While traditional heads of school are still key conveyors and facilitators of the work of school improvement, they must also invite a new corps of school and community leaders to the forefront in building a collective vision for that work. Leadership isn’t pulling people along anymore: it’s about orchestrating ideas, people, visions, potential, and organizations into a cohesive program of educational improvement. The most effective and inclusive styles of educational leadership today combine both bottom-up and top-down approaches. School and district leaders must share power and delegate key decision-making authority to representative teams of teachers, parents, business leaders, senior citizens, and others. The multiple interests and expectations that these stakeholder teams bring to the table are crucial to building a common vision for their community’s education system. A sustained, inclusive dialogue identifies priorities, targets strengths, and insures that even the softest voice is heard. And when such dialogue moves to action, communities begin to institutionalize a process of engagement that can be tapped for a wide array of future projects. The key to sustaining such efforts often lies in the leadership capacity of these key stakeholder coalitions. In communities across the country today, several prominent groups are working to build alliances between key stakeholder groups, to advocate for a shared, collaborative process of reform, and to develop the capacity of their own members/ constituents to lead.
Five Groups That Are Building Leadership for Reform
Parents, businesses, and community groups, as well as school system personnel, are leading a variety of efforts around the country to initiate and support school improvement. To illustrate the emerging sources of leadership, we highlight some of the efforts we have found in the course of our work.
1. Administrators. Through the creation of school councils and site-improvement teams, administrators in numerous communities are developing new relationships with teachers, staff, parents, and community members. These relationships are founded on listening, sharing information, building partnerships, and finding common ground. Trust is a major ingredient in the success of these new collaborations, as school doors are being opened and “outsiders” are invited into principals’ offices, classrooms, and assembly halls to take part in meaningful action for school improvement. Indeed, administrators are coming to count on the energy, spirit, and expertise of parents and community members to devise and advocate for local standards, examine and set budgets, and build support for the public schools in their communities. New projects in recent years have enabled some schools to foster a close relationship with parents and community members by collectively examining the future implications of the district’s human, financial, and structural resources.
2. Parents. Conclusive evidence exists that when parents become active and involved in their children’s education, those students achieve at higher levels. To that end, key coalitions of educators, business and civic leaders, and parents in many states are actively seeking to identify motivated parents in order to equip them with the skills and information they need to become leaders in school reform efforts in their own communities. In addition to receiving information about the state’s education reform act and its high-stakes testing system, parents learn how to reach out to other parents and develop skills to increase their voice in decisions about their children’s education. These parent leaders design a sustainable project in their home communities to involve other parents and families in an effort that will impact student achievement. Recently, parents have conducted surveys of how schools communicate with families, created manuals to provide students and families with key information about the transition to junior high school, and led workshops where parents and teachers converse with one another.
3. Communitywide Efforts. Gone are the days when volunteers were only asked to bake cookies or raise funds for their schools. Today, volunteers from the community are serving on school councils and making critical budgetary and programmatic decisions, reviewing curricular issues and promoting standards, and building support for bond referendums and other key projects. Indeed, more and more communities are nurturing key advocates for public education by providing citizens with the training, information, and skills necessary to make a difference in the work of their schools. By reaching out to schools, businesses, and the media in the member districts, the coalition has been working hard to build realistic and appropriate expectations and understanding for the new standards and testing among educators, parents, and business and civic leaders. More citizen volunteers were recruited, trained, and assigned to each of the city’s middle schools to chronicle the behavior, activities, and interaction of students, teachers, and principals through classroom observation. As this process continues, the coalition will orchestrate an ambitious engagement strategy to disseminate its findings and mobilize the entire community around middle school reform.
4. Business Investment. Traditional models of business investment in schools have included adopt-a-school programs, mentoring programs and internships, speakers bureaus, and computer donations. While valuable, these programs often fail to nurture a sustained, multidimensional relationship between businesses and schools. A key component of this unique model of collaboration is the “loaned executives,” business leaders lent by their companies to work with participating schools and districts to implement change, streamline processes, and incorporate technology into their daily operations. With the addition of new reading curriculums, students have shown prominent increases in their reading scores.
5. Policy Makers. As new state and federal legislation is enacted, new regulations implemented, and research on a wide variety of educational practices becomes available, it is important that this collective information get into the hands of educational policy makers, office-holders, and the media. Efforts all across the country are beginning to insure that school board members, legislators, policy analysts, and appointed officials receive a quick, comprehensive review of information on key school-reform developments, including laws and regulations, standards and measures of accountability, and an understanding of who the key local, state, and national stakeholders are.