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Turning the Tide

10 Ways to Lead a District to Success

By Michael Fullan | September 2006

Take any 100 books on change, and they all boil down to one word: motivation. The holy grail of change is to know under what conditions hordes of people become motivated to change. The answer is never going to be as straightforward as we would like.

In a perfect world, we would see neither top-down prescription nor site-based management of individual autonomous schools, but rather clusters or networks of schools working together in community and business partnerships to unite the strongest possible motivational forces for reform. Louisiana (including New Orleans) appears to be embarking on this path, and it will be worth following because we do not have any large-scale examples of what this would look like in policy and practice. In Turnaround Leadership,

Excerpted from Turnaround Leadership, By Michael Fullan
Published by Jossey-Bass Leadership in Education, September 2006
I analyze the school side of the equation, suggesting an external commitment to form partnerships with those outside the school. In our experience, the more you build the collective capacity of teachers with good school leadership, the more they see parents and communities as part of the solution instead of the problem. The less the capacity of teachers, the more they attempt to play it safe behind the classroom door or school walls. Confidence and competence breed risk taking of the kind that will bring us new breakthroughs.

In my view, there are 10 key elements for addressing turnaround situations in a way that promises continued success and at the same time makes turnaround part and parcel of the bigger goal of changing the whole system:

1. Define closing the gap as the overarching goal
Raising the bar and closing the gap, as we have seen, are not just slogans. They capture a host of issues that go to the very core of how a society functions. The first thing is to realize that decreasing the gap between high and low performers-boys, girls, ethnic groups, poor, rich, special education-is crucial because it has so many social consequences. The remaining nine strategic focuses are all in the service of gap closing.

2. Attend initially to the three basics
You need to work on numerous parts of the problem at once, but the one set of things you should absolutely specialize in is getting the three basics right by age 12. The three basics are literacy, numeracy, and well-being of students (sometimes called emotional intelligence, character education, safe schools). These are the three legs of the improvement stool. Well-being serves double duty. It directly supports literacy and numeracy; that is, emotional health is strongly associated with cognitive achievement. It is also indirectly but powerfully part of the educational and societal goal of dealing with the emotional and social consequences of failing and being of low social status. In this sense, political leaders must have an explicit societal agenda of well-being, of which education is one powerful component. Literacy is not just about reading the words on the page. It includes comprehension, and the skill and joy of being a literate person in a knowledge society. Being numerate is about reasoning and problem solving as much as being good with numbers and figures.

3. Be driven by tapping into people's dignity and respect
Some students and teachers do not deserve respect, but the reason I emphasize this goal is that it is the key to people's feelings and thus to their motivation. Teachers in turnaround schools feel (and are made to feel) unworthy, and whether this is deserved is not the motivational point.

The goal is to suspend pejorative judgment at the initial stages of working with turnaround schools. Especially in schools where emotions run high, these communities must foster an open exchange in which teachers can explore elements of their own practice that they see as ethically responsive or problematic. The goal is to simultaneously show empathy with teachers in difficult circumstances while calling for and reinforcing higher ethical standards. Schools that promote trust in this way are more likely to motivate people all around, and in turn more likely to do better (that is, more likely to turn around).

4. Ensure that the best people are working on the problem
When things go wrong and there is little constructive help from the outside, the more talented leave the scene. They have more options, and it is depressing to work in a failing school that has little chance of becoming good. We also saw that some of the most talented never show up in the first place because policies and practices work against the flow of teachers most appropriate for schools in difficulty.

The opposite must happen. The more talented are needed precisely because the challenges are greater. Governments and districts can foster incentives and other resources for principals and other teachers to work in challenging circumstances. If the right combination of strategies and support is marshaled, turnaround situations can become successful, and this could be where the best educators get their satisfaction. In England, for example, the government has just asked its National College of School Leadership to develop a proposal and program based on identifying effective school principals who would form a cadre of National School Leaders, to be given incentives and support to work in the most challenging circumstances. This approach must also furnish incentives for attracting the best teachers in numbers to work with school leaders. The idea is to make it prestigious in the profession to help improve the most difficult situations-getting the best people to work on the problem.

