From Dougal's Desk - Inaugural Issue

March 7, 2017 • Volume #1: On Leadership

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Welcome to On Leadership, the National Institute for School Leadership’s newsletter. We want this newsletter to be a one-stop-shop for the latest news, summaries of the best research and the most useful commentary on education leadership. Every issue will contain actionable information on the issues that are most relevant to state, district and school leaders.

In this, our first, issue, Leadership Spotlight introduces a white paper highlighting school leadership development opportunities in ESSA and two recent research reports—a Wallace Foundation-funded study by the RAND Corporation and a George W. Bush Institute funded study by the American Institutes for Research—that identify leadership development programs meeting the rigorous research requirements under ESSA. Our other regular feature, Leading News, provides snapshots of critical news and reports on school leadership, with this issue’s selections responding to district and state leaders’ requests for more information on ESSA implementation.

In this particular space, which will be a staple of On Leadership, I intend to broadly address the ongoing evolution of leadership as a discipline. Sometimes that will mean highlighting recent research and sometimes it will take the form of commentary on what I am seeing in the field as I work with school, district, and state leaders who are paving the way towards more rigorous instruction and improved student learning across the country. But this space will not be confined solely to education leadership.

NISL is a program of The National Center on Education and the Economy, which has been benchmarking the highest performing jurisdictions in education around the world for almost 30 years. I look forward to sharing the leadership strategies used by the top-performing countries as well as the way they are organizing and managing their education systems to get superb results. I will also discuss what we learn as NISL applies NCEE’s benchmarking strategies to the latest thinking on executive development from around the world and from across industries. At NISL, we look to the military, to business, to medicine, to law and everywhere in between to better understand how high-performing organizations develop their leaders. This approach to research and its application has been at NISL’s core since its inception.

When NISL was first conceived (back in 2001), we started by looking at the state of leadership development across a spectrum of industries and organizations. What we saw in the principalship, and in the programs designed to prepare principals, was a heavy emphasis on the administrative tasks that are part of every principal’s work. However, as we have all come to realize, that cannot be the primary focus of school leadership if we are to get every student to a college-and career-ready standard before they graduate from high school.

In its simplest terms, principals need to be focused on teaching and learning. That is the “business” of schools. The phrase “instructional leadership” was becoming part of our lexicon when NISL was in its infancy. It was a phrase that captured what people outside of education had already known for years, namely that the job of a leader is to focus on the organization’s strategic goals rather than managing administrative tasks. Just as the head of a hospital must focus on providing the best patient care, so too must the principal focus on a school’s primary goal: high quality teaching and learning. This has far-reaching implications for the job of a principal and the way in which schools and districts are organized, but I will save those topics for later issues.

Even the notion of “instructional leadership” has changed significantly over the last 15 years or so. Much of the writing about instructional leadership in the early 2000s suggested an approach that was reflective of where business had been at least a decade earlier. This led to what I like to refer to as the “Principal on the White Horse” syndrome. Think of the mythology around Jack Welch or Lee Iacocca. There was this notion, and it certainly still persists today, that to be a great leader, you had to have a dynamic personality, inspire your colleagues, know all there is to know about the industry, and excel in administration, management, motivation, psychology, and everything else under the sun. This person is a problem-solver extraordinaire. In education, this means that the principal can make the buses run on time, balance the budget, lead data-driven conversations, coach each teacher across the core disciplines, engage parents and the community, know every student’s name, visit their homes, oversee curriculum development, and, on occasion, leap tall buildings in a single bound. The genesis of this philosophy is the idea that great leaders are born, not made. It completely discounts the idea that leadership is a discipline that can be taught and learned – and continuously improved.

The latest research on effective leadership practices, which is reflected in the curriculum of the world’s leading executive development programs and business schools, focuses more on distributed leadership, cycles of continuous improvement, strategic (rather than tactical) thinking, creating the organizational structures that foster teamwork, managing a continuous change process, and leading in what the military calls a V.U.C.A. (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment. Across this body of research two primary themes emerge – (i) the importance of building structures that leverage the strengths of each member of the group in a collective way rather than simply relying on the strength of the individual and (ii) the dynamic nature of the environment.

If, before, leadership was about moving an organization from one plateau to a higher plateau, now leadership is about the recognition that there are no plateaus. In an increasingly interconnected world in which competition is ubiquitous, leaders, in every industry, cannot be satisfied with the status quo. They will need to be more than just dynamic individuals. They will need to build dynamic work environments that get the most out of every member of their team and create a culture in which the performance of the organization is constantly improving through self-reflection and innovation. In schools, this means that leaders must create the incentives and structures necessary to both allow and push their teachers to operate like professionals and drive a never-ending improvement process of teaching and learning.

That will not happen with catchier slogans but rather through the redesign of districts and schools to achieve a goal they were previously not designed to accomplish—equipping all students, no matter their background, with the competencies needed to be successful in whatever they choose to do in a very competitive global environment.

How to begin and sustain that redesign process will be the focus of my future entries in this newsletter. I look forward to exploring these topics with you, and, as always, I welcome your feedback. But, for now, I hope you enjoy our inaugural issue.