Leading School Change Takes Willpower


March 14, 2014


Photo of Dr. Doris McEwen speaking at a podium
Dr. Doris McEwen

“The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Education Northwest’s Nanci Schneider quoted Albert Einstein during a recent professional development event, but asked the audience of more than 200 principals and coaches to consider this alteration: “The schools we have created are a product of our thinking; they cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

The February 27 event brought together members of The Network (Oregon’s Continuous Improvement Network), an Oregon Department of Education initiative that deploys coaches to support leaders of Title I schools in need of improvement. Education Northwest’s role in The Network is to recruit, train, match, and supervise Network coaches to ensure they meet the schools’ needs. The daylong meeting, which drew representatives from 100 schools, provided time for principals and their coaches to work together on plans for leading change at their schools. Sessions offered strategies on topics such as maximizing the principal-coach relationship, engaging parents in school improvement, and taking a school from struggling to strong.

Dr. Doris McEwen, the Oregon Education Investment Board’s deputy director for curriculum and instruction, kicked off the event with a motivational keynote address. McEwen is working with Oregon’s Chief Education Officer Dr. Rudy Crew to restructure education so that by 2025 all Oregon students graduate from high school and at least 80 percent enter college or other postsecondary studies.

In her keynote, McEwen presented four aspects of “will”—social, cultural, organizational, and political—that school leaders must possess to close the achievement gap.

  1. “Social will is about your belief system. You must lead with a vigor that is behind every single child. You must lead with a belief that every child can learn,” advised McEwen. Speaking from her experience, as the daughter of sharecroppers in Oxford, Mississippi, McEwen said her high school teachers and counselors did not believe in her. But, her father’s determination that his children attend college led to a total of 13 degrees earned among his five daughters.
  2. “Cultural will is about understanding—and not judging—the population of students you are working with,” she explained. During her time as superintendent of Clover Park (WA) School District, McEwen learned that “there’s nothing like seeing and knowing where your children are from.” She urged principals to spend time in their students’ neighborhoods to understand some of the experiences and the cultural background they bring with them to school each day.
  3. “Organizational will is about changing the infrastructure,” said McEwen. “As a principal, you may not be able to control how much money is coming in, but you can control how resources are allocated within the school.”
  4. “Political will,” she stated, “is about what you will go to the wall for”—for example, questioning disparities in how students of color are disciplined compared to their white peers or why ELL students are assigned to special education classes because of their lack of English language proficiency. She challenged the crowd to ask themselves, “Which of my students will not go to college?,” stressing that “it’s our job as educators to make sure each and every child is prepared for college so that they can make the choice.”

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