In our fifth grade hallway, there is a poster that states, “Real heroes don’t wear capes.” The purpose of this poster is to encourage students to look beyond stereotypical role models–professional athletes and pop icons–and consider the real difference-makers in their lives–teachers, coaches, and parents. I love the mantra and the idea it promotes, but it has me thinking about my own job as an elementary school principal. I’m viewed as a leader (not a hero, but a leader), but how much impact do I really have? Qualitatively speaking, I know I support, serve, and influence our students and staff daily in ways that improve what they do–learn and teach. However, quantitatively speaking, I don’t have much impact. According to Hattie (2012), the effect size of a principal’s impact on student learning is .39. Not bad, but not all that good. In comparison, a student aging one year and attending an average public school results in an effect size/impact of .40. When I first came across this statistic, I admittedly felt disappointed, maybe even a little defeated. If you’re a principal coming across this finding for the first time, you, too, may be feeling disappointed and defeated. However, the good news is that we don’t have to transform students’ lives on our own. In fact, the more we do AS individuals or the more we do TO individuals, the worse the results are.
The Myth of the Transformative Leader
Transformative Leaders are those that embrace the moral imperative of raising the bar for teacher performance and closing the achievement gap by inspiring (or intimidating) teachers to new levels of energy and commitment. They do this through their own heroic efforts. Think of the Joe Clark story captured in Lean on Me. The transformative model asserts that declaring a vision and motivating teachers to “join the cause” are enough to flip schools to achieve unprecedented results. The reality, as research shows, is transformative leadership rings in at a paltry .11 in terms of effect size. (Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008). Teaching test-taking has an effect size of .22 (Hattie, 2012), which means we’d be better off teaching students how to highlight key words in standardized questions than spending time proclaiming visions and motivating teachers.
The Mediocrity of the Instructional Leader
Okay. So principals should keep the cape in the closet (or the baseball bat if you’re Joe Clark), and, instead, step into the impactful shoes of the instructional leader, right? Most building leadership programs are built around the model of instructional leadership where the principal supervises individual teachers’ implementation of curriculum and instruction initiatives. This results in the principal asking for lesson plans, studying them carefully, administering formal observations, and then debriefing with individual teachers on their performance. The impact of this type of instructional leadership rings in at a stable .42 (Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008). This is a slightly better result than what Hattie found among “average” principals, but when you think of .40 being what we get when kids age one year and just come to school, .42 is far from desirable.
What Truly Impacts Learning?
The problem with the aforementioned models of leadership is that they are individualistic. They assume that if we have better principals (transformative leaders), then we have a better school. They assume that if we have better teachers (courtesy the supervision of the instructional leader), we have a better school. The reality is…..individuals (be it principals or teachers) don’t change schools. Groups change schools, and to utilize the power of the group, you have to CHANGE the GROUP.
When principals focus on changing the group and utilizing its power, they are, in effect, building group capital. Building group capital has an effect size of .84 (Robinson, Lloyd, and Rowe, 2008), making it the undisputed heavyweight champ of leadership influences. Within this construct of building group capital there are two critical factors:
- The principal makes the progress of the school a collective endeavor. One-on-one appraisals take a back seat to Professional Learning Communities. Teachers don’t comply in order to achieve better results in their own classrooms, rather they COMMIT to improving the school as a whole. They do this because they are a part of a team, a bona-fide PLC.
Example–Organize opportunities for teachers to observe other teachers in action. Through peer observations, teachers not only pick up tricks of the trade, they also see how every team member is contributing to student learning, thus generating an all-hands-on-deck approach. Principals, please don’t expect teachers to do this on their planning period! Arrange for a sub to spend the day, relieving teachers for 45-minute increments so that teachers can do this during the regular day.
- The principal leads professional learning among staff. The principal does less supervising and facilitates more LEARNING. Principals build professional learning into each school day and use teacher observation, not to appraise or evaluate, but to supplement and strengthen professional learning.
Example–Create and habitually contribute to a hashtag to promote best practices among colleagues. Check out #313teach and #448teach and see what our district in Buhler Schools and a neighboring district Inman Schools have done with their best practices hashtags. Through tweeting, retweeting, and favoriting you are facilitating continuous learning opportunities that are accessible to your PLC and a global audience!
We are better together. That’s the undeniable reality of leadership. Let’s keep the group capital ideas rolling! If you have an outstanding idea for building group capital among staff, please use the #bettertogether. With something as simple as #bettertogether, we can build our own capital as a global group of lead learners!
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers. New York, NY: Routledge.
Robinson, V., Lloyd, C., & Rowe, K. (2008). The impact of leadership on student outcomes. Education Administration Quarterly, 44, 635–674.
**In addition, I must give a ton of credit to Michael Fullan, specifically the leadership genius he shares in The Principal. This is a book SO GOOD I read it twice this summer!**