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Navigating Leadership Challenges: How to Make Transformative District Changes Using Adaptive Leadership Skills

10 Min Read
WF2014219 Option 4

Walking through a middle school during my first week as superintendent confirmed what I already knew about the district. When I asked the principal to show me the advanced classes, I just had to look into the class to see the makeup of the students. Mostly white, a few Asian, and maybe one Black or Latino student sat in the seats. When I asked to see the below grade-level classes, the opposite was the case. I knew from what I had read and been told that academic tracking had been in place in the district for generations. Students were separated in middle school core classes based on achievement on a standardized test they took in 5th grade. The Board of Education and I had talked about this issue explicitly. But seeing the resulting racial segregation in real time was shocking. During my entry work over the summer, I had looked at the numbers and heard from stakeholders who wanted me to eliminate it immediately and those who not-so-subtly threatened my position if I changed it.

To address academic tracking, the research is clear, as is the moral imperative. Limiting opportunities for students of color, multilingual learners, students with disabilities, and economically disadvantaged students is simply wrong and doesn’t help them. Opening up access, raising academic standards, ensuring a high-quality curriculum, and differentiating support for students can help young people achieve new heights. And, when the bar is raised for everyone, those at the top continue to succeed. Moreover, there are significant social benefits to heterogeneous grouping. The problem before me seemed clear, and there were evidence-based solutions at the ready. So why did it take four years before the complete elimination of academic tracking in Grades K–12 throughout the twenty schools in Stamford, Connecticut? Why not just immediately do what needed to be done when I became superintendent on July 1, 2005?

Technical and Adaptive Challenges

I knew I had a myriad of technical challenges before me. There were obvious solutions to address generations of inequities: change schedules, eliminate below-level courses, revise policies that limited access, purchase consistent curriculum, install common assessments, train teachers, provide supports to students. And, in fact, we did all of this. However, the technical solutions didn’t address the real problem that needed to be solved.

Too often, leaders think that solutions can be quickly mandated and the problem will go away. They fail to recognize the underlying conditions that created the problem in the first place. For example, purchasing an Apple watch may measure your health and wellness, but unless you figure out how to change your lifestyle, having the watch won’t make a difference in your overall health. You would need adaptive solutions. In public education, we’re prone to solving adaptive problems with surface level solutions. I learned that lesson early on.

The problem I was facing was not just about what kids were being taught every day. That was a symptom of a much larger condition that was ingrained in the way Stamford had designed its school system since the 1960s. The real problem I needed to solve as the district leader required an adaptive solution. It was about getting a community to believe that they could and should do school in a different way. They needed to embrace the idea that all children should have equitable access to high-level instruction and that they could achieve at that level. They needed to challenge long-held beliefs about race, class, language, and family structures. The problem lay in shifting a belief system about education being a zero-sum game where some feel entitled to regularly get the best. Plus, the problem lay in getting educators to believe that they could develop the skill and must have the will to see every child as a young person with unlimited potential.

The transformation of public education is rife with examples of technical solutions to adaptive problems. Technical solutions are those that are obvious and clear. They are necessary but not sufficient. However, people in the community need to understand why those changes and investments must be made, and they have a right to know. Educators need to both believe that it’s necessary and that they can do the new work that’s being asked of them. Those are adaptive challenges. Those challenges require having a clear vision with a strategy to back it up.

Adaptive challenges require focusing on people and building a culture of continuous improvement and accountability. The challenge I was facing also required a relentless, laser-like focus on teaching and learning. I was not going to compromise on what I wanted students to know and be able to do. The main question I faced, and the one I think leaders are most confounded by today, is how to get people to act in new ways. The process of getting adults to do away with the practices and beliefs that have grounded them for years and embrace new approaches is the essence of leadership.

Knowing what to do is a reasonably straightforward proposition. Knowing how to get people to believe that they can and should do something new requires adaptive leadership skills. One strategy I used was to frame tracking as a teaching and learning issue since the curriculum hadn’t been revised in years, which compounded the challenges we were facing. I then got teachers involved in “think tanks” to help revise the curriculum based on evidence-based practices. By doing so, I was able to activate teacher leadership while learning what was happening at the classroom level. And, when white parents pushed back on our de-tracking efforts, these same teachers were first in line to defend the approach.

