THE BLOG

Leadership: A Big Thing

05/07/2014 10:38 am ET | Updated Jun 19, 2015

I sometimes hear school and district leaders ask the question: What's the one thing that we should do to help our schools improve?

These educators are responding to a dizzying number of demands, from keeping kids safe to ensuring that kids graduate from high school ready for college or a career -- and everything in between. I understand the appeal of having clear guidance on the One Big Thing that will make a difference.

However, when I talk with educators who have led improvement, I never hear about One Big Thing.

Take, for example, Indian River School District in Delaware. I was in Indian River last week to host a webinar conversation among some of the leaders of the district, including the superintendent, Dr. Susan Bunting and some former and current school leaders.

The conversation revealed that none of them engage in One Big Thing thinking, but rather think about coherent systems of culture, curriculum and monitoring to ensure they are making progress.

The reason I was in Indian River is that over the last 15 or so years, it has grown considerably, and much of its growth comes from students who live in poverty and students who don't speak English at home. Many school districts would have been laid flat by that kind of growth, but Indian River has been improving -- its elementary schools are now the top in the state, and its secondary schools have shown improvement, with increasing graduation rates and increased achievement. This is a district that has been working at improvement for more than a decade, beginning with the basic notion that all students will be making progress at all times and that it is up to educators to figure out how to make that happen.

So if there is no One Big Thing that has gotten Indian River where it is, is there something it focuses on that other districts may not be doing?

It might be its system of leadership development.

"Teachers can have all the training and know what should happen, but it is the building leader," Superintendent Bunting said, who is the "learning leader" in schools. And so she spends a great deal of time watching for emerging leaders. She and school principals encourage teachers to take roles in identifying best practices and sharing them with their colleagues within their grade levels and schools. She organizes district-wide opportunities for teachers to share and lead conversations about topics from classroom management to reading and science instruction.

She then invites teachers to become part of a formal leadership development program when she thinks they're ready.

In that program, they learn about district expectations, but also they learn about district finances from the district's finance director, food services from the food service director, and so forth. They gain insight into how the district operates, but also why it operates the way it does. Bunting herself teaches the section on leadership, leading discussions on Lincoln on Leadership and other books she considers to be pertinent.

Those teachers who are inspired to take up school leadership obviously have to take the courses and licensure exams required by the state, but that is merely a backdrop to the district leadership program, which prepares them not only for principalship, but also grade-level and department chairs, instructional coaching, district staff positions and all the other leadership positions that exist in a school system.

Not only does this careful system mean that the district is building a bench of leaders so that it doesn't have to scramble to fill open positions, but also that it has built a system of leaders who know each other and know how things work and whom to call.

It is A Big Thing. It can't exactly be considered The One Big Thing because it is accompanied by a whole series of other things that include instruction based on state standards, incorporation of research-based best classroom practices, assessment, evaluation and school climate practices.

But the folks in Indian River believe its leadership development system has helped them move ahead. To watch the playback of my conversation with Indian River folks, click here.

And to understand the research base that demonstrates the underlying theory of why leadership development is important, you might want to look at The Wallace Foundation's Districts Matter.