Dr. Shawn Joseph
To say that effective school leadership is merely important is a gross understatement: it is outright essential. Unfortunately, many schools across the country are experiencing this truth for all of the wrong reasons. Instead of working cohesively and collaboratively towards a clear and progressive vision, these schools are characterized by chronic academic under-achievement and disciplinary issues, internal conflict and strife, and severe operational inefficiencies. What’s more, the leadership deficit in these dysfunctional schools is not static. It grows bigger month after month, and year after year. As this happens, all stakeholders lose: students, teachers, administrators, and communities as-a-whole.
However, while the situation is definitely grim and alarming in many parts of the country, it is far from hopeless. And while there are no easy answers or quick fixes, under-performing schools can be emboldened by the fact that with the right advice, strategies, programs and resources, they can establish and evolve effective school leadership.
While each school must overcome certain obstacles and challenges that are unique to its history and profile, generally there are five core elements of effective school leadership according to Dr. Shawn Joseph, the Principal of acclaimed education and equity consulting firm Joseph and Associates:
1. Start at the Top
Strong leaders have a bold, clear and progressive vision that is firmly rooted in student success, teacher support and community engagement. Weak leaders are only interested in maintaining the mediocre status quo and consolidating their power, often by making sure that any talented and competent rivals in the organization are undermined or, better yet, forced to leave.
“One of the things that schools must understand and accept is that strong and competent leaders are not going to remain silent as students struggle, teachers disengage, and communities disconnect,” states Dr. Shawn Joseph. “Silence in this context is not golden — it is a weapon. Legitimate leadership is always going to articulate and escalate uncomfortable truths, and schools must be willing to listen and take action. Schools that are unwilling to do this need to ask themselves whether they truly want a leader who is going to be an agent of meaningful, impactful and lasting positive change, or whether they want a spokesperson who is just going to parrot the party line while students and teachers struggle and suffer.”
2. Set the Bar High
Another core characteristic of effective school leadership is setting the bar high for academic achievement. This means ensuring that students have access to gifted and talented services, and that teachers have the training and support they need to enable student success. It also means establishing a focus on literacy, as well as science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM).
“School leaders must never settle for merely pushing students through the system, so that they can face struggles and setbacks later in life — for example, when they exit the school system and try to get into college, or when they enter the workforce,” commented Dr. Shawn Joseph, who prior to launching Joseph and Associates served as the Superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools, where he spearheaded several initiatives that led to dramatic improvements in student academic achievement, student engagement and organizational equality. “School leaders have an opportunity, and in fact an obligation, to set the bar high and help as many students as possible achieve academic excellence, so they can ultimately reach their full potential.”
3. Make Data-Driven Decisions
In the corporate world, pivotal decisions are not based on gut feels or best guesses. Rather, they are rooted in reliable data. In the same way, effective school leadership must be guided by actionable intelligence that uses relevant metrics and key performance indicators to monitor progress and measure success.
“School leadership that does not leverage data to make decisions is like a ship at sea without a rudder. For example, during my tenure as the Superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools, we launched projects and programs that drove measurable increases in average ACT scores and reading scores, and which also achieved a dramatic decrease in the number of suspensions. These significant results are not a matter of speculation or wishful thinking. They grounded in hard data.”
4. Facilitate Increased Funding and Other Resources
Effective school leadership must use every legitimate and appropriate method at their disposal to secure increased funding for programs and services that support academic excellence.
“Many schools across the country are woefully under-funded, and have been for decades,” commented Dr. Shawn Joseph. “School leaders must speak up and strive to forge partnerships that facilitate increased funding and other resources. For example, during my tenure as the Superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools, we secured $24 million in federal dollars to support the creation of five elementary magnet schools, and to provide more socio-emotional support to Pre-K students. We also increased funding for special education services and English Language Learner services by $7.2 million.”
5. Work as a Team
Last but certainly not least, effective school leadership does not take place in isolation. It is cooperative and collaborative, and works to achieve consensus and win-win outcomes that benefit students, teachers and communities.
The best school leaders work well with their colleagues within and outside the school system. Naturally, there will be disagreements and debates — some of them vigorous, especially when it comes to presenting facts and truths that some individuals or groups would rather not learn. But at the core, there must be a foundation of trust and respect. Without this, then relationships disintegrate and sustainable positive change cannot happen.
The Bottom Line
Author, speaker and pastor John Maxwell has said that no organization will exceed the capacity of its leader. Schools that want to elevate to higher levels — and avoid slipping back — are advised to heed this wisdom, and follow the proven advice of Dr. Shawn Joseph.