What I have outlined below are five specific actions that leaders must take if they want to make improvement in their schools and districts. Before identifying these five actions however I need to address one system-wide concern that that must be addressed first.

What I have outlined below are five specific actions that leaders must take if they want to make improvement in their schools and districts. Before identifying these five actions however I need to address one system-wide concern that that must be addressed first.

Of all of the potential drawbacks to effective leadership the single greatest challenge is a lack of follow through by educators. At this point in time the biggest problem in schools and districts is certainly not the lack of knowledge, but instead a lack of action throughout the system. Pfeffer and Sutton (2000), referred to this dilemma as the “knowing-doing gap.” They point out that in most organizations it is not a lack of knowledge that is the problem; it is that we don’t act on what we already know. This results in our starting many more good initiatives than we finish. The issue of the lack of follow through is especially true in schools and districts. It is no wonder that educators are skeptical and cynical about taking on the next “best thing.” How many good reform initiatives have been started with great fanfare only to end with a whimper?

William (2007) points out that the most important difference between the most effective and least effective classrooms is the teacher, but goes on to say that the most important variable appears to be what these teachers do in classrooms rather than what they know. More effective teachers act on what they know works. Less effective teachers know the same things, but don’t act to change their practices.

Unfortunately the “knowing-doing gap” is not limited to teachers, but also applies to administrators and other staff members. For administrators however the “knowing-doing gap” relates to the lack of monitoring for both the level of implementation, and the effectiveness of the intervention strategies. The difference between more effective and less effective principals is not their commitment to the reforms strategies, but rather their level of follow-through on the implementation. Effective principals monitor to ensure follow-through in the classroom on the practices (Duke, 2007, Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005). The same holds true for superintendents and central office staff. More effective superintendents and central office staff were actively involved in the monitoring of the implementation of their reform strategies (Murphy and Hallinger. 1988, Waters, & Marzano, 2006).

So the first step of any change initiative must begin with the realization that without consistent, rigorous follow through, there will be limited, if any, progress. As Bossidy and Charan (2002) have stated “leadership without the discipline of execution is incomplete and ineffective” (p. 34).

Five Actions for Success

Having made the commitment to follow through on our implementation and learning, leaders then need to consistently take five actions for success. These include:

  • Use data well
  • Develop a limited number of focused goals
  • Focus on instructional practices
  • Implement deeply, and
  • Monitor and provide feedback and support

If none of these action steps look particularly novel, they shouldn’t. Each of these actions has been identified in the research for some time now. While not new or novel, however, we now have more detailed information from the research about each of these areas and how to think about them.

Action 1 — Use data well

A recent edition of Educational Leadership (2008) had as its title “Data: now what?” The title alone captures the conundrum of many educators. We now have lots of data that we aren’t quite sure what to do with. For our purposes here I’m recommending that we use grade-level, building-level, and district-level data to establish performance targets for each grade level, building, and for then overall for the district. Once performance targets have been set and professional development provided, it also will be necessary to collect and analyze ongoing data to monitor both the depth of implementation of the strategies (how often are the strategies being used, by how many teachers), and the impact on student learning (ongoing formative assessment information.) Both of these become critical data points in the process. The ongoing use of data by effective schools is now well documented (Reeves, 2007).

Action 2 — Focused goal setting

Let me say up front that the outcome here is not another plan, nor is this a compliance activity. We already have too many plans, to many strategies, and too many initiatives to ever carry out any of them effectively. The purpose here is to gain consensus and focus everyone’s attention on a limited number of focused goals and strategies. Focus, focus, focus. This may mean letting go, or postponing the implementation of other priorities. If we truly expect people to implement well, it is critical that we focus our attention and learning on a limited number of goals and strategies. Fullan (2008) warns us against “initiativitis” and “repetitive change syndrome.”, or “the tendency to launch an endless stream of disconnected initiatives that no one could possibly manage” (p.1). Reeves (2006) describes the same problem as “initiative fatigue.” He states that “the Law of Initiative Fatigue will impose its inexorable will, and enthusiasm gives way to organizational overload, which is precipitously followed by burnout” (p.108). The ultimate test here is if we all focus on just a few things, deeply implement them, and analyze and learn together where it is and is not working, we can make demonstrable progress in reasonable time. However our history has been to move on before we have ever done any of these things well. The first test of your planning process is “Can everyone in the district identify what the focused improvement goals and strategies are?”

Action 3 — Focus on developing shared instructional practices

A cornerstone of continuous improvement in schools is based in developing a shared language, understanding, and use of effective instruction practices. The first step of this process is gaining clarity on what we mean by “high quality instruction” or “high leverage strategies.” This can be accomplished in several ways. The first is to use your data to identify your most effective teachers (who have been successful for at least three years) and to document the teaching practices being used by these teachers. These observations should be gathered and synthesized by building leadership teams and then compiled at the district level. The second way is to go to the research and select practices from the research (see Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J.E. (2001)). Fullan (2008) recommends that these practices have the status of being “non negotiable.” In Norfolk VA, a district that has made consistent improvement for close to ten years, they are clear about both their goals and strategies. For example, in the area of instruction they focused on what they call their “big three power strategies:” compare and contrast, justify answers, and content vocabulary. (O’Konek 2008).

