Shared Leadership in Action: An Evolution in School Improvement


February 19, 2015


An important feature of Education Northwest’s Success Now! school improvement approach is the development of shared leadership throughout a school. Shared leadership does not minimize the need for a strong principal leader; rather, it adds to “leadership” the concept of creating the conditions for sharing influence, responsibility, and accountability among staff for achieving the school’s goals.

That’s a tall order. However, in working with Margaret Scott Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, my colleague Melinda Leong and I are getting a chance to observe firsthand the power of shared leadership to transform a school. It’s been exciting to witness how a carefully designed and planned school change process—through Success Now!—gradually draws out the strengths of individuals and contributes to a sense of collective efficacy throughout the building.

As a low-level school in Oregon’s report card system, Margaret Scott has struggled to get good reading and math scores on state tests. Principal Mychael Irwin wanted to “permanently change how we do business” at the school, while also achieving quick gains in student achievement. She also hoped to change the way teachers think about “school improvement.” Rather than think of school improvement as coming from the top down and compliance based, she wanted staff to become more proactive and ask themselves how they could collaborate to make their students more successful. A thoughtful 10-member leadership team—that included instructional coaches and a professional-learning team leader for each grade—worked hard but their process got bogged down in details. “We had a meeting at the end of last year where we admitted we weren’t making progress,” Mychael said. “We weren’t even sure we should continue meeting.”

When the school adopted the Success Now! approach, that started to change. Because it is collaborative and involves the whole school, the approach builds shared leadership naturally and quickly. The leadership team used data to identify that students’ most pressing learning challenge—that problem solving flexibility and perseverance were the root of their students’ struggles in math. They reviewed and discussed research and selected an instructional approach for a schoolwide effort to make measurable improvement in that area. In an all-staff meeting, the leadership team presented their work, sharing their conclusions and asking for input. This presentation signaled to all teachers that real changes to instruction were happening and that leadership would listen and provide support.

Providing support for making instructional change was another example of the evolution toward shared leadership. In this process, leadership teams need to quickly deepen their capacity to guide others, as teachers must gain new knowledge around the identified learning challenge and instructional solution. During our work with Margaret Scott’s leadership team, we often heard comments such as, “That strategy description will be too abstract and intimidating for some of my grade-level team” or “Not everyone will feel confident enough about their own ability to dive into this mathematical practice” or “How can we help our teachers understand what evidence of this skill looks like?” They were thinking from the point of view of their colleagues, working hard to understand the mathematics well enough to be able to explain it to all of their peers.

Early in Margaret Scott’s efforts to improve math instruction, , the two instructional coaches on the leadership team—the acknowledged “experts” on instruction—were front and center but didn’t want to become the “face” of Success Now! at the school. “This can’t be the Aimee and Pamela show,” they said in a meeting. Laughter followed, but then the group had a serious discussion about how the leadership team members could share leadership, and also how to share more leadership for this process with the other teachers in the grade-level teams. To address some of these challenges, the leadership team decided to have each grade-level team share the results of their conversations about student work at the regular staff meeting. By the end of this conversation, the team had taken a critical step in engaging all teachers in school improvement.

Though incremental, the changes at Margaret Scott represent a seismic shift in school culture. According to Mychael, “The Professional Learning Communities are now doing the data analysis that, in previous years, I would have done and then shared that out with the team. We’ve changed the direction [flow] of information. Now information is being generated at the team level, and they are sharing it out with me. The locus of control for leadership is probably the greatest change we’ve seen since we began this process.” Margaret Scott’s evolution underscores the need to encourage shared leadership in order to support a change effort. School leaders might draw attention to every instance in which a staff member shows leadership, providing praise and explicitly addressing how to safeguard shared leadership expressing the desire that the school benefit from every staff member’s strengths. Gathering staff and student perceptions of leadership at the school can also provide a helpful measure of progress.

Twelve weeks after Margaret Scott “launched” its first change effort, students in every grade level showed gains in their ability to solve a rich mathematical task on the post-assessment, decreasing by half the percentage of students scoring at the lowest level and tripling the percentage of students scoring at the highest level. The school is well on its way, taking on new instructional challenges and building momentum for greater sharing of leadership.

Have you tried strengthening shared leadership at your school? What was successful and why?

Learn more about shared leadership, strengthening systems, and many other elements of Success Now!

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