see an outlier or two—that is, high-achieving schools with a
high percentage of students of poverty or students of color.
What are those schools like? Are they there because of a
one-time fluke? Are their poor kids the children of impecunious grad students? Are their students of color the children
of doctors or lawyers?
After eight years of studying schools in the upper-right
quadrant, we can say that their presence there is rarely a
fluke. Their poor children are like poor children every-
where, burdened with hardships children should not have
to face. Their students of color are not primarily the children
of upper-income professionals. And many of these schools
have teachers trained in the same local colleges that trained
teachers who work in less
successful schools nearby.
These schools do,
however, have something
that helps explain their
success: They all have
excellent school leaders.
This should hardly
come as a shock. Research
has demonstrated that
school leadership is key
to school improvement
(Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstrom, & Anderson, 2010).
In fact, one study concluded that as much as
one-quarter of all “school
effects” on achievement
can be attributed to principals—second only to
teachers and far ahead of
factors like composition of
student body (Leithwood,
Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004). A more
recent attempt to see how
PHOTOS COURTESY OF KARIN CHENOWETH
leadership translates into student achievement showed wide
variation between the most effective principals and the least
effective (Branch, Hanushek, & Rivkin, 2012).
But that raises more questions: What are these effective
leaders like, and what do they do to be so effective? Are they
simply the exception that proves the rule? We set out to
answer those questions.
During the past eight years, the Education Trust has been
visiting schools that are high-achieving or rapidly improving
and that have significant populations of students of color or
students of poverty or both. It was clear that leadership was
a key factor in these schools’ successes. To fully understand
the role of these leaders, we went back to those schools and
collected detailed data on the leaders’ work.
No. 1. Their beliefs about student
potential drive their work.
The leaders we studied had spent, on average, more than
a decade teaching in classrooms where they developed the
clear and unwavering belief that all students can learn to high
levels and that it is up to the schools to help them do so.
Long-time educator Molly Bensinger-Lacy said, “Through my
teaching experiences, I learned that my students were capable
of learning just about anything I was capable of teaching.”
Bensinger-Lacy became principal of Graham Road Elementary
School in 2004 when it was one of the lowest performing
schools in Fairfax County, Virginia. When she left in 2009, it
was one of the highest performing schools in the state.
The principals’ belief in the capacity of all students pushes
them to set a rigorous performance standard and honestly
discriminate between excellence and mediocrity. We need to
be clear here: That kind of honesty is tough. It is all too easy
to accept mediocre work, particularly when you know that
mediocrity represents enormous progress.
Graham Road’s students are mostly children of low-income
families that have recently immigrated to the United States,
and they do not speak English at home. Most of the students
arrive in kindergarten not knowing any of their letters or
numbers. Kindergarten teachers would often be thrilled if, by
the middle of the year, their students knew half their letters
and could count to 10. At grade-level data meetings, they
would, understandably, brag about such progress. Bensinger-Lacy would cheer the progress, but she would also talk about
what she called the “elephant in the room”: If students didn’t
make faster progress, they would be at risk of not learning to
read, never graduating from high school, and living in poverty
for the rest of their lives. That was tough for the kindergarten
teachers to hear, and tough for her to say, but Bensinger-Lacy
considered it her job.
This same drive appears among the leadership at Elmont
Memorial High School in Nassau County, New York. Elmont
is a large comprehensive high school with just under 2,000
students, almost all of whom are students of color—mostly