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School Leaders Must Embrace Change

As states and districts roll out their plans for implementing college- and career-ready standards, now is the time for them to review and revise how they are integrating purposeful leadership development for school leaders.

One change to consider is addressing the role of the school leader in supporting and promoting implementation of the new standards. When a teacher is challenged by what it means to implement Common Core, he or she will turn first to peers and second to their school administrators for guidance. This suggests that the role of school leaders in standards implementation has multiple prongs.

The first prong is to know the expectations and timelines for role-specific responsibilities of those they supervise. Communicating these expectations and timelines frequently will alleviate confusion and maintain healthy levels of urgency.

The second prong is keeping current about college- and career-ready standards. While principals need not be experts in the all aspects of the standards, they must demonstrate sufficient understanding to be instructional leaders within their schools. They will undoubtedly work closely with cadres of other administrators and teacher leaders who are the content, instruction, and assessment experts. School leaders must assess individual, team, and schoolwide professional learning needs, design ways to meet those needs, and undertake efforts to monitor and support staff in implementation.

The largest prong of school leaders' work rests with change management. Most change efforts in education are short-lived, not because they aren't needed, but rather because they are poorly managed. Managing small changes within a school can be taxing; managing the implementation of college- and career-ready standards, along with new assessments and the essential revamping of instruction, is monolithic in scope.

When staff, students, and parents have questions about these changes, the school principal is most likely their primary source for information. Districts and state departments of education will be responsible for providing resources school leaders use to manage change within their schools, while school leaders are most likely to be frontline communicators to staff, students, parents, and the community at large. They carefully craft their own and others' messages about change, college- and career-readiness standards, and strive for clear, consistent, and positive messaging to all constituents.

In addition to communication, change managers will depend on clear processes for some of the most common aspects of change management, including:


  • knowing where to access resources;

  • knowing how to access and use data to monitor processes and progress;

  • coordinating and supervising the work of change facilitators who will contribute to different aspects of the work;

  • knowing how to enroll, engage, and maintain commitment to such a significant change effort;

  • assessing and managing professional learning needs of staff and supporting implementation of that learning;

  • establishing structures and systems within the school to facilitate major change such as creating time for staff collaboration and systems for regular updating an reporting on progress;

  • providing opportunities to solve inevitable problems of practice in expedient ways;

  • challenging assumptions that create barriers to transformation;

  • providing and receiving feedback from staff and students about the changes; and

  • celebrating the small successes while maintaining pressure to achieve the larger ones.

These responsibilities are just a few of the roles of change managers.

As districts and states review their implementation plans, it is important to remember that any change effort requires three core ingredients for success: the content of the change including what will change, the process for how the change will take place, and the context for change. Leaders at all levels of the system must be will versed in each of core area to lead and manage change.

Joellen Killion
Senior Advisor, Learning Forward

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The opinions expressed in Learning Forward's PD Watch are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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