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Leadership That Moves You Forward: Innovation, Vision, and Planning

Profile photos of Elizabeth LeBlanc and Christopher Harrington

Elizabeth LeBlanc & Dr. Christopher Harrington

Institute for Teaching and Leading


In his book, Leading in a Culture of Change, Michael Fullan wrote, “The litmus test of all leadership is whether it mobilizes people’s commitment to putting their energy into actions designed to improve things. It is individual commitment, but above all it is collective mobilization.” School leaders are engaged in managing transformational change at scale, shifting the model of “education as usual” for all school stakeholders. To help understand how district and building-level administrators can successfully manage the change process when leading personalized learning initiatives, the Institute for Teaching and Leading (i4tl) conducted research looking at which actions by leaders most strongly correlated to positive impact in the effective implementation of a personalized/customized learning environment.

The subjects for this study were K-12 schools and districts actively engaged in the work of implementing personalized learning models across the United States. A multi-phased process that involved interviews, focus groups, and school site visits was used in this study to obtain diverse perspectives of various stakeholder groups and to examine the characteristics of successful personalized learning programs over time. We also administered an online questionnaire developed by i4tl researchers in consultation with content area experts. The questionnaire was extended to 68 learning communities and garnered 209 responses, a 31 percent response rate representing 21 distinct school districts and educational entities. Taken in total, the responses represented perspectives from 186 administrative leaders involved in the implementation and practice of personalized learning in their schools and districts, 2,370 teachers, and 21,610 students.

These results, when triangulated with the additional levels of qualitative data obtained from follow-up interviews, site visits, and stakeholder focus groups, allowed our researchers to begin to connect the dots between different areas of innovation and resource allocation that, when taken collectively, create the conditions for a highly effective, highly personalized learning environment to develop and grow in its service to students. The personalized learning programs of the schools that we studied followed a roughly similar progression through six areas of change and innovation: leadership; technology; curriculum, instruction, and assessment; community engagement; professional development; and school operations. The chart below, The Evolution of Personalized Learning Programs, details the levels to which change was happening in each of these six areas according to questionnaire data and to what extent (“great” or “moderate”) respondents felt that this area impacted the implementation and sustainability of their personalized, blended learning programs. Each of these places in the evolution of a personalized learning program can serve as an opportunity for change or a stumbling block in that same process.

What we found (and illustrated in the chart above) is that leadership at the district and building levels came first in terms of the degree of change seen overall. Every one of the schools or districts responding to the survey indicated change in the area of leadership; 81 percent of responding schools characterized their leadership teams as having “great” impact on the nurturing and sustaining of their customized learning plan, while 19 percent of them characterized them as having “moderate” impact. It was clear from the data gathered that effective leadership is at the heart of introducing and driving any sustained shift to a transformative learning environment.

We also found that the levers for leadership, at least based on the experiences of these systems, differed based on where in the system the leader stood. District-level and school-level actions were not the same. In the next three posts, we will share more about what we learned about different leverage points for system versus building leaders as well as dive deeper into specific actions that we found supported the empowerment, mindset, motivation, and self-efficacy of other administrators, teachers, instructional staff, and student stakeholders.

Part I: Effective District Leadership - Innovation, Vision, and Planning

As we shared in the introduction, the i4tl research team set out to examine the extent to which the actions of district-level leaders nurture the implementation and maintenance of highly effective personalized learning environments. Our research team surveyed 68 districts, receiving 209 responses from those schools, as well as conducting site visits, in-depth interviews, and stakeholder focus groups. In general, district-level actions that tied to vision, planning, and alignment were seen as most efficacious and to have the largest impact on building-level leaders, teachers, and students.

The chart below summarizes our key findings for the impact of district-level leadership. Questionnaire respondents were asked to indicate the impact of each supporting action on the implementation and growth of their personalized learning model. Results are calculated based on the percentage of questionnaire respondents that selected each particular option for the supporting actions shown.

As our team looked at these results and squared them with what we learned from interviews on the ground, we identified a series of high-leverage points for system-level leaders. These included:

  • Fostering a culture of risk-taking and innovation
  • Involving building-level leaders in the development of a shared vision and strategic planning towards that vision
  • Providing opportunities for collaboration and idea-sharing among building-level administrators
  • Providing specific opportunities for growing the mindset of building-level administrators
  • Providing frequent, meaningful communication to all district stakeholders
  • Committing to continuous growth or improvement as a learning community - and having accountability measures that support that commitment

For the remainder of this post, we will dive into each of these leverage points and share some examples from the districts we spoke to and visited.

Fostering a culture of risk-taking and innovation:

The greatest impact was reported when district-level leaders encouraged building-level administrators to implement innovative processes and procedures within their schools; 81 percent of respondents to the online questionnaire agreed that this action supported the implementation/maintenance of customized and highly personalized learning environments to a great extent.

