High-Stakes School Transformation: 6 Keys to Producing Real Results

High-Stakes School Transformation

It happens all the time: A historically successful organization begins to falter, whether financially—like Ford Motor Company in 2006—or culturally, like Uber experienced just last year. These firms often try to rebound by creating new products or changing their marketing strategies, but until the quality of firm leadership improves, they rarely return to success.


Because leadership matters. CEOs don’t design products, write code, or create ad campaigns, but they are tasked with establishing the vision and culture of the organization, making long-term plans, and ensuring the right people are in the right roles. When the stakes are high, and organizations need to make big changes quickly, their best move is to start investing in quality leadership.

Similarly, when schools are underperforming and given a limited amount of time to turn around, school districts and boards should start by investing in principal leadership. But what does that look like in a school setting? Research and experience tell us that developing the following six capacities[1] allows principals to produce real results.


Establish and maintain a student-centered focus

Schools are complex organizations comprised of many different stakeholders, all with different interests. The first thing a school leader must do is create and clearly communicate a vision that is focused on student learning. It is the responsibility of the principal to ensure the school’s vision is driving school improvement goals, and to generate buy-in for those goals among the staff. Without collective ownership of schoolwide goals, little can be accomplished.


Ensure clear communication

Clear communication is important for leaders in any organization, but it is particularly important in schools, where finding time for staff meetings can be extremely difficult. Principals must clearly articulate expectations so that teachers understand the importance of—and the rationale behind—key schoolwide decisions. And because teachers are frequently overwhelmed by the sheer amount of demands placed on them, principals need to carefully determine how much information to share and when. Effective school leaders know how to be transparent in ways that allow faculty members to remain focused and confident that they can achieve the school’s goals.


Resource strategically

Successful leaders know how to leverage the strengths and weaknesses of those they lead. Principals have the responsibility to ensure that the right people are in the right roles, that all teachers have the necessary support to grow and improve, and that capacity for leadership is continually identified and nurtured.


Shepherd quality teaching

It’s often said that the primary job of the principal is to be an instructional leader, but what that looks like in practice is rarely well-defined. School leaders are ultimately responsible for student learning and achievement, which means that their number one priority should be providing instructional support to teachers. That includes cultivating a shared understanding of what effective instruction looks and sounds like, narrowing teachers’ focus to evidence-based instructional strategies, and providing all teachers with frequent, actionable feedback.


Lead systematic and ongoing professional learning for teachers

Professional learning often gets a bad rap. Research shows it is often implemented poorly, and as a result, teachers tend to express frustration over its quality. But we also know that effective professional learning is critical to helping teachers improve their instructional practice. The key is to align professional learning with schoolwide, team, and personal goals that are measurable and focused on student achievement. When professional learning is job-embedded, systematic, and narrowly focused, teachers can support each other in applying new strategies to their everyday practice.


Ensure a safe and orderly environment

When the stakes are high, leadership matters. School improvement is messy work, but if school leaders are able to develop these six capacities, student learning and outcomes will improve.



For more information on executing high-stakes school transformation, see our School Turnaround white paper series.

[1] Robinson, V. (2011).  Student-Centered Leadership. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.



Mavis Snelson

Mavis Snelson is a Senior Improvement Coach at Education Direction, where she works with teachers and school leaders in schools across the country. Before joining Ed Direction, Mavis was a middle school teacher, first in South Texas and then in Hong Kong S.A.R., China. Specializing in curriculum development, she designed and taught courses ranging from pre‐AP math to Critical English Skills. Mavis is certified to teach all subjects for grades 4‐8, as well as Mathematics for grades 8‐12. She has experience with students who are learning English, as well as those identified as Gifted & Talented. Make no mistake – even though she’s taught a variety of subjects, she’s definitely a math nerd at heart. Mavis was also a 2011 Teach for America Corps Member and served in the Pennsylvania Mountain Service Corps, an Americorps program serving rural Western Pennsylvania. She earned her master’s in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where her focus was Education Policy and Management. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Mavis grew up in Southwestern Pennsylvania, in a town of less than 200 people. She likes to ski (in the winter) and hike (in the summer), and travels whenever she can!

Jessica Vidal

Jessica Vidal is a Senior Improvement Coach with Education Direction. She brings more than 17 years of experience in public school teaching, coaching and administration to the Ed Direction team.  Jessica works with school leaders and educators to implement data-driven decision making and best practices.  She works as a partner with school leaders as they lead the charge in school transformation.

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