Principals need to make student
learning the centerpiece of school
reform efforts. How can district
Ann Mausbach and Kim Morrison
Acenterpiece on a table serves as the focal point and helps set the tone for the dinner. Although the other objects on the table are important and necessary, the right centerpiece enhances the guests’ experience,
causing them to linger at the table longer.
When it comes to school improvement, the centerpiece
The Need for Focus
should be student learning. In practice, however, student
learning sometimes gets pushed to the side. A multitude
of mandates and initiatives handed down from the state or
the district blur, confuse, and distract. Putting compliance
at the center of principals’ work diverts their attention
from student learning, setting the wrong tone and even
causing some principals to get up and leave the table.
That’s why school district leaders who support principals
must rearrange the table and treat compliance as a utensil,
rather than the centerpiece of reform.
Of course, districts must comply with federal and state
mandates, and schools should align their efforts with district initiatives. But districts and schools that have seen
vastly improved student achievement rarely cite state or
federal mandates as the key to their success. Instead, these
districts attribute their success to setting high expectations, building communities of learners, and engaging in
continuous improvement around focused plans (
Blankstein, 2004). Research has found that to move an organization, whether a school or a business, it’s crucial to
concentrate on a narrow set of priorities (Collins, 2001;
Goodwin, 2011). Large-scale improvement in student outcomes doesn’t happen without a tight instructional focus
sustained over time (Elmore, 2008). Building and maintaining this type of focus requires persistence, which can
easily get derailed by forces outside the organization.
The following scenario gets played out in schools
in a Compliance-Driven World