One of i4tl’s case studies includes the approach taken by Marshall County Schools in Kentucky, which supports its schools and building-level leaders in developing their own specific implementation of the overall district personalized, project-based learning model. However, within that model, each school is empowered to choose how their own implementation will look, how they will allocate resources, and which tools and curriculum they will use. Throughout the district, Marshall County offers a concurrent learning model, where a personalized learning experience is offered in tandem with a traditional classroom option; currently, students and families can opt in or out of the model from year to year. While school leaders are encouraged to try new ideas and innovate within their own buildings, all decisions are aligned with the district’s graduate profile and a focus on deep learning, providing consistency across all Marshall County Schools.

Involving building-level leaders in the development of a shared vision and strategic planning towards that vision:

The next most impactful actions that district leaders reported taking were identified by over three-quarters of respondents as supporting effective implementation of customized learning models to a “great” extent. Involving building level leaders in the development of a districtwide shared vision and in district-wide strategic planning around that vision was supported by both the quantitative data in our questionnaire and in the qualitative data obtained from additional comments and follow-up interviews.

This strategy was seen in the work done by Colorado’s Westminster Public Schools (WPS). District leaders returned from a conference where they heard Rich DeLorenzo, a leader of customized learning in Chugach School District in Alaska, speak about their program success. The WPS leadership began engaging with stakeholders to talk about to what competency-based learning could look like in their community. Not only were school leaders such as principals, assistant principals, and department heads deeply involved in the development of the vision and planning at WPS, but teacher leaders acted as program ambassadors to explain the new vision to their colleagues, and the school board, the teacher union, and non-instructional staff were all part of the early discussions as well. The district worked for two full years to build consensus and a shared vision for what they began calling their “Competency-Based System” (CBS), which is now entering its 11th year.

TLA’s Problems of Practice guide around leadership design choices explores the value of leading system-level change approaches that differ in their degree of flexibility around strategy.

Providing opportunities for collaboration and idea-sharing among building-level administrators:

Each of the districts responding to the questionnaire indicated that providing time within the daily, weekly, or monthly schedule for school leaders to collaborate had “great” (75 percent) or “moderate” (25 percent) impact on their learning model’s success; building leaders in particular reported that having the time to work with their colleagues was of high importance in helping them feel supported during the implementation of a personalized learning program.

One school district addressed this need by building time into their monthly schedule. Milton Area School District (MASD) in Pennsylvania began their journey into blended, student-centered learning thinking they would be doing a simple 1:1 device rollout. As the district began their technology planning, Superintendent Dr. Cathy Keegan quickly realized that the “ripple effect” of increased device use and access would dramatically shift instruction at the school and classroom level. District leadership moved from planning a device rollout to a far grander vision: how did they want teaching and learning to look and feel at Milton? To tackle that question, the district began to convene “Building Capacity” meetings once each month, using a Systems Thinking approach to bringing together school leaders (principals and assistant principals) into the district’s planning process.

TLA’s Problems of Practice guide on leadership design choices also details the benefits of sharing best practices, processes, and failures.

Specific opportunities for growing the mindset of building-level administrators:

Districts that built in direct trainings on shifting building-level leaders’ mindset, or their orientation towards change, had significant impact on the administrators themselves, but also on the culture of the schools that they led. Just under 60 percent of respondents rated the impact of this action in their own district as “great” and 100 percent of districts studied reported that building in specific opportunities for growing the mindset of building-level administrators was of at least “moderate” importance to the implementation of their personalized learning models.

One example comes to us from Brookings School District in South Dakota, one of a large consortium of Technology & Innovation in Education (TIE) schools involved in a grant initiative to support the design and implementation of highly customized learning programs across the state. Part of the TIE trainings to this school district focused specifically on a study of mindset for school leaders; one of their schools, Medary Elementary led by Principal Jessica Enderson, has become an exemplar for highly personalized learning at the early elementary level.

Providing frequent, meaningful communication to all district stakeholders:

While less emphasis was given by questionnaire respondents to frequent and meaningful communication with all district stakeholders, 44 percent of respondents still credited this action with impacting their customized learning model implementation to a “great” extent and over 90 percent of schools agreed the communication had at least a “moderate” impact on the growth and success of their learning models.

Pequea Valley School District (PVSD) is a small rural district in Pennsylvania serving approximately 1,500 students in grades K-12. PVSD has long strived to provide a more personalized or customized education for all students within the school district. At the heart of the district’s customized learning program is a collaborative effort of the teachers, administrators, and school board members to provide each and every student with her or his “First Choice” - their number one priority or goal to achieve after graduation. As part of their “First Choice,” competency-based model of learning, district personnel personalize the learning experiences for each student by arranging customized internship experiences that are included as part of each student’s curriculum. Including the community in both the development of this vision and as partners in the ongoing work requires alignment of values and frequent communication, as seen in PV Stakeholders Vision. Both the district and the community are committed to providing workplace experiences to students to ensure that under-resourced students receive the supports they need to be successful.