Current Landscape and Future Challenges

The technical work I led in Stamford back then may look a little different than what leaders face today. After all, the reform era was gaining steam, and No Child Left Behind had become entrenched. Academic performance was the only thing that mattered, and there were only a few of us talking about social and emotional learning. Today, leaders are faced with a post-COVID world, where attending to the needs of the whole child is seen as a moral obligation, and more and more educators have embraced equity. But, the need to differentiate between the technical and adaptive work of leadership is as important today as ever.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen our divides grow wider. And I don’t mean politically. Some students didn’t lose much academically because schools were shut down. Or, at least, they were able to catch up pretty quickly once school started again. But the lives of others have been significantly disrupted.

Learning loss, absenteeism, and mental health issues are all affecting our kids’ abilities to succeed in school. Political, economic, and environmental issues are prodding kids to question the relevance and value proposition of what they learn in school. And social media isn’t helping. Yet, students still have to pass state standardized tests, take Advanced Placement classes, and walk across the stage at the end of senior year, ready to go out into the world.

The tools at our disposal as educators aren’t adequate for these times. They’re too steeped in the comfortable technical work that may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient. The ways that we’ve typically addressed challenges in schools will help in the short term. Having teachers look at data and use a Plan-Do-Study-Act protocol should help them improve instruction. Conducting walkthroughs to gauge rigor and determine the implementation of new programs will provide insight into how teachers are using resources and addressing student needs. Purchasing high-quality curriculum and intervention programs is essential to providing students with opportunities to learn. Providing one-to-one devices will increase access for many students.

But those actions in themselves are just one part of the puzzle. If we want to truly transform our systems so that every child is learning at a high level and graduates ready to thrive in an increasingly complex world, we need to go beyond the standard fixes of yesterday. We need to slow down the inquiry to speed up the action. Adaptive leadership practices will enable educators to maximize the use of technical solutions by knowing which problem they’re trying to solve.

  • A focus on culture and investment in people: A positive culture is essential so your school community trusts each other and knows each others’ stories as they implement new curricula or launch a new initiative. Leaders can’t change culture by memo. But it can be measured. Surveys of students, staff, and families can give insight into culture. Regular classroom and school visits, the engagement and activation of students, and a deep investment in teacher leadership are all ways to understand culture. And when people see that a leader is invested in understanding them and knowing their story, they’re more likely to follow the vision. 
  • A clear vision with a strategy to back it up: Knowing your vision and where you want to go will rally people around a common goal. Leaders need to share their stories with the community and be clear about why they do what they do. Constant reinforcement of the “north star” reminds people about what will result from their investment of time and energy. Specific strategies and metrics to measure success and adjust action help people understand progress. 
  • Align decisions to shared values in a transparent, collaborative way: When you involve your stakeholders in the decision process, it encourages people to feel like they’re part of the solution and increases their engagement and effort.  Whether it’s the adoption of budgets and policies by the board, a new initiative from the superintendent, or a school-level innovation by a principal, each has to be clearly aligned with shared values. And people have the right to know why a decision is being made, who’s making it, and what the intended outcome is. 

The technical work of leadership may build a cathedral. But people will only come to worship there if the leader has adaptive skills. 

A Vision for Success

All of the above are learned skills. Certainly, some leaders are more naturally adept at certain aspects of the job. But both technical and adaptive skills can be taught, practiced, honed, and mastered. At the Center for Model Schools, we’ve seen building and system leaders improve their practice by learning how to communicate a clear vision for success and develop a coherent strategy to realize it. We’ve helped leaders establish a positive culture that sustains improvement and provides the right levels of pressure and support for educators to improve their practice. And we’ve seen how a laser-like focus on teaching and learning provides the tenets for a school to organize around in service of children. 

There are no panaceas when it comes to improving public education. But there are evidence-based strategies that lead to real results. Leaders must proactively develop both their technical and adaptive skills to effectively address the challenges present in today’s educational landscape. 


Contact the Center for Model Schools today to achieve your vision and create the model school every child deserves.

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