As I drove the thirty-minute commute to work each day, I would prepare for those anticipated debunks – the upset parent wanting a schedule change, the conscientious teacher wanting the air in her room regulated, the secretary trying to fill a classroom vacancy, and a student. If you have ever been a site principal, you know what I mean. I was a site principal for ten years. Currently, I am a director of curriculum and instruction in a different district. In my brain, I could quickly resolve these issues. However, the nature of my commute changed several years back after my mentor asked me this question: what would your ideal day be like? I intensely began reflecting around how I wanted to spend my time and how I should spend my time. What would best serve my staff and best support student learning? These thoughts and questions were not so quick to resolve in a thirty-minute commute
This shift in my thinking came about the same year John Hattie published his first book in 2009 called Visible Learning. He synthesized over 50,000 studies regarding what works best in education. He used a common scale, the effect size, to rank over 195 practices in education. In his extensive research, he discovered that the practices yielding a .4 effect size (the hinge point) or higher, equated to students making one year’s gain (or more) for one year of school. Yes, leadership was one of the 195 practices he studied. His research revealed the impact of leadership to be a few notches below the hinge point. The research was jolting news as a hard working site principal. When we unpack the literature around leadership (which we will some in this article), we will begin to discover that our impact really varies, depending on how we spend our time.
I am going to drift into a story that seems unrelated so bear with me as I develop the connection. First, in Malcom Gladwell’s Revisionist History Podcasts he re-examines different periods of history, offering viewers alternative explanations of the past. In the podcast, The Big Man Can’t Shoot, he retells an unfamiliar account of the famous Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt scored 100 points for the Philadelphia Warriors win over the New York Nicks in 1962 in Hershey, Pennsylvania. This is one of the greatest records in national basketball. Furthermore, Wilt Chamberlain, a poor foul shot player, made 28 of his 32 foul shots that night, more than doubling his foul shot percentage that game. Malcom Gladwell went back to investigate why Wilt made 28 of his foul shots that night as well as why 1962 was Wilt’s highest scoring season ever. Malcolm discovered the difference in that game, and in that season, was how Chamberlain shot his foul shots; he shot underhand for that game and for that season—granny style as they say in basketball.
Rick Berry, one of the greatest foul shooters of all time, explained from a physics standpoint, that shooting granny style is a much better way to shoot. Better, meaning our arms hanging down is a natural state and therefore a more relaxed position. In addition, when one shoots underhand, the shot is softer. The softer bounce increases the odds that the ball will go through the hoop, even if slightly off course. However, from a psychologist’s point of view, shooting underhand is stifling when standing in front of millions of fans, and standing before your teammates. This peer pressure caused Wilt Chamberlain to return to his overhead foul shooting the next season, despite great breaking career. For the remainder of his career, his average foul shot percentage dropped from his record high of 80% back to his usual season average of 40%.
In much the same way, administrators are hired to take the overhead foul shot. For example, school board members, superintendents and parents hire us: to keep our staff and students safe, build a positive culture, maintain the facility operations, and manage the budget. These influential stakeholders believe such actions directly relate to their child’s academic progress and achievement. I can remember as a school building principal devoting most of my time and energy tending to those similar needs. These daily routines and plans were tangible and doable and I received many accolades for them. To my surprise, such actions correlated more with the dispositions of a transformational type of leader, actually having a low impact on student learning and student achievement (Robinson, 2008). While popular and necessary for a school to function well, these transformational actions alone are scientifically insignificant. This game-changing research was shaping my evolution as a leader and starting to form the answer to my mentor’s question.
In education, it is easy to lose our way in the noisy and chaotic halls, playgrounds, and staff meetings. As I shared at the start, these concerns use to occupy my drive and my days as a site principal. My mentor’s question jolted my thinking and the literature guided my developing practice as an impactful leader. In unpacking the literature, I learned through Vivian Robinson’s (2008) meta-analyses that the actions of instructional leadership consistently affect student learning above the hinge point. Some such high impact strategies are: establishing clear goals and expectations, interpreting data with staff, being visible throughout the building(s), and planning and participating in professional development.
So as of 2010, I started to drive to work planning how I would ensure harmony and still visit classes regularly, how I would maintain the safe school regiment and regularly attend the grade level collaborations, how I would participate in all the extra-curricular events and consistently model the goals and expectations regarding best practices and learning. Two small yet significant steps I took were (1) reprioritizing my day and (2) calendaring collaboration meetings and class visits.
You might be saying, “So what?” The so what is the follow through of the foul shot – I kept my eye on the rim of that basket, seeing the ball softly yet surely bounce through. Sometimes this meant a student who was sent out of class might have had to wait in a designated area of the main office until I returned from a class visit or staff collaboration. Sometimes this meant a parent was turned away, needing to make an appointment before meeting with me. These changes were awkward for all initially. Such actions could feel like the granny shot of leadership: awkward yet scientifically sound.
Furthermore, from regularly participating in weekly collaboration and visiting classrooms, I began to recognize the strengths and gaps of staff. Such information drove the design for my school’s professional development trainings. For example, teachers demonstrated signs of quality strategies like checking for understanding and providing effective feedback. However, an essential teacher practice, called teacher clarity, was absent from most classroom instruction. Staff and kids struggled to articulate the intended learning and what successful learning looks like. Based on this evidence, the instructional coaches and I designed and led a series of professional development sessions that focused on how to develop and articulate the success criteria associated with the learning. Staff and I also identified ways to monitor student growth based on the success of our implementation of teacher clarity after the professional development trainings. The significant academic growth and achievement gains of students as measured by the 2011 state exam proved our changes to be effective and sound, just as the research states.
As the current director of curriculum and instruction, I am confronted with the same questions tossed out by my mentor from eight years ago. The literature around what works best in education also remains relevant in my new role. The difference for me now is how to implement these best practices on a larger scale. Stay tuned for my next month’s blog describing how I am looking to monitor my impact on this larger scale in order to ensure one-year’s growth or more for all students.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning. London and New York: Routledge.
Vivian Robinson, C. A. (2008). The Impact of Leadership on Student Outcomes: An Analysis of the Differential Effects of Leadership Types. Educational Administration Quarterly, 635-674.
Gladwell, M. (2016, June 29). The big man can’t shoot. Revisionist History. Podcast retrieved from http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/03-the-big-man-cant-shoot