Leading School Improvement With "Intension"


December 9, 2013


Lessons Learned cover page

Education leaders should approach school improvement and other complex situations by intentionally balancing tensions, or seemingly opposing approaches, to optimize desired results. That approach has been dubbed “Intension” by the authors of a new Lessons Learned, a series that captures Education Northwest’s experience in the field.

Danette Parsley and her Lessons Learned co-authors note that when making decisions, school leaders must consider the needs and advice of many different players—students, teachers, administrators, support staff, parents, community members, district and state administrators—who have a big stake in the success of the school. They’re faced with difficult choices: Should they push for fast results or incremental improvements over time? Do they focus on closing the achievement gap or raising the rigor of teaching and learning? The authors assert there is no single right solution to these challenges. In fact, there are often multiple paths to achieving success.

The brief argues that the path to success involves rejecting “either/or” thinking in favor of a “both/and” mind-set. School leaders who intentionally manage opposing viewpoints as they make and implement choices in the change process are more likely to be successful. Other considerations for leading with Intension include:

  1. Use a rapid and sustainable approach to school change.
  2. Maintain a schoolwide focus and target individual student needs.
  3. Leverage mandated initiatives and focus on context-driven strategies to address specific school needs.
  4. Develop strong administrative leadership and create conditions for collective leadership.
  5. Continuously refine current practices and search for new evidence-based practices.

With each recommendation comes practical guidance. In the first lesson Parsley and her colleagues suggest that leaders implement a process known as Rapid Inquiry-Driven Change Cycles to achieve tangible “quick wins” that build systemic capacity for change incrementally over a long period of time. The authors offer this example: “Schools identify a year long schoolwide need for improvement, such as increased math performance. They then break this goal down into smaller, more manageable, data-informed improvement efforts, such as increasing proportional reasoning or exhibiting perseverance when solving difficult problems.”