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Change from the Ground Up

A recent story in the Financial Times offers an important lesson for leaders, including school principals and teacher leaders who are fighting to turn around an organization's performance. That lesson is that effective change often comes from those in the field, not from high-profile leaders.

According to the article "Lessons from war's factory floor," the turnaround in Iraq occurred when the Army's middle managers, the colonels in the trenches, learned lessons from their past failures and implemented new strategies. When they achieved positive outcomes from the new strategies, their ideas spread to their colleagues in other war zones. The other "middle managers" in Iraq learned the lessons, adapted them to their own context, and experienced more successes in the battlefield.

I'm not equating school turnarounds with war, but I do believe that there is a lesson to learn from this. It is the teacher leaders and principals on the ground who will win the battle to create high-performing and equitable schools for our children. Our school-based leaders have the best perspective on what's working and not working, and must take responsibility for responding to what they see. Teachers and school leaders "on the ground" should also share practices that work, so that they spread like wildfire from classroom to classroom and school to school.

Our high-profile leaders--superintendents and central office administrators--have some skin in this game too. They must create the context for these innovations to happen and spread across the system. We will win our battle for effective schooling when we treat our schools as learning organizations not only for our students, but for our adults as well.

M. René Islas
Director, Center for Results, Learning Forward

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