Where Will Our School Leadership Efforts Lead Us in Milwaukee?

leadership2By Bill Henk – Show me a REALLY great school, and I’ll show you a REALLY great school leader.

No kidding, it’s pretty much that simple.

In my nearly 40 years of experience as a professional educator, this notion has held remarkably true.  In only the rarest of exceptions has an outstanding group of teachers risen above the ceiling set by a mediocre principal.  And none have overcome an awful one.

By contrast, terrific school leaders can elevate the performance of a teaching staff to unprecedented heights.  These dynamos also energize students and families in ways that create vibrant school cultures and learning communities.   There is something genuinely infectious about working with an effective, principled, caring, dedicated, and charismatic school administrator.  As my distinguished educational colleague and friend from Alverno College, Dr. Mary Diez, likes to say, “a rising tide lifts all ships.”

As for this post, there’s a reason why I’m focusing on school leadership right here and now.  It turns out that there are numerous new initiatives percolating in our Milwaukee region for developing more effective school leaders.  Some are aimed at cultivating new school leaders.  Others aspire to help in-service administrators retool in order to confront the emerging educational challenges of the present and the anticipated challenges of the future.  Whether the focus falls on aspiring or veteran school leaders, each of these initiatives represents a potentially key piece in solving the problems in our Milwaukee educational landscape.

Fact is, one of the few things that supporters of public, choice, and charter schools all agree on is that the success of a school depends largely on the effectiveness of its leadership.  It is essentially vital.  As a result, all three sectors need gifted administrators and are in hot pursuit of them.

For that matter, all of us deeply immersed in the Milwaukee educational scene believe that developing a critical mass of exceptional school leaders represents our best chance for success.  If there is any hope of us moving the achievement needle on a large-scale basis, particularly in our urban schools, leadership development qualifies as the linchpin.

Capacity_BuildingDon’t get me wrong.  Developing the capacity of teachers is critical as well.  Research shows that they are the single most important school-based factor in students’ achievement.  The achievement needle definitely isn’t going up in the absence of abundant numbers of master teachers.  At the same time, however, it’s the presence of administrators who are instructional leaders that raises the bar for entire teaching staffs.  And there is one more reason to make leadership development paramount.

Transformational School Leaders are in Short Supply

It takes a genuinely extraordinary professional to lead an urban school in this day and age.  Not only does the task take uncommon skill and drive, it requires perseverance and stamina.  Offsetting the debilitating effects of poverty through schooling is no small feat.  Only a select few of the most talented and relentless among us have been able to do so, and even fewer have been able to maintain the required effort over time.

For instance, just today I read an unfortunate quote from a local principal in the newspaper.  This school leader lamented having to participate in a weekend job fair for prospective teachers.  In fairness,  she later characterized the event as well worth her time, and maybe the quote was taken out of context.  Even so, a school leader who resents extra effort will almost certainly fail an urban  school, and more importantly, its children.  The realit is that the school leaders every urban school wants and needs must expect to work on Saturdays and Sundays and evenings and holidays — pretty much 24/7/365.  That’s what transformation and sustainability demand.

burnout0Although heroic efforts can pay off, they often come at a cost:  burnout.  In those cases, a point is reached where the leader realizes or decides that s/he just can’t keep up the hectic pace any more.   Typically the leader either departs or settles for performing their leadership role in a much less zealous fashion.  Either way the supply of transformational leaders becomes diminished.

Please know that I’m not arguing against urban principals achieving a balance in their lives.  But what I am saying is that it’s very difficult to achieve it, and if there is some magic formula used by the relative few school leaders who do so, it remains a mystery to the rest of us.

At any rate, it’s the scarcity of these prized school stewards that, in my estimation, best explains why schools that are beacons of hope in urban education almost never become infernos.  There simply are not enough remarkable leaders to take great schools to scale.

What’s Happening Here?

That’s why my colleagues in our Metropolitan Milwaukee Area Deans of Education (MMADE) are currently developing plans for a possible leadership academy thanks to the support of the Faye McBeath Foundation.  I believe that Schools That Can Milwaukee, an organization that specializes in coaching school leaders, is also working on a new leadership thrust being supported by the foundation.  In addition, the Alain Lock Initiative from Chicago is exploring the implementation of its Ryan Fellowship leadership enhancement model here, and PAVE (Partners Advancing Values in Education) is working on training in school governance.  I can also tell you that the Woodrow Wilson Foundation expects to work with suburban schools using more of a business leadership model, and that the Office of Schools in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has also undertaken leadership development activities.

Working_Together_Teamwork_Puzzle_ConceptTo be honest, I don’t know where all of these endeavors will lead us.  Each is in a different stage of development and has special elements that set it apart.  Fortunately, communication has started to develop among most of these entities.  In effect, we’re beginning to look at how we might work together to avoid redundancies and expand our reach and impact.

One thing is for sure — when it comes to developing school leaders, plenty of work exists to go around.

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