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Lessons From 10 Schools That Dramatically Improved

Editor's Note: Dave Faulkner is the co-author, together with Aaron Tait, of the new book "Dream Team: A Playbook to Help Innovative Leaders Change Schools." Here, he shares what he learned by visiting schools with strong leadership teams around the world.

By Guest Blogger Dave Faulkner

I was a principal when I was 24 years old. Granted, I only had 23 students in my school, but still, I was a principal—and I loved it. 

I loved working with my small teaching team to get the best out of them each day. I loved innovating ways that we could provide better learning for our students. I loved that each day I woke up with the responsibility of running a school.

school_reform.pngAt 27, I was tasked with improving the worst-performing school in Australia, an incredible challenge that the leadership team was able to achieve to great effect over three years. This experience sparked an obsession with figuring out how great education teams lead awesome changes in schools.  

This work inspired me and Aaron Tait, who has led education improvements for hundreds of thousands of children across the world through his nonprofit YGAP, to investigate our hunches about what happens when a leadership team changes a school. So, we packed our bags and traveled across the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to visit 10 incredible schools. We created a mini-documentary about each school mentioned below: 

  • Lesher Middle School (Colorado.): Home to the U.S. Principal of the Year Tom Dodd. 
  • Jeremiah E. Burke (Boston): The first school in the history of Massachusetts to move out of "turnaround status." 
  • Chicago Tech (Chicago): A school in one of the most challenging parts of Chicago that has driven incredible results through project-based learning. 
  • Woorana Park Primary (Melbourne, Australia): A primary school that is known across the world as being "happier than Disneyland." 
  • Cornish College (Melbourne, Australia): A school change that was driven not by the staff, the system, or the students, but by parents. 
  • Challis Primary (Perth, Australia): A primary school where children meet their primary teachers when they are only 6 weeks old. 
  • Bayview Secondary College (Tasmania, Australia): A school that changed almost everything, including its learning approach, leadership structure, uniform, name, brand, and buildings, with awesome results. 
  • Manurewa Intermediate (Auckland, New Zealand): Once the most vandalized and troubled school in New Zealand, Manurewa was just named the best by the prime minister. 
  • John A. Leslie Public School (Ontario, Canada): A school that made the bold decision to powerfully change its learning approach, in response to a changing community around them. 
  • John Polanyi Collegiate Institute (Toronto): A school that went from being one of the least compelling schools in the city to one of the most. 

We called these the "Dream Team" schools because the leadership teams we profiled were incredible, just like the titular basketball team, but they also had the courage to dream of new futures and then make them a reality. 

Here are the 10 things we learned are needed to change a school:

1. Passion

All of the teams had an incredible passion to change their schools, something that they needed to draw on many times over the course of the transformation effort as most of the change periods were no shorter than five years. Often there were people on the team who had a lived experience of the problem they were trying to solve or were local to the school communit, such as Lindsa McIntyre. She returned as headmaster to Jeremiah E. Burke, a school in the Boston suburbs where she began her teaching career, to turn it around. In the early years of the change, all of the teams were able to agree on some key points they all cared about and then give their all to make them happen. 

2. Humility to Listen

As school leaders, we are used to being listened to. But in all of the Dream Team schools, the leaders were able to show incredible humility, bite their tongues, and listen—truly listen—to their students, staff, and community. What they heard was not always nice, not always in line with their views, but always interesting. And they drew on this to flesh out their strategies. 

3. Focus

When the passions of the team and the insights from their listening were brought together, the Dream Team leaders were able to focus on a few key areas—never more than three—and move with huge effort toward these. 

4. Healthy Blend of Alignment and Autonomy

All of the Dream Teams were somehow able to gain approval from their system leaders and also be given a license to try things and operate with autonomy. When Linnea Garrett was hired at Chicago Tech Academy High School as an instructional leader, she was given one year to dramatically improve the educational outcomes of the charter school. Though Garrett faced a strict timeline from the city of Chicago, she was also given freedom by city leaders and school leaders to pursue the path that best improved her school's academic outcomes. 

 5. Ability to Mobilize Your Community Behind the Change

The leaders we profiled were able to rally their students, staff, and community behind the new school direction, something they were able to achieve in some fascinating ways. When a group of motivated parents in Melbourne, Australia, were confronted with their children's private school closing, they didn't merely accept the news; they teamed up and made a plan to open a new independent school, Cornish College, on the grounds of the same campus, building on the infrastructure of the shuttered school with the help of mostly volunteers.

6. A Distributed Leadership Team 

The Dream Team leaders didn't hold on to the power, they disseminated it across the school, appointing new leaders to drive the learning community forward. Lee Musumeci, the principal at Challis Community Primary School in a poverty-stricken suburb of Perth, Australia, established "18 leaders," a group of 18 of her colleagues who were focused on instruction and transformation. 

7. Culture of Innovation

The Dream Team leaders created cultures in which people were willing to take risks, fail quickly and publicly, and reward innovation and problem-solving. 

8. Real Solutions

All of the leadership teams we spent time with sourced ideas from their staff, students, and community and then mobilized the resources, time, and approvals needed to make those ideas a reality. 

9. Proof That the Change Is Real

The Dream Team schools got very creative with how they proved that the new ways worked. Their ability to tell the story of change in a qualitative and quantitative manner brought great momentum and resources to their learning communities. 

10. Determination and Courage to Embed the New Ways and Know When to Move On

The stories of change that we analyzed took place over an average period of five years, and the incredible school leaders we spent time with rode a roller coaster of inspiration, exhaustion, pain, and joy. These school leaders also made sure that the results lasted by fostering new leaders who could take the reins after they made the decision to move on. Leaders at Bayview Secondary College in Tasmania, Australia, Lesher Middle School in Colorado, and Chicago Tech Academy High School said they each had deputy school leaders who were equipped to replace them immediately if necessary. 

If you are a school leader preparing to transform your school, are right in the middle of the mess of change at the moment, or are ready for your next challenge, we wish you luck, effort, and courage on the journey ahead. 

Follow DaveAaronHeather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

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