Great Leaders Make Great Schools. Here Are 4 Factors Critical to Their Success

My Twitter and social media channels were abuzz earlier this month with positive reactions to writer David Brooks’s New York Times column “Good Leaders Make Good Schools.” In education, it’s rare to see readers from differing camps all virtually nodding in support of a singular notion. But anyone with depth of experience in our field knows it’s true: Great principals are critical to school transformation.

At the same time, something didn’t sit right: Brooks’s analysis is far too simple. In embracing a “good leaders make good schools” mantra, we make the mistake yet again of relying on a silver bullet for education improvement and change.

Shame on us as a sector.

At The Learning Accelerator, we’ve spent the past year deeply networking with more than 100 school leaders across eight regions nationally. This work is founded on the belief that great principals are absolutely critical for creating and sustaining schools that foster deeper and personalized learning. We asked them about their work, the resources they rely on, and what would make it easier for them to lead and sustain the changes underway in their schools.

Looking at patterns across each region, our biggest finding was this: ecosystems matter. Leaders can only be as effective as the resources and communities around them. Great leaders hindered by roadblocks and a dearth of support are simply driving with the brakes on. Strong leaders operating in environments where external supports are aligned to their visions and where they have flexibility and buy-in from numerous groups have extra gas in the tank to drive change.

What does a great ecosystem look like? The factors leaders cited fell into four categories:

● Legitimacy and support: These include the organizations, people, and policies that reinforce changes or improvements, as well as the access to resources leaders need to accomplish them (time, dollars, people, political coverage). They define — intentionally or unintentionally — the rules of the game and include things like district policy and support structures, funder beliefs, strategies, grant-making, community perception and engagement, and accountability.

● Personal development supports: These are the resources leaders lean on to bolster their own learning and development in order to design, lead, and sustain change. Factors here include access to leadership coaching, personal improvement processes, learning networks, and other administrators and leaders.

● Existing school capacity: These are levers, resources, and conditions that exist within a leader’s own institution, including the people, processes, tools, and structures a leader calls on or builds to promote and sustain change. Important here isn’t just a school’s status as an already high-performing entity or infrastructure, but the flexibility a leader has to use existing capacity in new and aligned ways, such as through reallocating time in the day or how and where great teachers (and teacher leaders) work.

● External supports: These include the partners and resources outside the formal institution (the school or managing network/system) that a leader turns to for help and additional capacity. Among them: professional service and training partners, technical assistance networks, even access to new high-quality tools and curriculum.

By stepping back and mapping each leader’s access to these ecosystem factors, a much more informative and dynamic picture emerges. It’s the combination of supports (or lack thereof) across these four areas, in conjunction with the overall alignment to a leader’s broader vision for teaching and learning, that greatly affects the degree to which a leader can be successful. Through this systemic lens, we can also identify specific actions to bring supports into alignment, as well as accelerate beyond the current state.

One need only need to look at Chicago, the district Brooks cites as evidence for his piece, to see that a robust ecosystem of support really matters. Yes, Chicago has great leaders. But it’s through supportive districts and management organizations, a robust and engaged higher education system, committed and aligned philanthropic partners, and a plethora of great support organizations (among them Leap Innovations, the Academy for Urban School Leadership, and Teach for America) alongside these leaders that Chicago is making great strides.

Let’s abandon any solution that puts the burden of great schools solely on principals’ shoulders. Instead, we need to take a more critical and holistic view, holding ourselves accountable for building systems of support for great leaders and teachers alike.

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