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Traits of Top Principals: Q & A With New Leaders' Benjamin Fenton

New York City-based New Leaders has been training principals and school leaders to work in high-poverty schools for the past 15 years.

In April, the organization published its first major book, Breakthrough Principals: A Step-by-Step Guide to Building Stronger Schools, which explores the practices of high-performing school leaders and provides a framework—complete with case studies and action steps—that other school leaders can use to improve their practice and their schools.

The authors advance some new ideas about how to think about school improvement, including viewing it through a "stages of school development" lens. In the same way that there are stages of human development, schools and leaders are at different points of growth and need to take different actions, depending on where they are and where they want to go, the authors argue. 


See also: Q&A With Principal Nadia Lopez: How to Build a Successful School


The book comes as school leaders continue to juggle a host of responsibilities that weren't on their plates two decades ago and as the landscape shifts from the era of the No Child Left Behind Act to one governed by the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Benjamin Fenton, one of the book's co-authors and the co-founder of New Leaders, said that this is an optimistic time for school leaders. Fenton, who now serves as New Leaders' chief strategy officer, said the organization was already putting some of what emerged from the book's research into its training programs.

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Fenton took time recently for a Q & A with Education Week. The conversation has been edited for length.

What led you to undertake the work in 'Breakthrough Principals?'

We started the research that became this book back in 2006, 2007. At the time, we had been training principals for high-poverty schools for six years, and we were beginning to see the different results they were getting in schools—in terms of student outcomes, teacher-quality, teacher-retention—and we wanted to go in and begin studying the practices of the principals who were seeing the greatest improvements in each of those [areas]. With the support of a number of federal grants, we were able to study principals beyond our community.

We ended up studying over 200 schools—looking at their gains in student achievement, identifying those that had seen success over multiple years—and then we took a long look at their leadership practices and how those schools were developing. 

What is the transformational leadership framework, and how does it drive school improvement?

The transformational leadership framework lays out the practices that we saw in the schools that were demonstrating consistent improvement in student outcomes. In addition to showing what the school practices are, [the framework] also shares the associated leadership actions. In particular, what are the leaders doing? We found through our research that the role of the leader was crucial, particularly in high-poverty schools, in demonstrating consistent improvement.

The framework lays out five big areas of focus for any school leader: learning and teaching; school culture; talent management; planning and operations; and a personal leadership category.  [It] gives them a sense of the key practices in each of those areas that we saw consistently in place in high-performing schools. It also shows what those practices look like across the stages of the school's development. The framework lets a principal and her team identify where there is a need for focus...and then focus their time and energies in that place.

One of the questions you asked going into this work was 'what distinguishes principals of high-performing schools from others?'  What did you find?

One of the surprising findings for us in our research was that as we watched schools develop from these historically low-performing schools and up to the trajectory to improving student outcomes, we saw a very consistent pattern of the kinds of things those schools did first, and then once they'd built those skills what they did next—what we eventually called stage one practices, stage two practices, stage three practices.

At the principal level, we certainly found a couple of crucial characteristics around personal leadership. There are strong beliefs that every child can succeed regardless of background and [an] ability to inspire others around that set of beliefs. They brought a strong sense of communication and transparency. They were very self-reflective. They were strong in terms of resilience. Even as challenges came up, their vision never left of what they wanted to see on behalf of students and their communities... .

The framework includes learning and teaching; school culture; talent management; planning and operations. Why is personal leadership important?

It's a great question, one that we debated as a team. We consistently found that beyond the school practices in the other four categories, there were a set of actions that leaders were taking that were more about how they did the work and how they led the school. We felt that we wouldn't actually be telling the full story of success without including that personal leadership category. 

As we talked to staff and as we talked to parents and students, many of them brought up how important personal leadership was.  A couple of the pieces in our leadership category [are]: leading with a strong set of beliefs about what is possible for every student [and] the school community [and] maintaining a strong sense of positive beliefs and confidence in what's possible in the future. That's something the principals are constantly doing—reinforcing that through their language, their modeling, talking to others.

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The second big category we focused a lot on is communication and trust-building. Beyond any of the particular practices around instruction or culture, the leader is constantly thinking about their consistency in communication—having good two-way communication with everyone involved in the school: staff, students, parents, community—and their ability to create the right facilitation structures and the right transparency of results and progress so that everyone can really stay engaged.

Then a last piece that we focused on is the ability to be an adaptive leader. How do they help recognize the people who are struggling with change? How do they help people understand and move through the major changes needed for improvement? How do they themselves keep looking for feedback and understanding what still needs to change? Those are a couple of the things that we didn't feel like they fell in any of the other specific categories, but were crucial to what we were seeing as successful leadership of improving schools.

How are you hoping that principals and other school leaders will use this book?

Our hope is that principals would first use it to get a great overview of all the major areas of focus for them as school leaders. There are great resources in the field on any of these particular areas. But we wanted the framework to help principals see all the different areas of school practice in one place. Second, we wanted to give them these tools...to be able to diagnose where their school is in terms of the stages of school development in each of these different categories and be able to choose a couple of important focus areas. 

Image: Benjamin Fenton, co-founder and chief strategy officer of New York City-based New Leaders.

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