrators, and community members often hold well-formed expectations about how schools should function and what students are capable of learning. Many times, individuals' beliefs and practices are incompatible with an envisioned reform strategy: teachers may be uncomfortable about deviating from their time-honored curriculum; administrators may be hesitant to relinquish authority for school operations; or parents may be reluctant to risk their children's education on an "untested" reform (Curriculum, 81). This can mean that the individuals responsible for implementing reform may be asked to put their personal perceptions and experience aside because they conflict with reform objectives. Recognizing that not all participants will agree on all aspects of a reform strategy, strong reform leaders work with others to articulate a vision and assure that it is shared among project participants.

A clearly articulated vision and supportive organizational environment can help drive reform implementation, particularly if they enable individuals to align their own beliefs with program goals. This does not mean that a strong leader pens a vision for all individuals to adopt; rather, it means that he or she guides participants in developing a consensus viewpoint that is based on input from all individuals involved in the reform. When participants perceive that the reform objectives reflect many of their personally held beliefs about education, they are often more willing to join the effort or dedicate time to the project.

To initiate the vision-building process, a high-level administrator or group of prominent education leaders are sometimes asked to champion the project. Credible, highly visible advocates can serve as the seed around which reform crystallizes, and many times these individuals can identify additional resources or recruit others to join the reform effort. Ideally, these leaders are "well respected inside and outside of their organizations, . . . accessible . . . and comfortable with, and visibly involved in change" (Teacher Professionalism, 39). However, having high-level representation is not a minor point, as noted in the School-to-Work study:

Where school-to-work finds an advocate at the executive level, the reform is more likely to take root throughout the educational system. Where the advocacy is absent, school-to-work is likely to remain a tenuous and fragmented activity, however strong the support from other sectors . . . Typically, the most effective school-to-work reforms enjoyed active leadership from the high school executive as well as the support of the school board and district administration.

(School-to-Work, 72)

Nonetheless, it is not enough to secure support at high levels. Although individuals may be impressed that a recognized education or community leader is involved in a reform, it is the substance of the vision, the manner in which it is conveyed, and the way in which individuals are involved that ultimately determine how a school responds to a proposed reform.

Strong leaders secure buy-in.

Sufficient resources are seldom available to provide planning time for all participants involved in designing and implementing reforms. As such, most education reformers rely on the goodwill of teachers, administrators, and community volunteers, who donate their time and expertise for what they believe is a worthwhile cause. As noted in Lesson 2, keeping people involved and enthusiastic often means involving individuals in all aspects of the reform process. Paradoxically, the stronger the core leadership, the more likely it is that the reform effort can be decentralized and vested in its participants.

According to one principal, "I have the big picture of what's going on in the school. But I don't feel like I have to be the leader of every activity. I have good people to work with, and they are capable of leadership too."

(Adler 1995)

For example, although the restructuring of the Patterson Career Center (Dayton, OH) for participatory management could not have been accomplished without a strong principal, whose vision, commitment, and persistence were resources in their own right, it was the manner in which the principal worked that determined the project's success. Referred to as "Mr. Reform" by project participants, the principal was widely credited with not only developing a unified identity, mission, philosophy, and strategic direction for the school, but also with involving others in the planning, leadership, and decision making that was the driving force behind the initiative (School-to-Work, 74). Thus, the trademark of his success was to inspire the participants to produce by example, using their ideas as the building blocks for the reform effort.

Creating a positive reform environment requires finding boosters who are committed to the reform goals. As noted in the Teacher Professionalism study, "dispersed leadership" increases the sense of ownership across the school community, as well as enables innovative programs to overcome obstacles, because individuals at all levels of the organization are willing to lend a hand when reform is threatened. Thus, it is clear why successful leaders, such as those in the Toronto Learning Consortium (Toronto, Canada), can "recognize 'readiness' in individuals and situations, and act by encouraging others to assume leadership roles through the development of a critical mass of expertise" (Teacher Professionalism, 38­39). As key proponents of reform leave a school or a community, other staff are not only knowledgeable but also prepared to assume more active roles. Reform efforts that fail to clearly communicate reform objectives or neglect to involve staff in the overall structure of the project deprive themselves of "multiple sources of leadership and enthusiasm [and] will have a hard time sustaining themselves" (Technology, 119).

Strong leaders delegate responsibility.

An effective reform leader strives to find the proper balance between executive and committee decision making. While strong leadership can help ensure that reform goals stay on track, investing too much power in a single individual can be counterproductive. While everyone may look to a charismatic principal or teacher to provide direction and leadership, the reform may flounder if that person leaves or moves on to another assignment (Olson 1994). Even though investing too much power in a single individual can be counterproductive, delegating responsibility too widely can also lead to frustration. Turnover among teachers from one year to the next can make it difficult to build on programmatic successes or learn from organizational failures. Further, lack of continuity in instructional programs and loss of organizational memory caused by staff attrition can undermine a reform effort (Uses of Time, 56).

The successful reform leader matches people with tasks to get the most from each participant. Although all participants may be dedicated to the reform's success, not all of them can or will offer similar levels of commitment. Outside demands may limit the time some individuals can contribute to the project, while others may only want to assist in a minimal way. Moreover, not all people desire the same level of responsibility: while some participants may be entirely comfortable taking considerable responsibility, others may prefer to work on modest, closed-ended tasks that do not require extensive monitoring.


[Introduction] [Table of Contents] [Lesson 2: Goals]