Leadership Lessons From Schools That Beat The Odds

November 5, 2015

Now that New York’s Race to The Top has been run, what were the race results?  An honest assessment would indicate that, while schools generally deserve an “A” for effort, most have earned only a fair grade thus far in closing gaps in student performance for some while raising achievement for all.  There is still much work left to do, made more difficult by the Race’s many unintended consequences such as widespread confusion, anxiety, governor intrusion, legislative intervention, Regents discord, opt-outs, waivers and the like.


Race to The Top (RtTT), a comprehensive package of initiatives (Common Core Learning Standards, APPR, Data-Driven Instruction) launched simultaneously with tight timelines, was designed to fundamentally alter what and how teachers teach and what and how learners learn.  It’s not at all surprising that most schools struggled to absorb these changes which dramatically disrupted their status quo.  And yet, interestingly, some schools were successful in doing so. That’s the conclusion of a team of researchers from the University at Albany who located and studied such schools and their performance during the turbulent RtTT years. 


At the request of the State Education Department, the researchers identified elementary and middle schools all around the state where students performed much better than expected on state assessments, particularly the 2013 math and ELA tests, the first aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards.  They then compared these “odds-beating” schools with typically performing buildings with similar student demographics and per pupil expenditures in an effort to discern what might account for their comparative success in the current challenging environment.  According to the research team, the practices of the odds-beating schools varied significantly from those of their typically performing counterparts on a number of counts, including in the area of leadership. 


It turns out that leaders in these settings behaved differently from others in at least five distinct ways:


First, they were pro-active.  They anticipated the innovations and were already hard at work improving teaching and learning conditions before the mandates came.  Leaders in these schools had already built the necessary structures, processes and capacity which allowed them to absorb the RtTT much more easily.


Secondly, they were adaptable.  Odds-beating leaders didn’t simply adopt the new state requirements but instead fashioned and integrated them into their existing strategies.  With a clear game plan already in place, they used the state mandates to accelerate their local efforts.


Third, these successful leaders were respectful of their teachers.  They included faculty in their planning and set reasonable implementation timelines.  Though they kept state goals in sight, they granted teachers discretion in how change occurred in the classroom.  Most importantly, theirs were trusting environments where teachers felt comfortable taking the risks necessary for innovation.  


Fourth, they were resourceful.  Leaders in these buildings recognized immediately that successful implementation would require resources---time, space, money, training, materials.  They made the necessary budget and schedule changes while also reaching out to other organizational partners to supplement their finite resources. 


Finally, these leaders were flexible.  Throughout the RtTT years, they were energetic in their change efforts but they monitored these carefully and adjusted policies, programs, practices and timelines as needed.  They avoided being too loose on goals (the “what”) or too tight on practice (the “how”).  They went as far as they could see and when they got there they could see farther and adjusted accordingly. 


There are leadership lessons here as there are in the aftermath of any crisis or creative disturbance.  During the Race to the Top years in New York, many administrators waited for the state to tell them what to do as well as how and when to do it.  In the “odds beating” schools, leaders didn’t do that.  They led, and their school communities were better for them having done so.

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