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October 1, 2009
Vol. 67
No. 2

Back to Square One

Shared leadership takes a troubled high school to new heights—until the powers-that-be knock it down again.

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When the district board and the superintendent fired Ballona High School principal Harriet Alonzo, it must have stunned anyone who had witnessed how her leadership had turned the school around. In just three years, from 2003 to 2006, with coaching from UCLA's School Management Program, Alonzo fashioned a leadership team of teachers who worked with her to transform Ballona High School from an academic failure to a smashing success. Ballona ranked among the top schools in California for its meteoric rise in student test scores, drop in student disciplinary cases, and increase in teacher satisfaction. Equally stunning was the board's and the superintendent's decision in 2006 to replace Alonzo with a principal who recentralized decision-making authority in his office, reversing these achievements.
What happened? Why would the board and the superintendent undo the actions that had produced such remarkable results? After studying the school carefully, I concluded that it was because district leaders were blinded by their conviction that top-down control is the only way to run schools. They didn't understand that sustaining successful reform requires teacher commitment and leadership.
The conflict between these approaches has become especially important in the face of No Child Left Behind, which requires administrators to produce high test scores or risk losing their jobs. The pressure for attaining such scores leads school boards and superintendents to mandate what teachers should teach, rewarding principals and teachers who comply and punishing those who do not. But without sustainable authority and leadership in the school, gains made one year are often erased the next.
Most research studies show that reforms don't last for several reasons: Leadership changes, districts switch their focus, teachers lose motivation, and energy for innovation diminishes (Hargreaves & Goodson, 2006). But a close examination of events at Ballona High School reveals an even more fundamental obstacle: an adherence to the belief that power can only flow from the top to the bottom.