Goal 4 — Implement deeply

Doug Reeves (2006) talks about the “myth of linearity” to describe what we think happens with implementation. That is the belief that the more we implement the better the outcomes. He goes on to document the fact that we don’t get the outcomes promised in the research until you have very high levels of the implementation across the school (at the 90% levels). This research has tremendous implications for how we think about implementation. For most of us, our experience has been that we implement sporadically at best. Honestly, it would be difficult for most of us to identify any initiatives that were fully implemented across the entire staff of the school, with consistency and fidelity to the practices. However this must be our goal. If we have identified the right goals and strategies, the real challenge lies in implementing the strategies deeply. This is also why we need to collect on-going data on the depth of implementation (i.e. How many teachers are using the strategies, with fidelity, in an ongoing way?) Although we have committed to full implementation before, we have often lacked the political will that it takes to implement fully.

Action 5 — Monitor, provide feedback, and support

More often than not this is the single most important variable that is overlooked in our improved efforts. This action step requires two things, measuring the degree of implementation, and the impact of the practices on student performance. The first step is to define what the practices look like when they are being implemented well. This description can be in the form of a rubric, checklist, or protocol. The key here is to gain consensus on “what it looks like when it is being implemented well.” Once you have defined the indicators that you’re looking for, you will need to outline a monitoring and reporting schedule. That is, how often will you look for the practices in the classroom and how to report this data back to staff. This set of practices becomes a feedback loop to staff on the overall implementation of the strategies. The second step involves assessing student progress as a result of the implementation of the strategies. These should be collaboratively developed, common formative assessment measures. Questions such as “what are the learning goals to be assessed, how to assess these, how to score them” all are critical work for grade-level, department level, or course teams. The other important component here is learning. Where are the practices being implemented well? Why are they being successful here? Where are the practices not being implemented well, and why? This is what Reeves (2006) refers to as the “degree of inquiry” exhibited by schools and districts. The higher the level of inquiry exhibited by a school or district, the higher performance of school or districts.

What I have briefly described here is a systemic approach for school and district improvement. When integrated these action steps create a new way of thinking about accountability. This form of accountability begins with our holding each other personally accountable for following through on our commitments. Only when we have developed internal accountability to each other can we expect other forms of accountability to matter. The goal would be to have schools and districts that deeply explore their successes and challenges, where data is used to help everyone learn together which practices are most successful, and where everyone shares in the success of every child.


Bossidy, L., & Charan, R., (2002). Execution: the discipline of getting things done. Crown Business, NY NY.

Duke, D. (2007), Turning Schools Around: What Are We Learning About the Process, and Those Who Do It. Ed Week V. 26,#24, p. 35-37

Educational Leadership. (2008). Data: Now what? Association for supervision and curriculum development. Alexandria VA. Vol. 66, No. 4

Fullan, M., (2008). What’s worth fighting for in the principalship? New York: Teacher College Press.

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J.E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Marzano, R.J., Waters, J.T., & McNulty, B.A. (2005). What works in school leadership: research to results. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Murphy and Hallinger (1988) in Elmore, R. (2004) School Reform From the Inside Out: Policy, Practice, and Performance. Cambridge MA: Harvard Education Press

O’Konek, L., (2008). Norfolk public school district, Norfolk VA.

Pfeffer J., & Sutton, R., (2000). The knowing-doing gap: how smart companies turn knowledge into action. Boston MA: Harvard Business School Press

Reeves, D. (2007). Ahead of the curve: the power of assessment to transform teaching and learning. Bloomington IN: Solution Tree

Reeves, D. B., (2006). The Learning leader: how to focus: improvement for better results. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Waters, T. J., & Marzano, R. J. (2006) School District Leadership That Works: A Working Paper. McREL.org

Wiliam, D. (2007). Content then Process: Teacher Learning Communities in the Service of Formative Assessment, In D. Reeves (Ed.), Ahead of the Curve: The power of assessment to transform teaching and learning. But Bloomington IN: Solution Tree

Brian McNulty, Ph. D. is the Vice President for Leadership Development for the Leadership and Learning Center. Dr. McNulty has 30 years of experience as a nationally recognized educator in leadership development. Prior to his current position, he served as the Vice President for Field Services at the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL). Before coming to McREL, he was an Assistant Superintendent for Adams County School District 14, and the Assistant Commissioner of Education, for the Colorado Department of Education. An author of more than 40 publications, Brian’s most recent book, "School Leadership that Works: from Research to Results," an ASCD publication is co-authored with Robert Marzano and Tim Waters.