Learning leaders

As I’ve mentioned previously, our focus as a system this year is on good teaching and good teacher practice.  We know what the research tells us about good teachers and student learning outcomes.  This of course is based on a very important assumption – the quality of leadership. Michael Fullan calls the principal the “nerve centre of school improvement” and while they may not have a direct impact on student learning outcomes, what they do is critical to large scale and lasting improvement.

Schools without quality leadership are like orchestras without conductors.  Sure teachers can teach but an effective leader knows the research, develops the knowledge and collaborates with others to bring it all together.  Clive Gillinson writing in the Guardian in 2009 reflects on the role of the conductor:

Any player who has worked with great conductors knows that what they bring to their performances is the difference between competence and inspiration. It diminishes and completely misunderstands great music-making not to think there is any difference between the two.

Sometimes when we talk about effective teachers, we assume that we already have effective leadership at the helm.  This is not always the case.  Fullan in his paper Quality Leadership, Quality Learning states that reviews of research literature on school improvement highlights the “key role of the principal, for better or worse, i.e there are no examples of school-wide success without school leadership; all examples of school failure include weak or ineffective leadership.”

How do principals account for a lack of school wide success?  How do we deal with this as a system?  Past attempts to improve leadership have been ad hoc or too focused on individual attributes.

Over the weekend I began reading Leading with Inquiry and Action by Matthew Militello, Sharon Rallis and Ellen Goldring.  The foreward was written by Richard Elmore.  I have always respected Elmore’s grounded approach – a good mix of common sense and encouragement.  In reflecting on the American education system, he says this:

Every generation of American educational leaders, from the end of the 19th century onward, promises that it will be the generation to transform the practice of leadership into the practice of instructional improvement, and so far, every succeeding generation has failed at that fundamental task.  The leadership of instructional practice has been consistently and systematically displaced, generation after generation, by the bureaucratic demands of “running” schools and the by the “real-world” demands of school bureaucracy.

This summation could equally apply to education systems in other parts of the world.  Why?  Elmore says the answer lies in the observation that “education is a profession without a practice” or more accurately, “an occupation aspiring to be a profession that has not yet discovered its practice”.

He goes on:

We do not, as a field, define a set of practices that everyone who enters the sector has to master as a condition of being able to practice, nor do we insist that people who practice in the field continue to learn their practice at ever-increasing levels of competence and expertise over time.

I agree with Elmore’s observations.   Systems have failed because there has been little investment in school leadership.  We have focused our resources and efforts on the periphery without seeking to change the culture and structure of schools.  We haven’t insisted or enabled leaders continue to learn their practice.  Building system leadership capacity leads to greater accountability.

In addressing the core issue of leading schooling too often we start from the outside and work in. Right on the edge, we usually find things like judging school leaders using blunt instruments like student performance, data and rankings. Further in you find things like “taking things off” leaders to allow them to do their job. This may free up time but it does little to address the inherent problem. Such approaches only serve to demean the complexity of the leadership challenge.

A more constructive approach is to start from the inside out. This means a sharp focus on the core requirements for leading a contemporary school. The research and data show us that the key responsibility of leading has to be around the work of teachers, how they teach, how we know they are effective and how we can continue to build their capacity. If the leader doesn’t know how to do this then they have to be taught how. It requires leaders to be effective practitioners with a deep understanding of learners and pedagogy.

Last year our system focus was learning by inquiry.  Inquiry is critical to how we understand our learners and their contexts in what and how we teach.  Yet there is little point in learning by inquiry if we don’t apply it.  Leaders need to be inquiry minded AND action oriented. This is how we become a profession with a practice.

One thought on “Learning leaders

  1. Greg, another thought-provoking post. Good leadership is critical to school success. As a primary school principal with DEC for 14 years, and now working with school principals as a critical friend, I believe there is much potential in our current cohort of school leaders. Many are inspired, eager to put their efforts where it matters – to focus on instructional improvement. Many are keen both to inquire and to put good ideas into practice.

    Unfortunately, all too often these good ideals are replaced in reality by the bureaucratic demands placed on them. When the reality is that the system concentrates its conversations with principals on NAPLAN testing, the setting of increasingly narrow targets embedding low expectations and compliance training, it is no wonder that principals are distracted from achieving the things that matter. Schools appear to be supported by a system comprising of lots of diverse compartments each having as their main purpose the ensuring of their own accountabilities.

    Investment in school leadership is essential. Is any large system capable of doing this in a way that is long-term and coherent, free from the changing political priorities of the day? There may well be exceptions, and your own leadership is an example of this. But in general, my thoughts about this are very pessimistic.

    To me the best hope of developing school leadership that focuses on the instructional core, is for school leaders to organise their own networks, develop their own support structures, bring in their own experts. The best hope is to have networks of school leaders who trust and are able to challenge each other. Instructional Rounds may be one format for such a network.

    Unfortunately, the mantra of large bureaucracies may change, and their organisational structures may change, but the reality is bureaucracies generally serve themselves. In the end, they’ll always look from the outside because that’s the easy thing to do.

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