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What McCain and Obama Can Learn From Successful School Principals

By Lew Smith — October 14, 2008 7 min read
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In a 2005 special edition of U.S. News & World Report devoted to leadership, David Gergen, an adviser to four U.S. presidents, said this: “The 20th century taught us that progress is not inevitable. Each generation has to struggle and sacrifice to secure a better future for its children. When it fails, the world slips backward. Whether America moves forward will hinge in significant degree upon the quality and number of those who lead.”

School reformers would readily agree with Gergen’s assessment of the “struggle and sacrifice” needed to secure a better future for our children—and with his assertions on the consequences of failure and the importance of leadership. But when we talk about leadership, whether it is leadership of the nation or of the local school, critical questions arise. How do we define leadership? What do we want and need in our leaders? Why do we admire and appreciate some leaders and not others?

From 2000 to 2008, I had the chance to ponder these questions and look for answers in a study of 54 successful school principals. All of them had led schools considered to be low-performing, embarrassing, failures. And all had managed to raise their schools to exemplary status—not only in academic achievement, but also in student engagement, innovative instructional practices, professional growth, school culture, and community perception.

I selected eight of the schools—four elementary and four secondary—for deeper study. While all eight were success stories, each was successful in its own idiosyncratic way. And yet common themes about the role of leadership emerged—themes that offer lessons not only for other principals, but also for the country’s next president.

Regardless of their particular circumstances, these successful principals shared nine important characteristics: They were focused, visionary, change-sensitive, and courageous; their management style was empowering, relational, and strategic; and their personal traits made each one both a learner and a communicator. Here are some examples of how these characteristics made progress possible:

FOCUSED. Each principal’s central and unwavering focus was on teaching and learning and student success. Take Sandy Stephens, for example. In 1996, she became the principal of an elementary school in Anchorage, Alaska, that was scheduled to be closed because of declining enrollment. Its instructional program also was inadequate, failing to serve the needs of a large number of English-language learners as well as middle-class parents who wanted their children to learn a foreign language. Sandy and her staff members found the route to success through grappling with the school’s instructional problems. They created a successful dual-language program that immersed all students in both English and Spanish.

VISIONARY. All eight principals were able to look beyond the present and see a better future. For Michele Hancock, the newly appointed principal of a failing elementary school located in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Rochester, N.Y., the vision was one of creating a sanctuary for students where they could learn and their families would find safety and purpose. This worked. By 2003, the school’s academic ranking rose from the bottom five in the city to the top 10. Signs outside classrooms proclaimed exemplary teaching practices, and examples of state standards and student work adorned the hallways.

CHANGE-SENSITIVE. These eight leaders understood the human dynamics of change: how it is inevitably affected by fear, insecurity, cynicism, reluctance, and caution. They recognized that their schools would not change unless there was a “felt need” for change. In the early 1990s, graduates of Niles High School in Niles, Mich., were returning to their alma mater to complain that they were flunking out of college because they were not prepared, or else were unable to find jobs outside the fast-food industry. Doug Law, the new principal, was able to harness that “felt need” and lead his staff in the development of a more relevant “schools-to-careers” program.

COURAGEOUS. These principals persisted despite opposition. They took professional risks. They never retreated from their vision or abandoned their mission. In his first three years, Rob Carroll, the principal of an underperforming elementary school in Henderson, Ky, was able to change the school’s uncaring and adult-centered culture. Yet academic achievement stayed flat. In 2000, he announced at a staff meeting that the school would henceforth be all about change. If any teachers could not join that cause, he said, he would find them jobs in other schools. When he entered his office the next day, he found a hole punched in the wall above his desk. He left it there.

EMPOWERING. These principals knew that one leader, working alone, could not bring significant change to a school. They stressed the need for teams and the importance of a sense of ownership throughout the school community. In Waco, Texas, for example, the issue that united one school community in common purpose was desegregation. The Waco board of education, finally determined to deal with an issue virtually ignored for more than 40 years, empowered one innovative inner-city principal, Molly Maloy, to do something about it. She in turn empowered her teachers. They created a bold new curriculum that was interdisciplinary, relevant, and engaging. This led to high student achievement and, eventually, to high demand for enrollment throughout the city. Integration followed naturally.

RELATIONAL. The ability to empathize with their students, teachers, and parents was a common trait of these principals. They recognized concerns and responded to needs. In 1991, Chris Zarzana, a veteran principal in Citrus Heights, Calif., took the helm of that city’s most troubled elementary school. She knew that improving students’ low reading levels could not be addressed without first tackling more urgent needs and concerns: safety, security, and discipline. Working with her staff, Chris restored order in the school and, in doing so, established her credibility as a leader. She and her staff members then turned to reading and soon were winning state and national recognition for student achievement.

STRATEGIC. Knowing what steps to take at what times was important to these leaders’ success. They built alliances, and made strategic moves. When Anchorage’s Sandy Stephens became a principal, one of the first calls she made was to the teachers’ union president. She told him that she had been a union activist in her previous district, and after the president studied the new principal’s background, a strategic partnership was formed. Together, they helped ineffective teachers improve, focused on what was good for kids, and were able to settle awkward staffing issues.

A LEARNER. These principals read voraciously and were well-versed on the latest books on education, business, and leadership. They visited other schools to learn about successful practices, and attended professional conferences. Bill Andrekopoulos, a middle school principal in Milwaukee, encouraged his teachers to propose new ideas, present background research, and conduct pilot programs. This paid off handsomely. Responding to an article about block scheduling, which organizes a school day into longer blocks of instructional time, several teachers approached Bill with a plan to pilot a program using the approach. Bill said yes—on the condition that the teachers monitor the new program and document its effects. They agreed, and the approach worked.

A COMMUNICATOR. These eight principals were able to tell stories their followers could relate to and appreciate. They communicated through both their words and their actions. They were clear about the messages they wanted to convey; their listeners clearly heard them. This was evident in the turnaround of San Antonio’s Louis W. Fox Academic and Technical High School, which had won a reputation as what one critic called “the worst high school in the state of Texas.” After three years of dire warnings, it was “disestablished” in 1995, meaning that every staff member—from principal to custodial worker—was removed. Assigned to be the school’s new principal, Joanne Cockrell had the authority to hire a new staff. She interviewed each finalist and asked just two questions: “Do like kids?” and “Are you going to watch the clock?” Everyone understood.

These and other stories collected over the eight years of my study convince me that leadership can turn the steepest tide—and that it is made up of basic attributes that can be recognized and encouraged.

In no way would I suggest that the scope of responsibilities for a school principal is comparable to the challenges facing a president of the United States. But similarities do exist. In both jobs, the welfare of others is at the heart of the enterprise. In both, decisions, large and small, affect people’s lives in the present as well as the future. And in both cases, constituents are looking for someone who can steer their course to a higher, better plane.

The concept of leadership needs to be deeply understood by those who would lead—and exercised to the benefit of all.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2008 edition of Education Week as What McCain and Obama Can Learn From Successful School Principals

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