Getting Teachers Involved

Ballona is a medium-size city 40 miles outside of Los Angeles, California. Ballona High School, one of four high schools in the district, enrolls about 2,400 students, most of whom are Hispanic and from low-income families. Eighty teachers work at the school; most have taught there for 10 years or more.
In 2002, the superintendent had convinced the board to hire Alonzo from a nearby district to rescue the school. At that time, students' scores on the California Academic Performance Index (API) were so low that it was an embarrassment to the district; the scores, on a scale from 200 to 1,000, were barely holding at 479. The campus was littered with trash, fights between students were common, students cut class with impunity, and teachers were demoralized.
Shortly after Alonzo took over as principal, she brought in UCLA's School Management Program to help her organize the teachers to rebuild the school. The UCLA coaches signed on to support Alonzo and the 18 teachers who made up the new leadership team. I joined the project to gather data to help the leadership team chart its course.
Alonzo knew that to reverse the school's decline, the teachers had to become part of the decision-making process, something they had never done before. Few of the new team members believed her. "I was sure she was just another principal who would come in, talk to us about distributed leadership, and grab all the marbles," said one teacher. Alonzo believed that if the teachers learned how to set priorities and run effective meetings, their confidence would grow and that this would be the first step toward teachers taking on more responsibility.
Some teachers said they didn't like being asked to make decisions they were not used to making; they wanted a principal who would make decisions for them. Undeterred, Alonzo steadily shifted an increasing number of decisions to the teachers and sat quietly at meetings while they worked them out.
In early 2004, a year into the project, I surveyed faculty members to find out how they felt about the changes. The results were not encouraging. Most of the teachers still blamed everyone but themselves for the school's poor performance. Ninety percent said that most of their colleagues were "high-quality" teachers, but fewer than one-half (46 percent) agreed that administrators (including Alonzo) were effective. Ninety-two percent of the teachers blamed the students, saying they lacked motivation, and 84 percent faulted the parents as being uninvolved in their children's education. More than two-thirds of the teachers (69 percent) thought the school's greatest weakness was the students' lack of discipline.
Alonzo and the leadership team took the results seriously, making the improvement of student discipline their top priority. The leadership team and the administrators began meeting; together they developed a new discipline policy. "It was definitely a trust-builder and the beginning of expanding teachers' professional roles," said Alonzo.
As their confidence grew, leadership team members began organizing their colleagues in classroom walk-throughs to observe how students were learning and to start a schoolwide conversation about how to improve. It was a dramatic change from the typical walk-through, which administrators often use to evaluate teachers. Alonzo knew that if teachers organized and conducted the walk-throughs themselves, they would have to take responsibility for the quality of teaching.
Her strategy paid off. The teachers started their own "critical friends" lunch and after-school meetings to discuss improving instruction. The seemingly insignificant step of showing teachers how to run meetings now informed the teachers' leadership of the school.
While teachers were doing classroom walk-throughs, they were also considering ways to improve student discipline. The UCLA coaches nudged the discussion to help teachers see the connections between student discipline and teaching. "Teachers realized that if they taught bell to bell with engaging lessons," Alonzo recalled, "the discipline issue took care of itself."
As the leadership team expanded its attention to other issues—improving the instruction of students who spoke little or no English, encouraging parents to become engaged in their children's education, and aligning the curriculum with statewide tests—a new consciousness of the school as a community emerged.
As the teachers started to make decisions together, they began to develop a new sense of authority in the classroom. One group of teachers began to solicit feedback from students to determine how they learned best, enabling the teachers to modify their teaching techniques. The teachers began to model the same collaborative behavior that now existed between themselves and the administrators.
By the end of 2004, Alonzo's vision started to show results as the administrators, teachers, and students began to emerge as a single community. The campus was cleaner as students started picking up after themselves; tardies and cuts dropped in frequency; and the school's test score index shot up an amazing 95 points in fewer than two years, a gain that placed Ballona High School among the California schools with the greatest increase in test scores.
The changes had quietly emerged from within the teachers' own ranks without fanfare. "We guided ourselves," a teacher told me. "I don't know that anybody thought what we did was all that monumental … but now suddenly stuff works. It's changing our lives." Another teacher commented, "It was like an invisible takeover, a secret government that never actually took power." New norms, the foundation of an organization's culture, were taking root.
The leadership team opened up a schoolwide discussion about good teaching, including how to teach English language learners. In turn, as the teachers began to trust their new authority, they started to extend collaboration into the instructional process, working with students to develop lessons that would prepare them for high-stakes tests.
In 2005, a second teacher survey showed that improvements were spreading throughout the teaching staff. Now, more than one-half of all teachers (55 percent) reported that administrators were good leaders; those who viewed discipline as an important problem had fallen by 19 percentage points; and those who saw ineffective discipline as a school weakness had dropped 38 percentage points. Although teachers had been skeptical of the leadership team at first, more than one-half of the teachers (57 percent) reported that it gave them an important voice in how the school was run. More than one-third (36 percent), many of them younger teachers, wanted to join the team.
Later in the year, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges visited the school to determine whether it could keep its accreditation. The team praised the school's collaborative leadership but raised a cautionary note about whether the school would be able to sustain such improvement. As an official stamp of approval, the association gave the school the maximum six years of accreditation.

Hierarchy Wins

Six months later, on July 1, 2006, the board and the superintendent fired Alonzo. She said she was replaced because the district did not want other schools to follow in her footsteps. "They gave me credit when I was the principal, but it was clear they didn't want the model."
No one at the district seemed to understand how Alonzo had developed the shared leadership model or the role it had played in putting the school on solid footing. The board president didn't care about shared leadership, but only about test scores. "I'm results-oriented," he said, "so if the API scores are going in the right direction, it tells me the machinery is working." It was an apt metaphor—the school as a machine—because it revealed an image of schools as extensions of early 20th-century industry, replete with command-and-control management from top to bottom.
Hugo Mendoza, the man selected to replace Alonzo, was considered a rising star in the district. Most of the teachers liked him and seemed drawn to his magnetic personality. One teacher said, "He's a hands-on person. He's a motivational speaker, and he runs our meetings." It became increasingly clear that the new principal, despite his disavowal of top-down leadership, was systematically eroding the teachers' authority. One teacher who liked the principal and who praised his political skill added, "He appears to be democratic, but he gets input from the teachers to make his decisions seem legitimate, to lessen the opposition."
According to some teachers, the district office gave the new principal a lot of power, which he used to reward those who supported him and punish those who did not. Said one teacher, "No one will cross him. The teachers are intimidated. As they feel more powerless, they stop caring. They stop thinking about the kids and pay more attention to their own positions."
Ironically, some of the teachers said they liked the way the new principal relieved them of the work they had been doing under Alonzo. Explained one teacher,When Harriett was principal, my job was a lot harder, but Mr. Mendoza has taken a lot of pressure off us. We're not up front running the meetings anymore and we have less responsibility, but when you're teaching six or seven periods a day, it's a lot to do.
By summer 2007, a few teachers saw that the new principal's charismatic personality and his take-charge style had begun to erode the teachers' decision-making power. "He's divided the teachers and seized control," one teacher said. "The effect has been to make the teachers docile." Just as the changes that liberated the school in 2003 came quietly, as though there had been a "secret takeover," the new administrative control was taking root without much notice. Each step the new principal took was in the direction of replacing the teachers' leadership with his own.

