Education Opinion

The Performance Manifesto

By LeaderTalk Contributor — October 04, 2010 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

by Justin Baeder | @eduleadership

We have long believed that there is a link between school leadership and student performance; many studies (such as those conducted by Kenneth Leithwood) have explored this relationship and have found principals to be second only to teachers in their impact on student learning.

Schools are provided with principals with six-figure price tags on the basis of the logic that schools need instructional leaders in order to have a positive impact on student achievement. Indeed, virtually every discussion of the role of the principal in recent decades has centered around instructional leadership.

What’s surprising, though, is how frequently these discussions have failed to address practice, and to relate the day-to-day actions of school leaders - how they do their work, and what work they choose to do - to student achievement.

The last century saw remarkable growth in productivity from innovations such as Taylorism in manufacturing and heavy industry; Six Sigma and Total Quality Management in the corporate world; and Covey’s 7 Habits paradigm in professional and personal excellence. Yet these insights have failed to penetrate educational leadership, and no comparable emphasis on the productivity of school administrators has materialized.

If we know (as we certainly do) that leadership influences learning, and if we know (as we increasingly do) how leadership influences student learning, it follows that the daily practice of school leaders should become the focus of an intense effort to increase their performance and productivity.

Since No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, there has been immense pressure on school leaders to ensure that their schools perform at ever-higher levels, but it has been applied as accountability rather than a mandate to take clearly identified actions. This is peculiar, because we have long known in education that threatening people to get them to do something they don’t know how to do (or do well enough) is pointless. Policymakers demanding accountability offer little or no guidance for school leaders as to what actions on their part will improve student learning.

We also know - and this is at the heart of all our efforts to help students learn - that providing strategies and teaching people how to do what you want them to do works remarkably well. In other words, the central logic of education hasn’t been applied to the performance of education’s most important front-line leaders.

Imagine if an NFL team took this tack. Imagine if, after a losing season, the coach decided to limit his efforts to firing players he considered underperformers, without ever watching game footage or running practices to improve in the necessary areas. Yes, a blunt act like firing players does suggest seriousness, but it fails to get to the heart of improvement: practice.

In professions such as medicine and education, we use the word practice in two ways: first, in the athletic sense of doing something expressly for the purpose of getting better at the activity to which it contributes; and more commonly, as in law, to refer to the ongoing act of doing the work of our chosen profession. While there is certainly some value in directly practicing certain skills (such as giving feedback to teachers) from time to time, I believe that the opportunity for improved performance among school leaders can best be pursued by examining and sharing successful strategies for doing the work.

In other words, we must explore how principals actually do their work, and we must broadly promulgate effective practices.

To be sure, there’s no shortage of research on effective school leadership practices. The field has mushroomed over the past 30 years, and most major universities have doctoral programs and research centers in educational leadership. Yet what’s missing is the fine-grained focus, the emphasis on the specific strategies that allow great leaders to excel.

Instead, most leadership research looks retrospectively at leaders who get results, and describes them with vague labels such as “creates and upholds vision.” These labels do not tell us anything about what leaders did in real time to create positive outcomes. In football terms, we know the final score but we have no idea what plays were run.

Medicine is several steps ahead of us in focusing relentlessly and with great specificity on the details of practice. Like principals, doctors hate to be watched and told what to do every second of the day, but the direct, life-and-death stakes of such details as hand-washing and remembering to administer antibiotics at the start of a surgical procedure have forced the medical profession to accept greater emphasis on getting the details of practice right.

Not surprisingly, doctors resisted close scrutiny of their hand-washing practices for decades, despite the incontrovertible evidence that careful scrubbing saves lives. The medical profession has finally reached the point where many institutions have implemented draconian rules to make sure doctors wash their hands before seeing each patient.

In education, when it comes to our performance as school leaders, I don’t want us to get to this point. We have experienced the age of accountability, and I’m convinced that society at large is about to realize that merely setting the bar (and imposing consequences for failing to meet it) has limited power to bring about improvement.

I believe we are entering the age of performance in public education. We are increasingly being judged by our results, and we need to gain clarity on what leadership actions produce these results. We must start to have a national conversation about principal performance; this conversation must focus clearly on the details of practice, and it must be led by practicing school leaders, not outside reformers and policymakers.

Now is the time for school leaders to carefully examine and promulgate our best strategies for having an impact on student learning. How do we do what we do? How can we do it better? How can we get the conversation started? I look forward to hearing from you.

Justin Baeder (@eduleadership) is a public school principal in Seattle, Washington. He speaks and writes about principal performance and productivity, and is a doctoral student at the University of Washington in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies.

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.