This is the third article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.
The shift to competency-based education requires a personal commitment from superintendents and principals to develop collaborative leadership and management styles. Changing personal leadership styles means these professionals must undertake extensive study, solicit feedback for reflecting on their leadership, engage in dialogue with peers and colleagues, and even seek out coaching. Each leader will have a different journey toward developing leadership/management strategies that are effective in creating and sustaining empowering, learning organizations. In the following discussion, three aspects of leadership are discussed: the call for a distributed leadership style, the role of a culture of learning, and empowering others.
Superintendents and principals agree that top-down management doesn’t work well in competency-based environments—or, for that matter, in any large district reform. The traditional education system operates on a set of rules for the delivery of education services that has tried to standardize the inputs so all students have the same exposure to the curriculum. In top-down systems, higher levels of governance set the conditions for each lower level, leaving schools and teachers with little autonomy or opportunity to inform decision-making at higher levels. Traditional leadership styles are often characterized by people turning to the managers above them to resolve issues or set the direction. Changes are often communicated through memo, where dialogue is limited, if not nonexistent.
The problems with this kind of compliance-oriented leadership style are three-fold. First, top-down approaches undermine any efforts to create an empowered staff who will take responsibility for ensuring students are learning. Top-down decision-making essentially undermines accountability. Second, when employees look to the next level up to answer questions and resolve issues, it undermines the culture of learning and is a lost opportunity for building problem-solving capacity within the organization. Third, no superintendent or principal can have all the knowledge or answers about how to best respond to students or address organizational issues. During periods of dramatic change, this becomes a risk, as the superintendent or principal is unlikely to be able to understand all the ramifications of every change. It requires collaborative, iterative processes to create the new operational policies and procedures needed to support a personalized, competency-based environment. Fueling a competency-based system requires the engagement and ownership of students, educators, and community members alike—an idea that will be explored in depth as the series progresses.
In a personalized, competency-based education system, it is incumbent upon districts and schools to continuously improve at every level. Teachers support students to build the habits of learning they need to take ownership of their education. Teachers facilitate and guide learning through cycles of adaptive instruction in which students receive timely feedback. Professional learning communities offer embedded professional development so teachers are continually learning how to better support students, drawing on their colleagues’ expertise when needed. Superintendents and principals play an instrumental role in managing decision-making processes, reminding their staff to turn to the guiding principles to solve problems and seek innovation. Throughout the transformation process, all these changes are continually informed by data on student progress and pace.
Virgel Hammonds, the previous Superintendent of RSU2 in Maine, describes a common challenge in the old style of leadership. As administrators ascend the career ladder, they increasingly find themselves trapped by the expectation that they should have all the answers. The irony is that as authority and rank increase, the further administrators are from daily decision-making related to students. Hammonds points out that this kind of thinking places too much authority in one person’s hands, and can also lead to the mistaken belief that one person has all the answers—when, in reality, all perspectives have critical insights into solving problems.
A shared leadership style, sometimes referred to as transformational leadership, takes this all-knowing superintendent or principal position and transforms it to one of respect, trust, and collective intelligence. Also known as adaptive leadership, middle-up-down management, distributed leadership, or servant leadership, these approaches have several common attributes: investing in empowerment, seeking input, collective ownership, and transparent decision-making processes. These forms of leadership seek to move beyond the limits of the “dance floor and the balcony,” in which hierarchical position defines perspective to create structures and approaches that build multi-dimensional understanding of problems as well as expanding possibilities.
Creating a Culture of Learning
Educators who have started down the road to competency education often discuss the fact that competency education is a second order change. Whereas first order change focuses on altering inputs and approaches, second order change is based on a different set of underlying beliefs and relationships. The culture of learning breathes life into the values and assumptions of competency education.
Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire aspires for the district to operate as a professional learning community by emphasizing three pillars: collaboration, competency, and culture and climate. One of the early shifts Superintendent Brian Blake undertook was to take a hard look at the multitude of initiatives that were underway. “One of the big steps we took in moving from first order to second order change was to whittle down the ninety-plus programs and initiatives to a few that were highly aligned with our new direction. Now we only focus on efforts that are absolutely aligned with our goal for the district to be a true professional learning community. We believe if it is worth doing, it is worth doing system-wide as part of our competency-based operations and practices.”
Although the language may vary, competency-based districts and schools tend to emphasize similar characteristics. For example, the culture of Mt. Ararat Middle School in Maine can be broken down into four main components: learner centered, clear expectations, continuous feedback, and valuing relationships. All four components relate to both students and the adults in the school. Bill Zima, previously Principal at Mt. Ararat Middle School and now superintendent at RSU2, states that one of the key functions of principals is to be vigilant in nurturing the school culture. “School culture is created through what the leader creates and what the leader allows.” He recounts that he had to develop his personal leadership by building a leadership team, implementing effective action planning, skillfully facilitating meetings, and nurturing a strong culture of learning. He paid particular attention to group norms, rituals, and protocols for meetings so that everyone could share ownership for nurturing the school culture.
The transparency of the competency-based infrastructure for learning—with explicit habits of learning, measurable learning objectives, rubrics, and calibrated understanding of proficiency—empowers students and teachers alike. Students have more agency in the learning process and teachers are more responsive because they know exactly how students are progressing in mastering learning objectives. Thus, the transparency that is required to make competency education work also requires empowered teachers and a high degree of school autonomy.
District and school leadership in competency-based systems are vigilant about nurturing empowerment. It begins by turning to research on motivating, engaging, and empowering adults. Bob Crumley, Superintendent at Chugach School District in Alaska, developed a leadership-management style based on three elements that motivate employees: being challenged, working within a social context, and having autonomy. “These three ingredients are the foundational building blocks I used with students in my classroom, and I also use them now with my staff. It is absolutely critical that this approach is used consistently. You need to make sure your teachers are empowered if you expect them to support empowered students. I always return to these three elements when we are starting a new initiative or addressing issues raised through continuous improvement.”
Creating a safe environment for employees to take risks is a key component of this process. Strong professional learning communities are essential for empowering teachers, and building respect and trust among teachers is important if they are to take risks in learning how to operate in a personalized, competency-based environment. However, creating a safe environment for learning begins with district and school leadership. Tobi Chassie, a project manager of the transformational process at Pittsfield School District in New Hampshire, emphasized, “Risk taking and valuing mistakes as learning opportunities are role modeled starting with the superintendent.”
Virgel Hammonds also considers creating an empowering culture as one of the essential tasks of the superintendent. To this end, he makes it a point to hire principals with similar values and an approach that is cohesive with the current system. By looking for qualities like active learning, a collaborative work ethic, and humility in incorporating the thoughts and ideas of others, he has been able to create a team with a commitment to distributed leadership. He also looks for candidates who are committed to serving both children and the community in which they live, as well those who are able to lead and empower through empathy. Through this approach, it’s not just the students who will be pushed to reach their full potential, but the entire staff, as well.
For more information, explore this whole blog series:
Blog #2 What Is Competency Education?