Education leaders know how to work hard, but how can they learn to work smarter and to lead better? There are bookshelves full of works on leadership based on the lives of luminaries ranging from Sun Tzu, a Chinese general who wrote The Art of War, and General Patton to Machiavelli and Lincoln.
Although they offer inspiration, such works "don't give a leader the research applications and practices they need to be effective," says Douglas Reeves, who works with district officials on leadership strategies as founder of the Leadership and Learning Center in Colorado.
So how do you move beyond aphorisms and use research-based instruction to help transform your departments, schools and classrooms in the ever-more-complex universe of education?
Reeves says that some simple principles can help K12 leaders more effectively create and communicate goals to staff and improve accountability.
Utilizing his own data and observations, as well as others' academic research in business and education issues, Reeves, who has published 20 books on leadership and accountability, says districts should concentrate on narrowing goals, measuring outcomes and communicating outside traditional, hierarchical structures.
Reeves' first rule about setting goals is this: Don't set too many.
Each year, many district administrators go through a strategic planning process, sometimes ending up with a thick document in a three-ring binder containing more than 100 goals, says Reeves. Focusing on so many goals at once dilutes attention and time, he says.
He cites research by John P. Kotter of Harvard Business School showing that most business strategic plans are never implemented. Education is no different, Reeves says.
"There is no evidence that says these multiple three-ring binders with hundreds of goals are associated with improved performance," he says.
Just how concise can a strategic plan be? The Freeport (Ill.) School District 145 has fit its strategic plan on one page. Th is "plan-on-a-page" document, updated annually in partnership with community members, can easily be kept by employees for quick reference, says Peter Flynn, superintendent of the 4,200-student district in the northwest corner of the state. "It tends to be a document that is used a lot," Flynn says. "If you ask staff members throughout our district, they can tell you about plan-on-a-page."
The document is divided into four strategic areas, called "visions," that are crafted with community input gained at a town hall meeting: human resources, partnerships, equity and student performance. The district administrators craft goals and measures for each of the vision areas, focusing on concrete objectives, such as numeric targets for test scores, student participation rates or satisfaction surveys of students, parents, community members and staff .
Such objectives are placed on the document next to another column of "action plans," or specific steps the district plans to take to meet each goal and objective.
Districts can ensure that such a plan is implemented and doesn't collect dust in a desk drawer by selecting a "vision leader" for each of the four areas, which Freeport's district does. The vision leaders each chair a committee that oversees its aspect of the strategic plan over the course of the year.
For example, one objective on the district's strategic plan is to close the achievement gap in high schools by June 2014. Toward this end, the district aims to have 63 percent of black high school students meet or exceed the state's reading and math standards. Last year, only 33 percent of such students met state standards in reading, and even less did so in math in part due to the fact that students were not required to take three years of math. Students who took only two years of math did not take it in their junior year, which is when the state test is administered.
One action plan tied to such a goal calls for counselors and other stakeholders to aggressively recruit minorities and low-income students into higher-level and more challenging courses.
Vision leaders report their progress to a strategic planning committee, which includes the superintendent, a school board member, teachers, a principal and other staff members. The committee determines whether or not the district is making progress and can recommend to the school board changes in goals or action plans for the following year.
The one-page plan gives the district a more targeted and simplifi ed focus, as well as a vital framework to help officials set priorities, Flynn says. When people approach the district asking for funding for particular projects or programs, the document allows district officials to ask, "How does this promote your plan-ona- page?" explains Flynn. "That helps us align our priorities."
Flynn says that having more focused goals is important, although the onepage format is not a one-size-fits-all approach. A district can have a narrowly focused plan that is more than one page. The Freeport district has attached a onepage appendix to its plan in the past.
The point is to have a set of clear, concise goals and objectives with which to guide the district's decision making.
Inform the Community
A narrow focus won't help district leaders without the development of powerful communication strategies that go beyond traditional, hierarchical organization structures, Reeves says.
John Barry, superintendent of Aurora (Colo.) Public Schools which has 37 percent of its students speaking foreign languages, compares the top-down dissemination of a leader's messages to a leaking bag of sand being passed down from one rung of the administrative ladder to the next. By the time it reaches the bottom, there is nothing left in the bag, says Barry, who has worked with Reeves for nearly two years on issues such as leadership and data decision making.
That's why district leaders have to communicate with different audiences. "It's tough to get the word out from the vantage point of a bureaucratic, hierarchical scale," says Barry, whose district is in an eastern suburb of Denver.
Barry's approach involves setting up multichannel communication venues to disseminate messages about school affairs and district plans and get feedback from employees and community members.
The district holds four town hall meetings each academic year, which focus on topics such as the district's strategic plan, where community members can ask questions or express concerns and get feedback.
In another effort to reach out to community members, Barry formed a Superintendent's Guidance Council, which is comprised of community leaders and organizations, including the Aurora city manager, the head of the local community college, the local chamber of commerce, religious leaders and various ethnic organizations.
As part of a communication strategy within the district, Barry holds three superintendent's forums each semester, each with a different audience: teachers, teachers' union representatives and a student advisory council.
The key to such forums is to ensure wide participation. Although venues allow for the exchange of ideas, some participants may not feel comfortable speaking in front of others, Barry says.
To reach out to those who are more reticent, the district once a month holds Internet chat room sessions in which teachers and students can share their views anonymously on topics. "You get what they really think," he says.
As a result of one student chat room, the district learned that school administrators were not equally enforcing policies on the use of cell phones and iPods on campus, which are not to be seen, heard or used during the school day.
The district took action to ensure that schools were uniformly enforcing the policy. Getting information like that from those "in the trenches," whether students or teachers, is key, Barry says.
Creating an environment in which people feel free to express ideas and not fear ridicule is important, says Barry, who also emphazies that "there's no dumb idea." For example, to solicit ideas on trimming costs, the district last September began a program to financially reward staff members who devise moneysaving ideas that are implemented.
"That's a wise investment," says Barry, whose district is reviewing several ideas submitted as part of the program.
Finding creative ways to get feedback is also vital, Reeves says. After all, no leader has all the answers. "It's not about making an inspirational speech, but about listening as much or more than the leader talks," he says.
And Barry believes that leaders need to keep their ears on the ground and eyes on the future. They need to be just as aware of the everyday classroom developments in schools as they are of the high-level, administrative strategic plans that guide the district's overall direction.
"In any bureaucracy, leaders must be connected to where the core competencies are being worked everyday," Barry says. "In K12, that's the classroom."
Buying Into Benefits
Ultimately, leaders don't effect change by giving inspirating speeches or distributing stern memoranda, Reeves says. Teachers and staff bring about change by seeing and buying into the benefits of new initiatives.
"They change after having the opportunity to observe effective practices and observe the impact of those practices on student achievement," Reeves adds. "Our role as leaders and as professional developers should be to create opportunities for those observations, not just tell people what to do."
Kevin Butler is a contributing writer.