District Leadership

Last month we examined a new report from NewSchools Ventures Fund that called for new models of schools. This month we’ll examine the role of district leaders in creating the environment and tools for change.

Whether you’re standing inside or outside a school district, it’s obvious that schools are all about change. So much so, that many graduate schools of education now teach how to manage change in their educational leadership programs. There are really two perspectives here – one at the principal level for leading change in individual schools, and one at the district administration level where superintendents and their staffs create and manage change district wide.

As demand and expectations for 21st century skill development has resulted in the transition to digital learning and higher learning standards, some districts have had a bumpier ride than others. The two issues that seem to have the greatest impact on the rate and successful implementation of change are visionary leadership and professional development.

In the past, school leadership has been mostly autocratic – managing from the top down. But the changes required in our schools are so massive – infrastructure, climate, process, and shift to student-centered learning – that for change to be successful, it has to become an organic part of school and district culture that is lived out every day.

Just as they do in business, leaders set the tone and the tolerance for innovation by outlining a clear vision of where the district is moving and how to get there. Confidence in the leader’s vision is a critical component of success. Both principals and district leaders must support a culture that is not afraid to try new things. Creating an atmosphere in which leaders respect and respond to the concerns and obstacles expressed by teachers, students, and parents is an integral part of successful change management. While some of the perceived barriers are clearly an excuse to avoid change, many of them are legitimate and must be addressed.

This is where good communication and professional development play a crucial role in effecting change by providing context, tools, and direction for teachers and staff. Transformational leaders understand that they have to provide a vision and a path to new models of education. Models that give our students the skills and tools they need to be successful in college and careers.

Just as we want to teach students to be better critical thinkers and problem solvers, we have to provide the same support for teachers and staff. Some will not want to change or be able to change. The role of the principal and district leaders here is to help those who cannot change move on – either through retirement or job changes.

If districts are serious about becoming a dynamic learning organization, they need well-designed change management strategies that teach educational professionals, at all levels, how to plan, communicate, execute, and measure change.

The opportunity for the education vendor community is to help district leaders effect change by creating products that help develop and sustain changes in curriculum, professional development, infrastructure, and process.