Here is a Surefire Method to Improve Schools

Can a school be great without a great principal?  Research indicates that the answer is no.  The undeniable fact is that principals are the most influential figures in driving schools toward greatness, or not.

It is  unlikely that anyone knows the percentage of schools having great principals.  It is certainly not 100% and may be lower than 20%.  And then of course, we have the question as to what constitutes great.  Whatever the percentage, it is a safe bet to assert that all principals can improve their performance, even the great ones.

I’ve worked in a variety of evaluation systems during the 35 years that I served as a principal.  Some systems were better than others.  But all of them lacked one essential ingredient: feedback from staff, students and parents.  My supervisors rarely, if ever, attended meetings that I conducted, observed interactions with my school community or reviewed my written communications.  Unless parents or teachers complained to central administration, it was highly unlikely that a supervisor will learn about a principal’s faults.

One method for remedying this gap in knowledge between how the principal performs and the supervisor’s knowledge of that performance, is to employ a multi-source feedback instrument  . The most common one employed by the business community is the 360 degree feedback survey.  “Studies suggest that over one-third of U.S. companies use some type of multi-source feedback.  Others claim that this estimate is closer to 90% of all Fortune 500 firms.” Wikipedia


  • Completed by principal and anonymously by school community members: staff, peers, supervisors, students, parents
  • Can be used in conjunction with or replacement for principal evaluation system; or as a developmental tool
  • Used to identify strengths and weaknesses of principal’s performance
  • Feedback given on approximately 10 areas of responsibilities found to impact school achievement (school culture, group dynamics, communication, etc.)


  • Addresses the fact that principals rarely get valid, specific feedback about  performance on their key responsibilities
  • Studies in the business world indicate improved employee performance after using
    performance based assessments  (J. Folkman)
  • Able to use the results to set goals and create action plans to improve performance
  • Demonstrates to all, a commitment to your own professional growth

The 360 degree survey is a relatively neutral tool.  How the tool is implemented will determine its effectiveness.  “360 data is only helpful to the extent that it gets acted upon and used. The majority of programs we see simply give the feedback and then it gets swiftly forgotten. No plan = no change in behavior.” Forbes

So it is critical that all involved understand that a plan will result from the data collected.  The plan should be closely monitored leading to future surveys that will assess progress.


  1.  Do not rush into using the survey.  If you are at central administration, you may ask a few principals to volunteer
  2. If you are a principal, initially use it to do a self-assessment without involving others
  3. Review the  literature on using the 360 degree feedback survey in both corporate and education settings.  Modify the contents of the survey to meet your needs.
  4. Jointly develop a process that will increase the likelihood of its benefits and avoid anger and mistrust issues

Finally, and most importantly, I strongly urge that for at least the first two years, that the survey be used as a developmental, rather than as an evaluative tool.  The goal is to improve, not find fault. In the ideal world each principal who uses this instrument would have an external coach who has served with distinction as principal. Short of that ideal, I could see principals in a district join together in a trusting, collaborative relationship to assist each other on those dimensions of the position needing improvement.

A multitude of approaches can be used to improve schools.  But without a strong, effective principal supporting and pushing them, the odds of significant change are slim. For this to occur, the use of the 360 Degree Feedback Survey offers hope.

Note: Email me at if you want a copy of a 360 degree survey that I modified for use with principals.





8 Mistakes to Avoid when Managing Change

change-management-21.  CORE VALUES–S’MORE VALUES

Too often, the school’s core values hang on walls around the building and become invisible.  If the vision for your school is a deserved reputation for excellence, then a laser focus on your core values is essential.  This means that all proposed changes are tightly aligned with these values.  Stayed focused on them; don’t get sidetracked!


Yes, some teachers are resistant to any change, but most will be supportive if their concerns are addressed. It should be expected and planned for that your staff will have legitimate concerns about the innovation.  The  following brief video looks at the Stages of Concern that teachers go through during the implementation of a new program.


Hard core resisters can undermine the project.  Give special attention to them.  Schedule meetings with them (individually) where you listen to their reasons for opposing the innovation.  Explain your rationale for promoting the new program, with an emphasis on the benefits to students.  See if you can come to some agreement.  At the very least, they will feel that you want their support and took the time to listen to them.  However, at some point, you might have to say, “the expectation is that all teachers will faithfully implement the program.”  Who said that the job of principal was easy?


You just came back from a conference where you heard about a great program that will give your school lots of positive publicity.  A committee is created to further investigate the program. At a faculty meeting, you energetically announce that this PR Program will be the focus for the coming school year.  Because of your enthusiasm for this project, the staff does not challenge you.  But with many struggling  students in their classrooms; a new math curriculum to implement, how can you expect them to fully support an innovation that has little relevance to them?


Seeking ideas from staff sends the message that you respect them.  Its just not realistic to expect a commitment to the innovation if the people tasked with implementing it, had no voice in shaping it.  And without their participation during the planning stage, how likely is it that they will fully understand it?  And finally, how likely is success?


