By Carol S. Young, Ph.D., Department Lead, Accountability and School Improvement
It is springtime in Ohio, a glorious season! The dahlia tubers I have hidden all winter are starting to sprout even though I cannot plant them yet. I will wait until Ohio’s spring frosts are over. I am cautious with the tubers. A beautiful new dahlia flower comes from hardy sprouts off last year’s tuber.
Educational research is clear. Whether your title is Principal, Head of School, or School Leader, you are the essential tuber of the school. And, if you want a well-sustained school into the future, you will grow sprouts. Developing shared leadership is not just an exit plan for retirement or job changes. Shared leadership is establishing a professional leadership community. A true leadership team approach is important for development, renewal, and lasting success of a school.
Shared leadership builds buy-in, competency, and skills within your faculty and staff. It also enhances the focus and efficiency of school leaders, allowing leaders to put energy into priorities and to delegate other responsibilities. Well-planned, shared leadership can enhance communication and productivity. As with a carefully planted flower, shared leadership brings many beautiful blossoms, or outcomes, all tied to the same stalk.
The Wallace Foundation funded a detailed study of school leadership and improved student learning. Their key findings included the following:
· Collective leadership has a stronger influence on student achievement than individual leadership.
· Almost all people associated with high-performing schools have greater influence on school decisions than is the case with people in low-performing schools.
· Higher-performing schools award greater influence to teacher teams, parents, and students, in particular.
· Principals and district leaders have the most influence on decisions in all schools; however, they do not lose influence as others gain influence. (Louis et al., 2010, p. 19)
Evolving over time, shared leadership can take many forms. According to the Foundation’s research, shared or participatory leadership “style” can be anything from consultative to highly collaborative. Leaders need to develop their own style, beginning with a firm belief in collective efficacy, the capacity of school teams to significantly improve student outcomes. Shared leadership forces leaders to emphasize mutual trust and to move away from an “I can do it all” mindset. Leaders learn how to enable teams to make decisions and influence the direction of the school.
What should be the focus of shared leadership teams? Shared leadership will not move the achievement needle if its focus is planning field trips or assigning bus duty. Leadership teams are most effective when their work has laser-like focus on positive school climate and high-quality instruction. School leaders play a supportive role in fostering team trust, communicating personal regard and confidence, and leveraging resources (Louis et al. 2010).
Shared leadership looks like teacher-based teams utilizing the Ohio Improvement Process or collaborating in Plan-Do-Study Act cycles (Bryk et al., 2015). Shared leadership also involves students, parents and community members collaborating with school staff on a common interest or goal. This can be challenging— picture entrusting plans for a costly new gymnasium to a team of parents and teachers when the school colors are purple and white! (The “Purple Soda Pop” gym in my former district did indeed create excitement and participation.)
Shared leadership needs to be well-planned with designated roles and responsibilities, time for discussions, and opportunity for teamwork. Only a committed school leader can make shared leadership happen!
BCHF is proud of the shared leadership models we see in several of our sponsored schools. In some, shared leadership teams assume responsibility and accountability for major initiatives like official STEM designation and PBIS recognition. In one, the superintendent is well-known for his close mentoring of building teams. He is now working with the community on a new preschool project while the principal and building level team oversee the academic program. One school leader recently discussed her approach to student leaderships teams with us and, yes, students were making important decisions for the school. Our sponsored schools reflect positive examples of teams growing new opportunities and improving student achievement. In many of these cases, leaders are not simply growing sprouts. They are becoming redwood trees.
Bryk, A., Gomez, L., Grunow, A., & LeMahieu, P. (2015). Learning to improve: How America’s schools can get better at getting better. Boston: Harvard University Press.
Louis, K.S., Leithwood, K., Wahlstrom, K., & Anderson, S.E. (2010). Investigating the links to improved student learning: Final report of research findings. The Wallace Foundation.