School & District Management

How Some K-12 Leaders Are Beating Businesses at the ‘Greatness’ Game

By Michele Molnar — November 13, 2019 | Updated: November 22, 2019 4 min read
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“Good to Great” author Jim Collins, who has spent more than 25 years studying what separates the best businesses from the rest, made an interesting discovery in his research: Some K-12 leaders are beating businesses at the “greatness” game.

Collins, in fact, featured the transformational work of Deb Gustafson, who was the principal of Ware Elementary School in Kansas for 18 years, in “Turning the Flywheel,” his latest publication, a monograph.

It explains how organizations can identify key moves needed to reach their goals, work diligently on them, and ultimately try to create a self-propelling “flywheel” that fuels ongoing progress with greater and greater ease.

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“The flywheel is about understanding what generates momentum, then produces results,” he said in an interview.

Ware Elementary’s results were strong enough for Collins to highlight them in the monograph, along with Amazon’s and Intel’s.

In 2001, Gustafson, who was assigned to the Fort Riley, Kan., school, was challenged to produce a turnaround as required by the state and desired by the district. Fewer than 35 percent of students were reading proficiently, and Gustafson herself describes the atmosphere there at that time as “toxic,” with 35 percent teacher turnover.

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One year after making a series of significant changes, reading proficiency climbed to 73 percent; by year five it was at 96 percent. Eighteen years after initiating change, the 675-student school still exceeds district and state averages.

“The idea that you could have good institutions, and make them better, intrigued me,” said Gustafson, who read Collins’ original “Good to Great” book, which is also among the most popular cited by district leaders in Education Week surveys. “For some reason, the whole flywheel concept resonated with me.”

Now the executive director of student services in the Geary County, Kan. school district., Gustafson fields calls from practitioners who want her advice about tackling their own challenges.

Education Week interviewed Collins and Gustafson independently, to learn their insights from research and practice. Their observations are aggregated here.

How did you know where to begin when you were asked to lead the school?

Gustafson: My number 1 goal was to make it a good building for teachers to teach in and for students to learn in. My primary concern was climate. The kids weren’t happy because they weren’t doing well, and the teachers weren’t happy. There was a pervasive lack of trust. Establishing trust and building relationships was my goal before raising test scores.

Jim, in your research, what sets educational leaders like Deb apart?

Collins: Deb doesn’t wait for everything to be fixed in the overall system around her. She says, “I have a responsibility for these kids, and if I don’t take responsibility and create the culture here that’s going to get these kids off to a great start in life, who else is going to do it?” It’s a matter of not being a bystander.

Deb, how do you go about changing the culture of a school?

Gustafson: The catalyst that created the change—the big piece—was the relationships. Getting teachers to build relationships with one another, with their kids, and to collaborate. We started with 4th grade, where I gave teachers 60 minutes a day to plan and work with each other. It was also a matter of finding passionate people to teach, then providing them with significant professional development.

Was there a lot of pushback when you started that work?

Gustafson: There was a lack of buy-in about the amount of work we were requiring. When we expanded the new expectations and changes that worked to the whole school, some people left. It was a lot harder work, and there was a lot more accountability. I set the stage for urgency: “We have to do something. We’re in state-sanctioned improvement.”

Jim, what do you see as a key ingredient to make the flywheel turn?

Collins: There’s this critical relationship between the collaborative improvement teams that she built and assessing student progress, which involved a lot of data. It was using that information to ask, “How are we doing today? This week? And the week after that? And what can we do, learning from each other, to address what the data would show?”

Deb, how did you get educators to make a shift in their use of data?

Gustafson: It was difficult to get them to look at data, because it was not good. When I showed them classroom data by teacher, it was rough. I said, “We’ve got to be transparent. We can only fix what we know.” We celebrated small successes along the way, instead of waiting and hoping you got the big success at the end, and intervened faster when we weren’t getting those successes.

Jim, in studying great organizations—business or otherwise—what would be most helpful for educators to hear?

Collins: If I could impart one big message to education, it would be: “Stop looking for the perfect answer.” Build the flywheel that you can stay with for long enough to turn good results into great results. And let that accumulated effect work. There is no perfect answer.

What’s an example of Deb’s ability to work the flywheel?

Collins: Instead of every three years looking for the next perfect reform or the next perfect thing that’s going to change everything overnight, pick something good and then accumulate results with it with great consistency and discipline over time. Deb’s flywheel has now been turning for years. It’s the compounding effect of that that produces the great results over time.

A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as Some K-12 Leaders Are Beating CEOs At ‘Greatness’ Game

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