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Learning to Lead: School Success and Sustainability

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David L. Kirp, in his February 9th New York Times piece on the 'Secret to Fixing Bad Schools' ended with "These places - and there are a host of them, largely unsung - didn't become exemplars by behaving like magpies, taking shiny bits and pieces and gluing them together. Instead, each devised a long-term strategy reaching from preschool to high school. Each keeps learning from experience and tinkering with its model. Nationwide, there's no reason school districts -- big or small; predominantly white, Latino or black -cannot construct a system that, like the schools of Union City, bends the arc of children's lives."

EdWeek has just celebrated its first search for sixteen successful leaders who have made significant changes in their schools that made a difference in the lives of students. There is no doubt that Mr. Kirp finds Union City schools a success, notable and worthy of celebration. EdWeek has shown there are others all over the country doing as well. So why aren't all systems successful and will these successful systems continue their success?

No organization can arrive at success without a talented leader who is able to coalesce energy of teachers around a powerful vision, then motivate, measure and improve along the way. No organization can remain successful without distributing leadership to all levels of the organization, in which the responsibility for keeping the vision as a common understanding is nurtured and maintained. In his book, "Good to Great" Collins reports "To remain great over time requires staying squarely within the three circles, while, on the other hand, being willing to change the specific manifestation of what's inside the three circles at any given moment" (p.204). The three circles are overlapping and intersect around what he describes as a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) (p.203). They are 1) What are you deeply passionate about? 2) What drives your economic engine? and 3) What can you be the best in the world at?

We know our everyday passion. We want the lives of all children to be rich with well-developed potential. We want all children to have a 13 year experience in our schools where they learn how to obtain, analyze, and apply new information, examine new interests and follow them, be part of a social organization where their voices are heard and trusting relationships established, learn to love learning, and of course, play well with others. It needs to begin in Kindergarten and hopefully, never end... if we have done our jobs.

For now, most of our economic engines are fueled by the tax dollars of our communities. Our relationship with our community has always been important, but in this time of economic dearth, we are called upon to extend the passion and value of our work in ways that ignite the community to join us.

Whether we come from Darien, Connecticut or South Central LA, we want the best education for our students. But our BHAG remains the same...to have our students grow, learn and graduate, prepared to continue to learn in this changing world of information, understand the world they live in, having discovered what they may contribute in the world of work and with a hopeful vision for their lives. We want happy and productive citizens for a diverse, dynamic, energized democracy.

Karin Chenoweth, Ed Trust's writer-in-residence, and Christina Theokas, Ed Trust's Director of Research also discovered highly successful schools or rapidly improving schools in places where there were high numbers of children in poverty and/or children of color. Again, these have not become the models from which the rest of us are learning. Yet, they can and should be. Ed Trust, in collaboration with the Wallace Foundation, is offering a webinar series again this year where school leaders and leadership are topics engaged by four school leaders of top performing schools. EdWeek continues to offer reports and face to face and online opportunities from which to learn about those aspects of leadership we need to develop and enhance. Opportunities like these can serve as valuable for catalysts to start conversations within the learning communities established among your principals.

So, whether it is the stability of district leadership, or student population, changing financial stability, or a world event, the speed of change is continually faster. The hope we have for Union City and schools like it, is for continuing success. That success includes being agile and adapting to the changing needs of their school community with or without their current leadership. Yes, we should look to these schools as models - not to copy them but to understand the role and type of leadership that brought them to this success...and ask how they have planned for sustainability.

Chenowith, K., Theokas, C. (2011). Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools.Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Collins, J. (2001). Good To Great. New York: Harper Business.

David L. Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of the forthcoming book "Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools."

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