In Lawrence Public Schools, we saw many of the leadership characteristics described in the research literature. For example, district and school leaders’ roles are clearly defined, and chief among their responsibilities is creating conditions that maximize teaching and learning. School and district leaders share responsibility for identifying, deploying, and optimizing teacher talent for the Academies. District leaders rely on principals to select teachers in their own schools with the greatest potential to improve student performance during the week, and in turn, the central office selects teachers outside of the district and leads efforts to recruit and retain those teachers – largely through recognition and celebration of excellence.

In addition, central office staff are responsible for coordinating the lion’s share of the logistical and human resource concerns so that school faculty and staff can focus on what’s happening in the classroom, and on creating a worthwhile experience for students.

Much of Superintendent Riley’s strategy for pulling Lawrence Public Schools out of chronic underperformance has rested on identifying and augmenting existing assets and strengths within the community to address the myriad areas of need. The Acceleration Academies are one example of that strategy in action. Riley has the leadership capabilities to recognize and build on the best of existing resources, and to know when it’s time to bring in new resources or make tough choices.  

“As a principal I spent 90 percent of my time trying to make my teachers’ lives easier. So I don’t mind doing lunch duty. I don’t mind doing discipline. I don’t mind getting out of the way and letting them do what they do.”
— Superintendent Jeff Riley

We also saw that high expectations and accountability for results are shared throughout the district.  From central office to the classroom – and everywhere in between – no one is exempt from high expectations, and all of the players work together to hold themselves and each other accountable for results. Superintendent Riley and the leadership team embody the spirit and culture of the Acceleration Academies by demonstrating enthusiasm and support for the initiative, and by leading by example. 

There is no ambiguity about the value that district leadership places on the program, and its successful execution is a clear and unwavering priority.

Freedom to Innovate

One of the aspects of the Acceleration Academies that is appealing to educators is that there is freedom to create and innovate to meet the needs of students in a particular school or classroom. As an overarching philosophy, Superintendent Riley recognizes schools’ effectiveness and/or improvement by granting school administrators increased discretion over their programs and operations. In other words, the district leadership gives schools increased autonomy in exchange for delivering results.

At the school level, autonomy and trust manifest as principals trusting their teachers to make decisions about the best course of action in the classroom, and feeling trusted by the district to make decisions based on their unique knowledge about their school communities. District leaders provide guidance and parameters for the Academies, but school administrators have flexibility with regard to student selection, schedule, staffing, and other program components. That way, school leaders are able to make shifts in the program to best meet the needs of their schools and serve as a support to teachers through the week.

Leadership Influences Outcomes

Research shows that school and district leadership influence student achievement (Leithwood, Louis, Anderson & Wahlstrom, 2004; Cohen, McCabe, Michelli & Pickeral, 2009; Waters, Marzano & McNulty, 2003; Waters & Marzano, 2006). In fact, leadership has the second largest impact on student learning – after classroom instruction (Leithwood, Louis, Anderson & Wahlstrom, 2006). That strong leaders produce effective schools makes sense intuitively; however, determining what constitutes a leader who is capable of driving meaningful, sustainable change is less straightforward.    

Effective leaders possess a complex set of skills that enable them to create conditions that promote and facilitate teaching and learning.

The more change that is required to create those conditions, the more adept the leader must be at building consensus through collaboration about goals – and the means by which to achieve them. In addition, the leader must recognize that various stakeholders perceive change differently, and the approach to garnering support and buy-in needs to be sensitive to those differences (Waters, Marzano & McNulty, 2003). Creating communication channels built upon trust is integral to engaging stakeholders in productive exchanges of ideas and opinions (Groysberg & Slind, 2012). 

Successful leaders inspire and motivate, and model the attitudes and behaviors that they would like to see among their constituents. They build trust among the school community by balancing their authority and responsibility for results with sincere interest in building relationships, working collaboratively, and recognizing existing strengths (Tschannen-Moran, 2014). In short, they create a culture that is conducive to improvements to the systems and practices that impact student achievement. The literature on school and district leadership and school culture is largely intertwined, as leaders have a great responsibility for developing and managing the school or district culture – which in turn influences the climate, or health of the teaching and learning environment.      

School and district leaders who positively impact student learning and achievement cultivate environments in which students, teachers, and staff understand their roles and the expectations of them; feel valued and appreciated; and know what they are working toward (Peterson & Deal, 1998).

Leaders as Change Agents

Leaders who wish to be change agents must also be consensus-builders, working collaboratively to assess the primary needs and challenges within the community; develop goals; and create and implement improvement strategies. These leaders must also acknowledge that various stakeholders may have differing perceptions of the problems and potential solutions, and should make a concerted effort to understand these varying perspectives and differentiate their approach to implementing changes accordingly. The most effective leaders know how to pace the change process so that stakeholders remain challenged and engaged, but not overwhelmed.

Effective leaders understand the local context and are sensitive to the role that past and present stakeholders have played in creating the existing school or district conditions. At the same time, they must be willing and able to make difficult decisions as necessary to create the conditions that facilitate improvement efforts.

Leaders must not only expect excellence, but also invest in excellence.

High expectations, coupled with sufficient supports and resources to meet them, create conditions for change and improvement. Autonomy and trust make room for innovation and personalization, allowing school and district leaders to make decisions about the use of time, funding, and other resources based on local needs and improvement goals.