On the Verge of Something Great

The window for innovation at Ballona has now been shut. The days of double-digit improvements are over. In 2007–08, the school failed to meet even a modest target of an 8 percent increase in its scores in all of its subgroups. Many teachers are scared of the principal. According to some teachers, 35 of their colleagues have filed complaints with the union, many of them for the unprofessional way the principal treats the staff.
By 2009, teachers who had been members of the leadership team now acknowledge that they've lost something important. One said, "All of the decisions are being made by Mendoza's cabinet that's dominated by administrators." Another teacher added,No one ever asks us about new reforms like small learning communities. [It's] "Get on board or else go find another job." The tools we learned—running meetings, walk-throughs, and critical friends—they're just sitting over there on the side not being used.
Another indicator of the teachers' diminished leadership role is how the school collects and uses data. "We used to survey the entire staff and discuss the results publicly to make sure the school was on track," noted one teacher. "But now the administration does the research, and they discuss it privately. We get to see what they want us to see."
One veteran teacher summed up the situation:What most administrators don't understand is the more leaders a campus has, the better things are. Each of us believed that every one of our kids could succeed. The school was on its way to ingraining this idea. Imagine how it could have been if we'd had another six or seven years to make it really solid. We were on the verge of something great.

Shared Leadership

Collaborative models of leadership seem to be everywhere but in schools, from established industrial firms like BMW to a host of new companies like MySpace and the Human Genome Project. All these organizations are moving away from hierarchical control (Tapscott & Williams, 2006), distributing leadership throughout their organizations and allowing teams to manage themselves, develop authority, and have some control over their working conditions.
However, in the minds of many of today's top education administrators, exerting control over others is still justified as a way of keeping order and discipline—because they are ultimately held accountable. But one has only to witness the expensive buyouts of superintendents' contracts to realize that the current system also rewards failure.
Is there another way? Yes. According to a story that actor and activist Harry Belafonte told during an interview on PBS (Kendall, 2008), when labor leader A. Philip Randolph first met Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president asked what he could do to improve conditions for blacks. After Randolph gave an eloquent answer, Roosevelt agreed with everything Randolph had said, but he knew he couldn't do it alone. "I would ask one thing of you, Mr. Randolph, and that is to go out and make me do it."
Neither boards nor superintendents nor principals nor teachers can do it alone. The belief in hierarchy is too powerful, and interests are too entrenched. We need a new model of leadership in which superintendents, principals, and teachers share power to protect school reforms that work. But we also need a force to drive this model—and that force is the parents. Reform-minded educators should work to recast parents' roles from cheerleaders and obstructers to, instead, an allied force that presses superintendents, principals, and teachers to do what Roosevelt asked of Randolph: To make them do it.

Kendall, N. (Executive Producer). (2008, November 5). Tavis Smiley [Television broadcast]. New York and Washington, DC: Public Broadcasting Service. Available:www.pbs.org/kcet/tavissmiley/archive/200811/20081105_belafonte.html

Hargreaves, A., & Goodson, I. (2006). Educational change over time? The sustainability and nonsustainability of three decades of secondary school change and continuity. Educational Administration Quarterly, 42(1), 3–41.

Tapscott, D., & Williams, A. D. (2006).Wikinomics: How mass collaboration changes everything. New York: Portfolio.

End Notes

1 Although this is a true story, all proper names used in this article are pseudonyms.

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