By John Adsit
Editor, Curriculum & Instruction
This article springs from an exchange of opinions on what is needed to effect change, and I was challenged to start a new discussion on the most important factors in making change work. In that original exchange, I argued that the most important factor is leadership, and I will start this new discussion with that premise. I believe skilled leadership is the most important factor in making change happen.
A couple of decades ago I spent some very painful years when the opposite was believed to be true. There was a belief, spurred in large part by the Annenberg Institute’s Re:Learning project, that the change leaders in education had to come from within the faculty. Change had to at least appear to be a grassroots effort, and school administrators sought to develop teacher leaders for reform efforts. The theory was that teacher leaders would initiate a reform, it would work, and the idea would slowly progress through the ranks until it had taken over. The administrators would intentionally fade into the background and let this magic work.
I was one of those teacher leaders. I was called on at first to lead change in my school, and I worked closely with the principal, a good friend, on this effort for several years. I was then called upon to work with teachers district-wide. Soon after that, Annenberg released a new study that said exactly what all of us who were in that role had been saying for years – the theory was a complete and total failure. Reforms implemented like that never slowly take over a school; in fact, just the opposite happens. Resentment grows against the reformers, and eventually you have two pitched camps at war. Those who are not participating in the reform feel threatened and attacked. They dig in their heels and they fight back, often viciously. After a few years, the effort would be abandoned, with the final result being that the change leaders had faded forever into the background, left for another school, or abandoned teaching altogether.
Years later, when I was myself a school administrator, I attended a presentation by educational theorist Bob Marzano, who spoke about the importance of transformational leadership in achieving school reform. Marzano referred to this failed theory of teacher leadership, and he said he could not think of a better way to destroy an excellent teacher. My friend and former principal was seated near me, and he turned and gave me a sheepish “I’m so sorry” grin.
Annenberg later did an analysis of its many failures and its few successes. In every single case of failure, the primary cause was determined to be a lack of appropriate leadership. In every single case of success, the primary cause was determined to lie with the effectiveness of the school leadership.
About that same time, the National Staff Development Council published research that totally contradicted another mistaken view of change processes, one that ties directly into why teacher-led reform by itself cannot work. We in staff development had been told that our approach to teaching innovative methodologies was essentially to tell teachers that they were doing a great job already, and here was a way to be even better. We argued that this approach was self-defeating, for it implied that there was no reason for anyone to listen to us if they didn’t want to. The NSDC agreed with us. Unless teachers develop a cognitive dissonance, a disquieting notion that what they are doing now is not working all that well, they will have little or no incentive to change the comfortable processes with which they are so very familiar. They invariably feel that those who are implementing the change are free to do what they want, and so they should be free to do what they want, too, without anyone pushing them to make unnecessary changes.
In his book Professional Learning Communities at Work, Rick DuFour describes the role of an effective leader in a change situation. The leader is able to work with a professional learning community to create a shared vision of what needs to be done. The leader does not impose a vision upon the group; rather the group is facilitated until a vision emerges. That vision emerges because the process has allowed the community to understand, first of all, why change is necessary and then to work toward a process with which they agree. The vision then becomes everyone’s vision, and everyone participates in its implementation. Of course, there will be dissent, and the effective leader deals with it skillfully so that the “armed camps” model does not develop.
But, as I said in the earlier article, we all know this already. We know what works in schools, for it has worked whenever it is tried (albeit rarely). We know what kind of leadership works as well. So why don’t we have such leaders? I answered that question in an earlier article as well. We don’t have it because we don’t really want it. We are generally comfortable with the way things are, and we don’t like people who want things to be different. That’s why we celebrate and build statues of those all-too-rare individuals who can rise above this and can make things happen.