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How Do Principals Really Improve Schools?

Posted by Matt Banna

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Jun 2, 2017 7:03:00 AM

Principles_improve_schools.jpgSchools in the United States are currently in a precarious position. It looks as though the Federal Department of Education is pivoting toward a school choice model and past legislation, such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, pushed schools to incorporate research into their school improvement strategies.

In the April 2013 issue of The Principalship, Rick DuFour and Mike Mattos questioned why these legislative pieces pushed for schools to use research to improve but simultaneously use methods have that proven to be inefficient and ineffective at improving in their piece titled “How Do Principals Really Improve Schools? 

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The Problem:

Anecdotally, I know that when I was in school, I learned the most when I had great teachers. In fact, I specifically took classes from teachers that I knew were great, even if I originally wasn’t thrilled by the subject matter. In that case, I agree with the assessment by DuFour and Mattos that at face value, it seems that the best way to improve schools is by improving teacher quality.

In their article, DuFour and Mattos dispute the notion that using carrots and sticks can be used to push teachers to improve. First, they find no evidence that teachers hold back until they receive financial benefits. They also find no evidence that suggests using sharp sticks helps either. Citing Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2011) (a favorite of the KaiNexus staff), DuFour and Mattos explain that using sharper sticks to motivate knowledge workers such as teachers actually negatively affects their performance. Another KaiNexus favorite cited by DuFour and Mattos, W. Edwards Deming, explains that fear based incentives only promote short-term thinking and that organizations must “drive out fear” (1986).

There are similar principles realized in the continuous improvement sphere; staff members need to know that there will be no repercussions for bringing up ideas and that fear of punishment does not help to promote a culture of continuous improvement in an organization. This is part of the reason that anonymous suggestion boxes are ineffective. Why would ideas need to be anonymous if there is no fear of repercussion?

The third method of suggested teacher improvement was Principal Observations in classrooms. Although beneficial in multiple ways, basing the majority of a teacher’ evaluation on Principal Observations does not give enough of a sample to base an entire recommendation. 4-6 hours of observation, as mandated by the State of Tennessee, is not enough time to evaluate a teacher and takes the principal away from their other duties. 

Removing the carrot, the stick, and principal observations, what do we have left? 


Professional Learning Communities

The recommendation of best practice for schools and learning institutions by DuFour and Mattos are Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). In PLCs, principals and teachers work together to meet and review lessons, focus on student learning and share knowledge with each other.

In their article, DuFour and Mattos put together the 5 Steps to Success on the PLC Journey.

  1. Embrace the premise that the fundamental purpose of the school is to ensure that all students learn at high levels and enlist the staff in examining every existing practice, program, and procedure to ensure it aligns with that purpose.

  2. Organize staff into meaningful collaborative teams that take collective responsibility for student learning and work interdependently to achieve shared goals for which members hold themselves mutually accountable.

  3. Call on teams to establish a guaranteed and viable curriculum for each unit that clarifies the essential learning for all students, agree on pacing guidelines, and develop and administer common formative assessments to monitor each student's learning at the end of each unit.

  4. Use the evidence of student learning to identify

    • Students who need additional time and support to become proficient.
    • Students who need enrichment and extension of their learning because they're already highly proficient.
    • Teachers who help students achieve at high levels so team members can examine those teachers' practices.
    • Teachers who struggle to help students become proficient so team members can assist in addressing the problem.
    • Skills or concepts that none of the teachers were able to help students achieve at the intended level so the team can expand its learning beyond its members to become more effective in teaching those skills or concepts. The team can seek help from members of other teams in the building with expertise in that area, specialists from the central office, other teachers of the same content in the district, or networks of teachers throughout the United States that they interact with online.

  1. Create a coordinated intervention plan that ensures that students who struggle receive additional time and support for learning in a way that is timely, directive, diagnostic, precise, and most important, systematic.


DuFour and Mattos claim that these practices help to create a culture of collective responsibility, very similar to a culture of continuous improvement. Everyone in the group works together to share knowledge, collaborate, and finally, bring their problems to the people best equipped to solve them: their peers.

These Professional Learning Communities are able to increase students learning through the shared knowledge that they ordinarily would not get without the designated improvement meetings. Teachers that find new techniques to help their students now have a forum to discuss it with others in the same department. DuFour and Mattos say that giving teachers a central place to voice their opinions and decide how to proceed with lessons gives them a larger leadership role in the process can be a “powerful catalyst for improving instruction”. 

We often see similar themes when discussing cultures of continuous improvement. Giving staff members a larger voice and the ability to solve their own problems increases productivity, increases the sense of responsibility in the organization, and increases their satisfaction in daily tasks. Giving team members a stake in how their work also increases the intrinsic motivation that organizations look for in culture of improvement or collective responsibility.

Part of the purpose of PLCs is to increase the visibility of problems and new best practices. Continuous improvement software can increase visibility and collaboration between departments in the same building or across the district. Math departments in multiple schools can collaborate in ways that aren’t accessible with paper and pencil and share these developments on virtual visual management boards with CI software. Teachers can create specific initiatives to push themselves towards, such as student growth or student achievement and add ideas to each category. Lastly, principals can easily recognize departments by participation and be instantly aware of departments that are struggling with their PLCs.

Instead of sticks and carrots, creating a culture in our education system that allows PLCs to flourish is the best way to help our students. In order to help our students succeed, we must help our teachers succeed. And to help our teachers succeed, we must allow them to help themselves.

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