PVSD Superintendent Dr. Erik Orndorff calls this “top-down empowerment.” Empowerment within PVSD begins with the school board and their connections in the larger community. This body in turn actively encourages the district- and building-level administration to take risks aimed at making the customized learning program even more effective. This empowerment is also consciously practiced by the entire administrative team as they encourage teachers to incorporate new strategies and approaches to teaching and “to seize the opportunity” to make the student learning experience as highly personalized as possible. Superintendent Orndorff is clear that the ongoing development of a team mindset among the students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community will continue to remain a priority at Pequea Valley - and that protecting the existing culture of trust at all levels is paramount.

Commitment to continuous growth or improvement as a learning community - and having accountability measures that support that commitment:

Finally, the use or introduction of accountability measures for all staff scored at the lowest rate by the survey respondents; less than one-third (31 percent) indicated that this action had “great” impact on their personalized learning program. The initiation of accountability measures was also the only action to have some respondents indicate that it had no impact on the development and maintenance of the highly customized environment. It is important to note that the positive effects where found primarily when the accountability system was in place for all stakeholders as part of a community-wide value system - when administrators, teachers, and students were all expected to grow in their roles and practice of the teaching and learning process. When accountability was interpreted and implemented solely as an evaluative measure for teachers, it actually had a negative impact on both motivation and empowerment.

Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD) in California’s San Joaquin Valley has implemented their Performance-Based System, a deeply personalized, mastery-based system of learning. LUSD has designed a professional development structure that provides the meaningful and relevant knowledge that the teachers need to be successful while also modeling the personalized approach to teaching and learning for the students. Guided by the belief that teachers and administrators are responsible for driving and sustaining success throughout the district, the district holds high expectations for each individual to continually develop themselves as well as to help nurture the professional growth of their peers. LUSD, as evidenced by Lindsay’s Beliefs and Guiding Principles about Learning Facilitators and Teaching, is committed to deep, sustained, and personalized professional development for all staff on a regular basis.

Just as the learning experiences for students at Lindsay Unified are personalized, PD opportunities for teachers and administrators are tailored to the specific needs of the individual. Each year, teachers and administrators are offered Summer Institutes that are facilitated by education partners or internal staff members. Participants in the 3-5 day sessions focus on a particular topic that is relevant to instructional effectiveness or school leadership, such as English Language Development (ELD), Project Based Learning (PBL), Blended Learning, and Using Technology in the Classroom. Leadership topics may include Total Leaders Framework, Servant Leadership, Mass Customized Learning in Leadership, Breakthrough Coach and Evaluation Procedures. The topics for the Summer Institutes are based on the identified needs and interests of teachers and administrators as a way of providing deep relevance and the opportunity for personalization. Teachers at Lindsay then receive follow-up mentoring and coaching provided by third-party professional development coaches through a combination of face-to-face and virtual sessions; administrators are supported in the same manner with mentoring and coaching. In our case study of LUSD, Former Director of 21st Century Learning Nik Namba stated that “investing in our learning facilitators is one of our highest priorities.”

The i4tl team, in exploring these levers for leadership at the district-level, identified actions related to vision, planning, and alignment as having the most impact on other stakeholders, such as building-level leaders, teachers, and students. In the next posts, we will share more about what we learned about leverage points for building leaders as well as diving more deeply into the specific actions that we found that supported the empowerment, mindset, motivation, and self-efficacy of other administrators, teachers, instructional staff, and student stakeholders.

Profile photos of Elizabeth LeBlanc and Christopher Harrington

Elizabeth LeBlanc & Dr. Christopher Harrington

Institute for Teaching and Leading

Elizabeth S. LeBlanc is the co-founder and CEO of the Institute for Teaching and Leading. She also serves as the Director of Teaching and Learning for Taos Academy Charter School, an innovative blended learning school in northern New Mexico. Elizabeth has 15 years of experience in the design and implementation of high-quality, effective programming. With an MA in Educational Technology and Curriculum Design, Elizabeth works to coach and support teachers engaging in digital and personalized learning. Elizabeth was recently named to the NM Secretary of Education’s Teacher Advisory and was awarded the 2019 NMSTE “Making IT Happen!” award. Elizabeth has co-authored several education research projects, contributed book chapters, and written articles on brain science, whole-child instruction and blended learning. Dr. Christopher Harrington, the founder of the Institute for Teaching and Leading, has long served on the forefront of innovative education. Currently a professor at Immaculata University, Chris specializes in assembling and inspiring great work from great teams. In his previous positions as President of eLearn Institute, Inc. and CEO of Harrington Education Associates, Dr. Harrington assisted dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended and online learning programs, including the nationally recognized Quakertown Community School District where he served as Director of Virtual Education Services. Chris works with multiple state and national groups in the field of education, including iNACOL and the Colorado Department of Education. Dr. Harrington recently joined the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute team as their Director.