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A Lesson Learned About School Leadership

The latest MetLife Survey of the American Teacher focused on the challenges of school leadership. The opinion data shows that job satisfaction among principals and other leaders is at a 25-year low.

Most of the dissatisfaction is attributed to outside pressures. Academically speaking, one of those forces is the transition to the new Common Core State Standards by 46 states and Washington, DC. The Standards are designed to be rigorous and relevant to the real world, and ultimately, to prepare the rising generation to be successful in the global economy. While many agree with the mission, allocating resources to address shifts in how to teach and learn in this new way is challenging. The survey reports that principals and other educators' jobs have become more complex in this already complex world, adding greater burden to an already stressed-out profession.

The leaders at Asia Society's International Studies Schools understand this shift and have navigated it, I'm proud to say, quite well. Of course some challenges remain, and I'm not saying it was easy. But with focus, these leaders work hard, every day, to overcome challenges. On average, our school graduation rates are well over 90%, which is much higher than the 50% average graduation rates of schools with similar profiles.

How do they do it? The main focus of the principal must be on instructional leadership. It's never easy to focus on just one thing, but nothing else matters more than student achievement and being ready for college and career in a global workforce.

The MetLife study shows that half of all teachers play leadership roles in their schools. They are department chairs, instructional coaches, mentors, or similar. Teachers appreciate principals who develop strong teaching capacity throughout the school, and delegate leadership work while keeping a strong focus on student achievement.

One way to address this challenge is to redefine leadership. Every school is different, but one common trait runs through all schools: it's really a complex system of instruction, operations, student needs, and relationships. All these components must work together to ensure student success. School leader(s) cannot do this alone.

The leadership team should draw a conceptual map of the opportunities and roadblocks to student success. These may be things like academic interventions, funding, stopping violence and bullying, for example. Identify the areas that need greater attention, and create a distributed leadership plan and empower that person or a committee to address the issues. Give parameters, but also give the leaders freedom to think, plan, and pilot their ideas. Agree to check in at major milestones.

Think about

  • How to empower staff to improve teaching and learning foremost (everything else can be left to others)
  • How best to use parent associations and community support
  • The important roles students can take on to establish a school culture they want to be a part of

Empowering others can be a very challenging task for some school leaders, but it can also have powerful outcomes.

With more time and differentiated leadership, principals can how focus more on instructional leadership and creating a global culture for learning.

Follow Tony Jackson and Asia Society on Twitter.

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