To travel widely in good schools is to meet many talented, dedicated leaders who are in over their heads.  Not in terms of their skills but of their goals.  They are adept at running their institutions but swamped by their commitments. 

To travel widely in good schools is to meet many talented, dedicated leaders who are in over their heads.  Not in terms of their skills but of their goals.  They are adept at running their institutions but swamped by their commitments.  They’ve embraced complex changes and lofty challenges that are far beyond their schools’ reach.  Overreaching, however, is de rigeur in American education.  Since the early 1980s it has been a defining characteristic of school improvement.  The academic outcomes expected of schools and the non-academic responsibilities assigned to them have mushroomed beyond anything imaginable back then.  This reach for greater height, breadth, and depth has become a source of purpose and pride for many educators.  But it has become a heavy burden.  In schools of all kinds delivering on all the goals and responsibilities has become a source of growing frustration and declining morale, posing a real challenge to leaders.

The savviest leaders I’ve met are committed to innovation and improvement, but in a no-nonsense, practical way. They know that the conventional wisdom in the field vastly exaggerates the potential (and hence the apparent failure) of schools to shape the lives of children. They work hard in the service of their goals, but they know that there is a large gap between ideals and needs, realities and resources. They don’t just work hard, they think hard — about how much and how fast, about what they and their schools can truly achieve, given the students and families they serve and the resources they command.  The answers don’t inspire easy optimism, but they stimulate savvy leaders to focus their efforts and maximize their leverage.

The reform movements of the past 30 years have brought, among other changes, many new approaches in the areas of curriculum and instruction, special education, and technology and have spawned many efforts to improve students’ leadership skills and character development and to prevent a wide range of ills, from drug and alcohol abuse to bullying.  Together, all this makes a commitment that is truly noble — and hopelessly unrealistic.  It ignores a crucial fact of educational life:  on the day seniors graduate from high school they have spent, on average, less than ten percent of their lives — and none of their formative first years — in school. 

What happens in students’ non-school lives is increasingly undermining the habits, norms, and values that nurture academic achievement and social development. 

School’s narrow time window alone would make a sharp rise in performance expectations a difficult challenge.  Unfortunately, this rise in expectations has been accompanied by a sharp drop in student readiness.  It’s not just the quantity of students’ non-school time that looms so large, but its quality.  What happens in students’ non-school lives is increasingly undermining the habits, norms, and values that nurture academic achievement and social development.  The evidence is ubiquitous that more and more children arrive at school less ready to learn.  Not less intelligent, less ready to be students.  The fundamentals that make it possible for schools and teachers to influence children — from attendance, attention, and cooperation to courtesy, industry, and responsibility — are all in broad decline.

Savvy school leaders are practical.  They know all this.  They know that no matter what we might wish or legislators might mandate, their schools cannot fulfill the bloated agenda thrust upon them.  They want their schools to be the absolute best they realistically can.  But they know that this means choosing and concentrating.  They don’t try to fulfill everyone else’s agenda.  They aren’t inflexible, and they make compromises where they must, but they are clear and focused.

Clarity and Focus

Studies of high-performing systems repeatedly show that their leaders provide direction that is clear, and unambivalent — not dictatorial, but definite — that although leadership style may vary among such organizations, within each it tends to be remarkably consistent.  This clarity brings many advantages.  It fosters trust, the sine qua non of leadership.  When leaders are consistent, straightforward, and firm, staff members find them reliable and predictable.  High levels of trust raise confidence and competence and make the workplace more compatible, which in turn makes people more likely to cooperate and better able to tolerate stress.

Clarity also fosters commitment and garners attention.  Goals cannot be shared unless they are understood — none of us can invest in a vision we don’t grasp — and a consistent, lucid formulation of goals and their rationale over time creates clarity throughout an organization about broad purposes and immediate objectives.

One might theoretically be clear about a long list of goals, but the longer the list the harder it is to grasp, let alone fulfill.  Savvy leaders are focused on their goals and, by actively communicating their judgments about what is important, they bring focus to staff behavior.  Because few people can accomplish multiple complex changes at once, choosing where to concentrate is crucial — especially in schools, which are the object of so many different improvement efforts.  Even if choosing results from a collaborative planning process, someone will need to serve as its overseer and navigator.

When I recommend focus to educators most agree readily — they know the futility of the bloated improvement agenda better than anyone — but cannot imagine how they might even begin to press seriously for it.  One practical way is to advocate strongly and proactively for purposes that one values rather than against those one doesn’t.  Savvy leaders tend to control the terms of debate by asserting their key themes over and over.  Being so positively focused on their goals, they emphasize not just the external rationale of the effort, but its intrinsic rewards — how exciting, how promising, even how enjoyable it is.  This creates interest and invites participation.

A second way is to ask not just, “What do we need to start doing?” but also, “What can we stop doing?” Most of what is called “prioritizing” in schools does not result in a list of goals that is actually ranked but one in which each goal is a top “priority.” Savvy leaders are willing to de-emphasize one initiative (even though this will displease its advocates) so that faculty efforts can be concentrated on one that is more pressing.

Reach and Realism

Many writers on organizational innovation and proponents of school reform believe change agents should overreach.  They argue that change agents often have a brief window in which to accomplish their agenda and that, especially when the institution is entrenched in its outlook and practices, seeking incremental improvements will take forever.  They acknowledge that leaders who pursue a full-bore approach to change often fail to achieve their full agenda.  But, they claim, these leaders achieve more than they otherwise would.

I don’t recommend excessive caution, but I have consulted in over 1,600 schools, and I have never seen a school successfully implement multiple major innovations at one time.  I have seen leaders who took such an approach inspire much fear and loathing, and I’ve seen many of them be fired and most of the rest give up in dismay. The savviest school leaders know that they can’t succeed if they push themselves and their teachers to accomplish the impossible; everyone burns out.  But they also know that they can’t succeed if they simply accept the status quo as unchangeable; everyone gives up.  The art is to combine reach and realism.

These leaders don’t abandon their commitments, but they also don’t ignore psychological and organizational realities.  They are committed to high standards, for example, but not in the standard ways — not in the simplistic, absolutist fashion that has become the norm.  They know that historically schools have always reflected society more than they have shaped it and that this will continue to be the case.  Defining their own high standards, they keep reminding their teachers of both the challenge and the opportunity in working with today’s students.  They expect progress to be incremental and they don’t ignore small gains against long odds.  They set an example of perseverance, but not of perfectionism.  And they do for teachers what the best teachers do for students: they make it safe to try, they honor effort, and they celebrate meaningful growth, small and large, whenever it occurs.

Robert Evans is a psychologist and school consultant and Executive Director of The Human Relations Service in Wellesley, MA.  He is the author of many articles and three books, including The Human Side of School Change and Seven Secrets of The Savvy School Leader, from which portions of this article are taken.