Preparing Principals: Consider the Adaptive Challenge

School leadership was challenging when it was a technical challenge–a largely understood task of optimizing the old age cohort standards-based model. With an improving opportunity set brought about by new tools and new school models, the job is increasingly adaptive–one that requires a good deal of “design planning” (Horn, Staker, 2014). This profound change suggests a new way to prepare and develop school leaders.

Last month Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Policy Board for Educational Administration (NPBEA) released an updated set of standards for EdLeaders. The release claims, “The standards detail the leadership skills and knowledge effective district and school leaders need in order to influence teaching and student learning.”

The updated standards may be a competent standard for managing for a defined instructional environment but they incompletely address the design opportunity that is our best shot at significant outcome improvement. The updated standards appear to presume that it is good enough to make the old model a little better; they don’t reflect new models or the associate change management required. It does not appear that anyone working on innovative school models were involved in drafting the standards.

New Leaders and the Bush Institute recently released Great Principals at Scale, “A framework of conditions that can help districts enable great school leadership.” Like the CCSSO standards, this frame well describes the technical job of running an aligned instructional system but doesn’t address creating a new one.

Change leadership. Leadership coach Lyle Kirtman suggests a broader focus, “Our educational leaders need to broaden, not narrow, their leadership competencies to be successful in today’s world.” Kirtman’s book, Leadership and Teams, outlines 7 leadership competencies starting with challenging the status quo–challenging common practices and traditions, taking risk, and looking for innovations to get results. While the other competencies are similar to the CCSSO/NPBEA standards, Kirtman’s competencies have stronger emphasis on communications and building external networks and partnerships.

Michael Fullan and Maria Langworthy recently suggested that there are, “Three forces converging to break open prodigious learning possibilities”:

  • New pedagogies springs from the new learning partnerships that emerge between and among students and teachers when digital tools and resources become pervasive.

  • Change leadership merges top-down, bottom-up and sideways energies to generate change that is faster and easier than anything seen in past efforts at reform.

  • New system economics makes the powerful learning tools and resources that accelerate the first two forces more affordable for all.

The authors acknowledge these forces are nascent but they are rapidly expanding and together act as a, “Positive contagion that becomes unstoppable given the right conditions.” These new learning environments promote, “The learning, creating and ‘doing’ dispositions that young people need to thrive now and in their futures.” Fullan and Langworthy suggest, “Iterative cycles of directional vision, letting go, and reining in,” when operating under conditions of dynamic change. They stress the importance of creating a directional vision and building a culture that invites change and the capacity that makes it more organic. (See Fullan’s video library for examples)

Fullan and Langworthy’s conclusion signals a departure from the technocratic leadership:

The new change leadership – represents a huge challenge, but signs indicate that it is as attractive to people as it is daunting. The traditional school is being broken open and new forces for learning are almost spontaneously erupting. And we find more and more leaders – students, teachers and administrators alike – who recognise and embrace the new possibilities. Right now, at the early stages of these dynamic developments there is a great deal of ambiguity and uncertainty as to where things might and should go. This is normal at times of upheaval. The good news is that things are converging to create the distinct possibility that a critical mass of radically new learning practices are emerging. There is a good chance that these developments could turn out to be the new norm one day soon. Leadership at all levels has never been more critical. The best news is that leaders who want to make a difference now have an opportunity to have a huge impact.

If that sounds promising but organic, Andy Calkins, who directs the Next Generation Learning Challenges, describes these new environments as blended, personalized and competency-based. Profiles of NGLC grantees provides a detailed picture of the design opportunity.

Implications. Can every principal coach like Doug Lemov and disrupt like Clayton Christensen? Like specialists in medicine, educational leadership will become more specialized and preparation will become linked to specific school models and situations (i.e., startup or turnaround). But even with more specialization, all EdLeaders need to balance execution and innovation:

  • Execution: Managing repeatable processes that deliver solid instruction in every class every day (as described by CCSSO/NPBEA and Bush/New Leaders standards)

  • Innovation: New tools and approaches seeking step function improvement (as described by Fullan and Longworthy)

Adding innovation to the agenda, as Kirtman suggests, starts with asking good questions. It requires EdLeaders to be design thinkers, conversation leaders, policy advocates.

  • Design thinking. While process management is process-centric, design thinking is student centered. It’s starts with desired outcomes and is open to a variety of solutions. IDEO‘s Sandy Speicher said design thinking, “Means to connect with the lives of students.” Because design thinking relies on borrowing innovations from other fields, a stint in consulting can be very useful. In addition to problem analysis and presentation skills, consulting provides preparation in group problem solving, ideation, design, and planning. IDEO’s Tim Brown suggests that takes insight, observation, and empathy.

  • Conversation leaders. As community builders, EdLeaders must be great listeners, conversation leaders, organizers, and campaign leaders. They need to be well versed in political psychology, campaign strategy, communications, and social media. Leading community service projects and campaigns can be invaluable experiences for aspiring educational leaders. Learning to cultivate a positive social media presence is a must. Marketing to parents is important in portfolio districts. Conversation leaders build intimacy, interactivity, inclusion, and intentionality. EdLeaders share a directional vision and shape a series of temporary agreements that provide clarity around next steps.

  • Policy advocates. Creating next gen learning environments often requires carving out the opportunity to do things differently. Doing it at scale requires new local and state policies that extend opportunity and equity. As conversation leaders, EdLeaders should also create opportunities to describe the context that would be support productive learning environments.

Education leadership is incredibly demanding. It also requires a high degree of personal effectiveness–strong planning skills, sound judgement, effective communication, and empathy. The ability to take feedback and use it to improve is critical. Reading and coursework can be useful, but practice under the tutelage of a mentor or coach is often best.

New Leaders created the Urban Excellence Framework which has “personal leadership” as its foundation (page 63). It includes: Belief-Based, Goal-Driven Leadership, Culturally Competent Leadership, Interpersonal Leadership, Adaptive Leadership, and Resilient Leadership. Principals must, “Strike a balance between being very firm about non-negotiables – and demonstrating genuine engagement with other, humility, and relationship-building.”

As noted last year, it is a tall task to prepare EdLeaders that can flex from Lemov to Christensen, explain like Clinton and campaign like Axelrod. Specialization and model-specific development pathways are part of the answer. As the number of next gen models proliferates, teaching and leadership roles are beginning to vary considerably from model to model. As a result, it will become increasingly important to make a large percentage of teacher and leader preparation models specific. Like students, educators will increasingly benefit from learning that is blended, personalized, and competency-based.

This is the first of three posts on principal preparation and development. If you have thoughts about what principals should know and be able to do and how they should be prepared, please leave a comment, we’d love to hear from you.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Eric Sheninger

A great resource to guide leaders in this area is Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times


Tom Vander Ark

Thanks Eric!

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