Even small changes require effort.  More significant change, such as implementing a new reading program can send some over the edge.  Support is essential during the initial implementation phase.  Ways to provide support may include: coaching, teacher-to-teacher visitations, and follow-up workshops.


How do you know that all is fine with the new program unless a monitoring mechanism is in place?  This mechanism should include specific criteria that assesses fidelity to the program.  Make adjustments where needed.


Let’s recognize that the changes we made in our own lives were often difficult to make.  Change in a complex organization, like a school, is harder.  It requires a strategy like the one depicted in the diagram at the top of this post. It requires clear thinking and devotion to moving your school toward excellence.


4 Steps To Highly Effective Professional Development

“.  . . Several studies over the past few years have found professional development to be largely ineffective or unhelpful for teachers.”  Hechingereport.  Just think of all the time and money consumed by PD activities each year with such disappointing results.  This is tragic, especially because we have the knowledge to significantly improve teacher training.  But this knowledge is rarely used.  This post applies this knowledge in mapping out 4 steps that will lead to an effective professional development program for your school.


This step is often overlooked.  Someone comes up with a idea for PD and a decision is made to focus on that topic for the year.  A top down approach to teacher training rarely works.  If you want teachers’ commitment then they need to be included at the beginning of the project.  To obtain teacher support for the PD program they must believe that it is relevant to their teaching and will benefit their students.  This may take time to accomplish, but it pays off in the end.   It’s important to take the time to get staff buy-in to whatever teacher training is being proposed.  Working with your leadership team, you might review formal and informal assessment data that will give rise to a consensus as to the school’s priority for the next school year(s).


Here are questions that provide focus to create an effective plan:

*  What is the length of time it will take to fully implement this plan?

*   What is the schedule of activities needed for effective implementation?

*  Who will do the training? Inside or outside presenters?

* What support will be provided to staff during the implementation phase?

* What materials and monies are needed?

*  How will the project be evaluated?


The training begins and at some point the staff is expected to implement new skills and knowledge into their classroom lessons.  Some teachers will take to the new program like fish to water.  Others will have more problems translating strategies discussed in the workshop to the classroom.  At this initial stage of implementation, it is vital to reduce teacher fears of inadequacy and being judged by their peers or the school administration. Coaching and peer support become essential to the success of adoption by all teachers involved in this PD.  One option is to establish a visitation schedule where teachers observe their colleagues who are successfully implementing the new approach to teaching.

Other ways of follow-up to the initial training can take the form of: additional workshops; discussions at faculty and other meetings; and informal chats with the principal.  Quick anonymous surveys eliciting  feedback and suggestions from teachers with appropriate responses from the leadership team can help lead to needed mid-course corrections.  At some point in this stage, a written school-wide agreement as to what the new program will look like in every classroom should be drafted.  This agreement is negotiable, but the essence of the new program must be retained in the agreement.  It commits every staff member to follow the new guidelines.

Finally, congratulate the staff for their hard work and the success they have had in implementing the PD program.


One of the most difficult questions facing school principals is how to maintain effective programs over time.  Say that you’ve done Steps 1, 2 and 3 to a tee; what will this program look like in 5 years? Will it have been watered down? or become non-existent.  Here are some ways to sustain the program that you and your staff worked so hard to implement:

  •  Booster Shots– in the years following  implementation, provide a couple of mini-workshops on the topic
  • Review the written agreement early in the school year with all staff and  at new staff at orientation sessions
  • Periodically email readings to staff about the topic
  • Provide coaching for new staff as they implement the program
  • Include it as part of the teacher evaluation process.

The above is not theoretical.  It is based upon real-life experiences that made my staff and me proud of ourselves and our school.

Add your insights into the topic of effective staff development in the Comment section.  Let’s start a true community of learners on issues related to school  improvement.

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Thanks always.

Further Reading:







3 Crucial Ways to Launch the New School Year

Steve Smaller (1 of 1)1. The Value of Values

 Roy Disney said, “It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.”  This quote has special relevance for school administrators who make hundreds of decisions during the school year; many of them significant to the lives of those they supervise.  But aside from decision making, values, if shared throughout the school and community serve to give people the sense that they are part of something special.  So, the start of a new  school year is a great time to remind your staff of your school’s core values and how each day it is imperative to live these values; in their interactions with students, each other and parents.

2. Respect is the Glue . . .

that holds it all together.  The trick is act as the “boss” while also honoring the humanity of your staff.  We all need to feel a sense of control over our lives.  This feeling does not stop at the school’s door step.  Staff members should at the very least be consulted, if a decision has an impact upon them.  They may not agree with your decision, but at least they’ll feel valued and more likely to accept it.

The start of the new year is also a good time to visit with teachers individually while they are planning their first few lesson plans. All relationships need frequent attention and showing personal interest in your staff is a great way to demonstrate that you care about them as people.

3.  Going Where?

*  So what are your key goals for the coming year?
*  Do you have specific plans for achieving these goals?
*  Who will be involved in this planning and are the roles defined?
*  How will you know if you have met your goals?
*  Will you know why you did, or did not meet the goals?