School Climate & Safety Opinion

Leadership Matters at All Levels

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 21, 2016 7 min read
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We welcome Dr. B.J. Worthington, Director of Schools for the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System in Clarksville, Tennessee as our guest blogger.

If I have learned one thing from my thirty plus years in public education, it is that leadership matters! This truth became all the more real after I assumed the helm of the eighth largest school system in Tennessee. The complexities of a district this size, coupled with the constant changes of educational reform, helped me realize that even in the best of circumstances, with the highest quality staff, effective leadership does not “just happen.” Leadership has to be deliberately and intentionally cultivated throughout all levels of the organization. In addition, while leadership is necessary at every level, it is leadership from the top that bears the responsibility for providing the framework and the structure for such cultivation.

More than a decade ago, the district hit its tipping point regarding the need for such a structured, formalized approach to district-wide leadership development. Contributing to this need were the district’s rapid growth and the subsequent increase in the number of schools, an aging workforce, and the complex changes in education that were occurring at both the state and federal levels. Creating both a succession plan for key leadership positions and a plan to ensure all staff had the opportunity to lead from wherever they were positioned within the district became a major component of our strategic work.

Leadership and Student Achievement
Our district implemented a comprehensive leadership development program. We chose to use McREL International’s Balanced Leadership Framework® as our cornerstone. Through our focused leadership, the district experienced improvement in academic growth for the 2014-15 school year, making strong gains on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program. The district led the state in student academic growth in overall literacy and numeracy for grades 3-12 and received a “5,” which is the highest score possible, on all 12 state-measured literacy and numeracy targets to include career technical education. Such results were achieved through a mindful approach to leadership and fidelity to the principles of high reliability organizations. Not only has the district experienced academic success, we have done so by growing leaders from within. Over the past five years, fifty-five teachers have completed our Aspiring Administrator’s Academy. Of these fifty-five, 35% have been selected to the assistant principalship and 20% have moved into other formal leadership positions within the district. Fully 100% of these teachers have reported that participation in this program has enabled them to better lead from where they work within the district.

Distributed Leadership
The district recognized that successful leadership is not perched atop the organization; success results from embedding leadership throughout all levels of the organization. As such, the overarching goal of the resulting multi-layered program is to intentionally connect the district’s varying operating units with a common leadership framework and vocabulary for reaching district goals, while helping each employee to understand his or her role in helping the organization attain its vision. A lack of sufficiently prepared formal and informal leaders in this growing environment could prove to be major detractors from its mission of educating and empowering all students to reach their potential.

A strategic plan was formulated to build a sustainable, comprehensive leadership development program using existing district resources. We started by developing a basic leadership course that is offered annually to certified and classified staff members who have demonstrated interest in and aptitude for broadening their leadership skills. From there, we implemented our Aspiring Administrators’ Academy, which is designed to prepare select teachers for the next generation of school- and building-level administrators to lead the district in achieving its mission. Almost concurrently, we began to leverage the expertise of recognized teacher-leaders - consulting teachers and academic coaches - to strengthen instructional leadership capacity throughout the district so all students have access to high quality instruction.

The district now has numerous formalized leadership development opportunities for all employees, all of which are based on our work with McREL and our own leadership learning. This consistent approach to leadership development allows for a common vocabulary and fidelity in the learning for all participants. We chose to provide the full eight-day training only to those employees who currently serve in school or district leadership roles. We customize each training for each employee group, but a number of components such as self-evaluation and understanding the school district and your role in achieving its vision are embedded within all trainings.

Sustainability is Essential
Understanding the need for a structured leadership program is one thing, but ensuring consistent application of the key learnings necessitated a more mindful approach to leadership. This compelled us to fully embrace the principles of high reliability organizations (HRO) throughout our district: preoccupation with failure, reluctance to simplify, sensitive to operations, commitment to resilience, and deference to expertise. The high-reliability leadership approach has ensured consistency in organizational operations, improved the quality of instruction, and reduced the variability in student access to a guaranteed and viable curriculum, all of which are indicative of a true strategic focus on improving student achievement.

As we began considering the HRO principle of preoccupation with failure, it soon became evident that we had thought about the “what could happen if a student is not successful,” but had failed to consistently prepare for each student failure as a catastrophic event. Our goal became to be thoughtful of what could happen if a student was not successful and to successfully intervene prior to the failure if at all possible.

As we looked at the principle of reluctance to simplify, we learned that too often we did not address the root cause of the problem but instead would react to the symptom, thus never correcting the “real” cause of a given issue.

Pulse Checks
The sensitivity to operations principle is one that we all have to be mindful of as we do our day-to-day business. Frequently as leaders, we fail to check to see the impact of a change on the stakeholders who are most affected by a change. By doing routine “pulse checks,” we established that as leaders we can change the rate of implementation and intervene with appropriate measures to further meet stakeholder’s needs, ensuring responsiveness to the frontline stakeholder.

Commitment to resilience in the ever-changing educational landscape is a challenging HRO principle; it is difficult to accomplish yet is necessary in order for leaders to provide stability for their staff. We have identified those strategies that have helped us achieve success and make those a staple of our continuous improvement work.

As in any organization, deferring to expertise should be a principle to which all leaders should adhere. Identifying and cultivating the expertise inside of the organization and realizing when you need to seek and use expertise outside of the organization is a balancing act, but is critical to challenging the status quo.

Our work in training our leaders, our investment in the talent that exists in our district, learning the principles of a highly reliable organization and making them part of our leadership DNA forces a sense of mindfulness of our vision in both strategic planning and in day-to-day actions. Most importantly, the results show in the achievement of our students.

More about Dr. Worthington and his work:
Dr. Worthington led the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System in the implementation of a comprehensive leadership development program that resulted in the improvement of academic growth for the 2014-15 school year, making strong gains on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program. The district led the state in student academic growth in overall literacy and numeracy for grades 3-12 and received a “5,” which is the highest score possible, on all 12 state-measured literacy and numeracy targets to include career technical education.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.