I am not advocating this particular solution, but the concept of getting the more talented principals and teachers on the scene rather than the less talented (the situation in many turnaround schools) is critical. In other words, reverse the current incentive system.

5. Recognize that all successful strategies are socially based and action oriented
What is the usual turnaround school situation? Anxiety is high, relationships are poor, control is low, and social status is at the bottom. A core strategy, then, must be to improve relationships, because doing so addresses this set of problems. All successful turnarounds develop collaboration where there was none before. When relationships develop, trust increases, as do other measures of social capital and social cohesion.

What is going to motivate teachers to change? The answer has to be deep engagement with colleagues and with mentors in refining and improving their practice as well as setting up an environment in which this not only can happen but also is encouraged, rewarded, and pressed to happen.

6. Assume that lack of capacity is the initial problem, and then work on it continuously
This emphasis on capacity building at the early stages is consistent with our knowledge about how people change. To secure new beliefs and higher expectations-critical to a turnaround situation-people first need new experiences that lead them to different beliefs. Capacity-building experiences develop skills, clarity (as you become more skilled, you become more specifically clear), and motivation. Since these are generated collectively-that is, shared by the group-they become potent new forces for breakthrough improvement.

Another reason capacity-building strategies work is that they enable people to experience concretely that improvement is possible. People need proof that the higher expectations are realistic.

7. Stay the course through continuity of good direction; leverage leadership
Staying the course means that careful attention is paid to developing leadership of others in the organization in the interests of continuity and deepening of good direction. The main mark of a principal at the end of his or her tenure is not just the impact on the bottom line of student achievement but equally how many good teachers the principal leaves behind who can go even further. You have to be around for a while to accomplish that, and the system must develop succession policies with this goal in mind.

8. Build internal accountability linked to external accountability
External accountability does not work unless it is accompanied by development of internal accountability. This is why assessment for learning is such a powerful, high-yield strategy.

It helps people clarify goals and where they are in relation to achieving them, and it gives them a tool for improvement because it links performance data with changes in instruction needed to increase achievement. Turnaround schools have to be helped in the transition from being confronted with the brutal facts to using data to get at improvement and, eventually, for celebrating progress. If the other capacities in our set of 10 are cultivated, sooner rather than later people become more comfortable with data and also seek data. It is at this point that external accountability becomes more accepted, more transparently available, and more readily used for summative conclusions and judgments.

9. Establish conditions for evolution of positive pressure
Positive pressure is pressure that motivates. It is pressure that works both ways-government to schools and vice versa-and it is pressure that is seen as fair and reasonable. If some schools are performing poorly while facing highly challenging circumstances, governments have the responsibility of (should be held accountable for) investing in greater capacity building. If schools receive more resources, they should feel the pressure to improve.

Collaborative cultures lend support but also contain powerful peer pressures. The evolution of positive pressure means taking all the excuses off the table. As we add resources, new capacities, examples of other (similar) schools that are being more successful, reducing things that distract (unnecessary paperwork, ineffective bureaucratic procedures, bad industrial relations with unions), and so on, eventually being judgmental relative to a situation of persistent bad or mediocre performance is justified. The idea is to evolve a system in which there is left no legitimate reason to be unsuccessful. Put another way, once you strip away all the possible legitimate excuses, it should be seen as fair and reasonable by most people to ask whether it is the quality of leadership and the quality of teaching that is to blame in a given problematic situation. Once you establish conditions where the vast majority of people are motivated to improve things, the problems worth being judgmental about are more obvious.

10. Build public confidence
You know that you are being successful when public confidence soars. Confidence is not granted by requesting it in advance of performance. It is a chicken-and-egg problem: We need support to perform better, and better performance garners further support.

The social contract with society is, on the one hand, for education to do its utmost to reduce the gap of performance across its schools and subgroups as part of creating a more equal society, and on the other hand for society to invest more in education, tentatively and provisionally at first but willingly once progress is evident and continuous.

Some of the public confidence I have in mind is local, a direct result of partnering with the community. Other endorsements are more societal, as when people generally value the public school system for its role in closing the educational gap as a crucial part of improving economic and health conditions for all. 

About the Author

Michael Fullan is the former dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. In April 2004 he was appointed special adviser to the premier and minister of education in Ontario.

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