Five Things School Administrators Should Focus On

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In my introductory post for this column, I discussed the past decade’s dramatic changes for education leaders at the site and district level. These included the rise of high-profile accountability systems based on standardized test scores, the impact of the Great Recession on school budgets, and the historically unprecedented numbers of children living in poverty.

Five Things School Administrators Should Focus On

‘More hats and less help’

Simultaneously, leaders must grapple with the newest wave of changes introduced by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and CCSS assessments, some of which promise to be vastly different from bubbled-in, multiple choice tests — and will demand very different kinds of instruction than many teachers are used to delivering.

None of the operational demands that have always existed for schools and districts have lessened, and if anything, demand is more than ever from those in leadership, since so many positions have been eliminated due to budget cuts. As one leader put it, “We have more hats and less help.”

With myriad demands, what should education leaders focus on?

How do principals, APs, and district level leaders remain focused in an environment such as this? In the meta-analytical research that led to “District Leadership That Works: Striking the Right Balance” (2009), Robert Marzano and Tim Waters arrived at the following five conclusions:

1. “Schools and school districts can more closely resemble high-reliability organizations (HROs*) or mindful organizations.”

2. “To increase school reliability, the primary job of school-level leadership is to ensure high within-school quality and low within-school variability in the quality of instruction for every student.”

3. “To increase district reliability, the primary job of district level leadership is to ensure high within-school quality and low between-school variability in the quality of instruction for every student.”

Please understand that this does not mean that every classroom within any given school, or across schools, is exactly alike. High reliability of results for every student does not disallow teacher creativity, an oft-bemoaned (although unnecessary) development of the age of accountability under standardized testing.

School leadership is an art and a science

The need for teacher creativity has never been more apparent than with the advent of the CCSS. But high reliability of results does require that a wide range of research-based instructional and school-level practices are in place. The most effective way to ensure this is for every teacher to be a member of a high-functioning collaborative team, so that the best of the collective thinking and creativity of the team as a whole can benefit all of its students.

Likewise, for schools and districts to become more like HROs, schools within a district do not need to, and should not become, cookie-cutter copies of each other. Each school must uniquely fill its mission of serving its community or as a specialized school of the arts, technology, or other areas. In this regard, Marzano and Waters also concluded:

4. “In light of political, social, resource, and design realities, schools and school districts as we know them may not become reliable enough to prepare all students well enough to compete in the emerging global economy.”

How’s that for a call to creative action? But changing those realities will take an extraordinary kind of leadership. Here is their final conclusion:

5. “We need leaders at every level of the system who can, through the integration of leadership art and leadership science, lead the changes implied by conclusions one through four.”

Stay tuned in future posts for more on this leadership integration.

*HROs are organizations where all results must be guaranteed at the highest level because the smallest deviation can spell disaster — for example, air traffic control towers, pharmaceutical companies and nuclear power plants.

Terry Wilhelm is a district-level consultant who works with educators nationwide and is the founder and owner of Educators 2000. She has served as a public school teacher, principal, district office administrator, area service agency administrator, and adjunct professor in educational leadership. She is a regular contributor to Leadership, the magazine of the Association of California School Administrators.

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