“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” —Lao Tzu

Leading people through a process of change is difficult, particularly in big, entrenched systems like traditional schools and districts. A school leader I know once told me that traditional school systems are like giant ocean tankers, you can make them change direction but it takes a lot of time and energy. Few school and district leaders are prepared to turn their ocean tankers around, particularly within the timelines and to the degree required for Race to the Top (RTT) to meet its ambitious goals.

As evidenced by the recent RTT year two reports released by US DOE, one of the greatest challenges to the success of the RTT reforms is not the content of the changes themselves, but simply that RTT entails significant change on the parts of individuals and systems, and change is hard.

Psychology research tells us that people don’t like change (status quo bias). Change takes effort, causes discomfort and sometimes can be downright painful. People fear the unknown. They wonder, “Will the work and the pain be worth the effort?”

Yet there is an urgent need for change in our education systems to ensure that all students are prepared for success in college, work and life. This need can be seen in student proficiency data from across the country. Rhode Island recently released the latest round of state assessment results, which were a grim reminder of how far we still need to go and how long it takes for systemic change to have an impact at the classroom level.

So how do we address the challenge of leading change?

In Rhode Island, one way we are supporting local leadership and spreading effective ideas to support RTT implementation is through the Collaborative Learning for Outcomes (CLO) process. Through the CLO process, Rhode Island district leadership teams meet regularly in facilitated sessions to share effective practices and learn from one another regarding RTT implementation strategies. The CLO process has provided a forum for district and school leaders from across the state to dig down into concrete strategies to support RTT implementation and to discuss mitigating the complex challenges they face on a daily basis with peers who struggle with the same issues.

In my work with the CLO teams in Rhode Island, the successful education leaders I have observed all share and act on the following beliefs about leadership:

  1. Communication must be a two-way street. To lead people into the unknown, you must listen, have honest dialogue, and be transparent about the work ahead. A number of district leaders who shared during CLO meetings that they created genuine opportunities for their teachers to express and receive answers to their concerns about the new RTT systems were the ones who were also most likely to report that everyone felt they were on the same team when it came time for implementation.
  2. Everyone must share ownership of the work. Distributing leadership responsibilities among those affected the most by changes builds internal champions and on-the-ground capacity, giving people responsibility leads to increased motivation to move the work forward, and getting implementer input on the “how” of the reform greatly increases the chances for success. Through the CLO process, I saw how school leaders who did not engage teacher-leaders in their buildings in developing implementation strategies were almost universally unable to move reform efforts forward with any reasonable speed. The opposite was true of those leaders who created real opportunities for teachers to hold responsibility for success.
  3. Leaders must support those on the front lines of change. Success depends on whether leaders can be creative about finding new resources and using existing resources, provide staff with needed training, and flexibly support staff to face the unknown. All educators in Rhode Island are working within the constraints of limited human and financial resources and the aspirational goals for RTT implementation. Many CLO discussions center on the challenge of stewarding resources wisely and creatively. While no one has found a magic bullet, those leaders who have acknowledged the insufficiency of the traditional structures for budgeting and using human capital are finding a variety of new ways to plan resource use so that they can provide as much support as possible for their staff.

By implementing innovative strategies, like the CLO process described here, we can help education leaders learn about and adopt practices that will increase the likelihood of success of RTT and other critical educational reform efforts.