Political scientists will tell you that alternating levels of power reinforce each other while proximate levels try to increase their own power by diminishing the power of the other. Now that the federal government is taking control of the educational budget which it had ceded to the states back in 1992, it’s being called a “decentralization”. While that may be a misnomer, it’s true that the more power comes back to the federal government from the states, the more local school initiatives should flourish.
The SEP recently announced that the World Bank will provide Mexico with a 350 million dollar loan to train school leaders. In a preliminary report, School Initiatives in Mexico, Rafael de Hoyos of the World Bank identified the “low level of leadership on the part of school directors” as an important brake on the pursuit of school quality. He indicated that “the problem in Mexico lies, as in many other countries, in the fact that school directors have not been taught how to set and work toward goals for school performance, planning and motivation of the teaching personnel they supervise.”
What do we know about effective school leadership? Recently, teams of researchers from the University of Toronto and the University of Minnesota (Wallace Foundation, 2010) studied leadership activity in in more than 180 schools and concluded, “We have not found a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership.”
According to this study, “Leadership effects on student achievement occur largely because effective leadership strengthens professional community – a special environment within which teachers work together to improve their practice and improve student learning. Professional community, in turn, is a strong predictor of instructional practices that are strongly associated with student achievement.”
Schools with professional communities demonstrate what the study calls “distributed leadership”. Teachers participate in school improvement efforts with their own initiatives, demonstrating leadership which, paradoxically, does not diminish the leadership of the principal. The researchers found that staff at high-performing schools have more influence over decision making in their schools than those who work in schools with mediocre performance.
Across the more than 180 schools participating in the study, expert and novice teachers alike agreed on the practices by their school leaders that help them the most: “1) Focusing the school on goals and expectations for student achievement; 2) keeping track of teachers’ professional development needs; and 3) creating structures and opportunities for teachers to collaborate.”
In professional communities, school directors and teachers collect and analyze “hard” data, like standardized test scores, disaggregated by learning standards, groups of students (boys and girls, students who speak a different mother tongue, students living in poverty, students with disabilities). Other “hard” data to be collected: reported incidents of bullying, school attendance, attendance at parent meetings, staff attendance, parent educational level, etc. Professional communities also look at “soft” data such as results of annual parent, staff and student surveys. Analysis of such data helps school personnel to illuminate and agree on a plan with measurable goals for improvement of student learning and the strategies for reaching them. Goals must of course be measurable, otherwise, how would we know if we reached them?
School directors in Mexico, as in other countries, can learn to be effective educational leaders. It requires the inclination and persistence to create professional communities with distributed leadership, and the confidence to know that if they encourage leadership among school staff members, it won’t necessarily limit their own leadership capacity. One question remains: can school leaders resist the natural impulse to increase their own power by diminishing that of others around them?