A Perfect Storm: Leading for Academic Excellence

A Perfect Storm: Leading for Academic ExcellencePerfect Storm.  Noun.  A critical or disastrous situation created by a powerful concurrence of factors.


The connotation of a perfect storm is unfavorable, and given the definition above,  the denotation isn’t much better.  So, why choose A Perfect Storm as the title for a blog about academic excellence?  A couple of reasons: 1. it’s catchier than A Confluence of Factors that Lead to Academic Excellence and, 2. it speaks to the need for a multi-faceted, convergent approach to leading for academic excellence.

I don’t know of a single perfect school.  I’ve had the privilege of working as a teacher and principal in good schools and as a consultant with good and even great schools.  Even in the great schools—schools with strong leaders and talented teachers, schools that embrace data and use the results for continued improvement, schools that have well-aligned curricula and common assessments and that have strong communication and collaboration—even these great schools are not perfect and strive to be even better.

The idea for this model called A Perfect Storm is founded on the work of Taylor and Gunter who focused on school-wide approaches to literacy in their work, K-12 literacy leadership fieldbookA Perfect Storm expands the focus from literacy leadership to comprehensive curricular leadership and engages school leaders and their faculty in a four-pronged approach to leading for improved teaching and learning.  This approach includes:

  1. assessing and creating a culture for academic success, and implementing intentional professional learning communities
  2. evaluating data sources, sharing and analyzing data, and utilizing data for goal setting
  3. evaluating and aligning curricula, assessments, instructional strategies, and resources
  4. and leading change among teachers, parents, students, and other stakeholders maintaining a focus on academic excellence priorities

Why a multi-faceted approach?

There is no doubt that focusing on a single factor can bring about progress.  For example, a school could focus on their students’ standardized achievement data.  The principal and teachers could meet and analyze the data, even disaggregate the data to sub-groups and individual students.  The teachers could use the results of this analysis to inform their lesson planning.  This practice of becoming aware of student achievement in particular skill areas would likely lead to some improvement in teaching and learning.

Yet, it could be better.  Imagine if the teachers did this analysis in grade level groupings or by department and discussed results as a team.  Imagine if the results and skills were tied to specific content in the curriculum.  Imagine if the longitudinal trends informed well-articulated curriculum mapping.  What degree of improvement could be made if we took a multi-faceted approach and we analyzed data in the context of a professional learning community, aligned results with curricular content, and embraced the changes to come in instructional strategies and assessment practices?

A Perfect Storm:  4 Prongs and Associated Readings

To work within the context of A Perfect Storm, I have my own list of favorite researchers and authors that speak to each prong:  culture, data, curriculum, change.  With regard to culture and assessing and creating a culture for academic success and implementing a professional learning community, I suggest educators look to works by DuFour and DuFour, Eller and Eller, and Peterson and Deal.   With regard to data and evaluating data sources, sharing and analyzing data, and utilizing data to set priorities, I am a fan of the work Beyond the numbers: Making data work for teachers & school leaders (2nd ed.) by Stephen White.  With regard to curriculum and evaluating and aligning curricula, assessments, instructional strategies, and resources, I am a huge fan of Mike Schmoker’s books, Focus: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning is a particularly great read. Given the Common Core State Standards, there seems to be a new text every day on Amazon.com; while I have read many of these new works, I am unsure of a favorite.   With regard to change and leading change among teachers, parents, and students maintaining a focus on academic excellence priorities, I have to suggest the works of the change guru, Michael Fullen; his work  Leading in a culture of change is stellar.

Based on a collection of research of numerous educational leaders, principals can lead their faculty in this four-pronged strategic approach that, when intentionally employed, can bring about significant school-wide academic improvement.  When you examine your school according to the four prongs:  culture, data, curriculum, and change, which of these four is working well? Which is not working well?

1 Comment

  1. Carolyn Deyo March 13, 2013 Reply

    Thanks, Susan, for sharing this helpful perspective. It is indeed the total input from your four prongs that can certainly lead to a dynamic and positive school. I am a huge fan of Schmoker’s FOCUS; many teachers can find in those pages concrete reinforcement of their intuitions, and those who study the Common Core State Standards can see how they provide a well-constructed support for the educational processes discussed by Schmoker.

    We have arrived at a very promising time in our profession. Unfortunately, misinformation about the Common Core is rampant and threatens to sidetrack the progress that the standards could bring about. For example, a recent article in New Orleans magazine stated that on average students will be asked to perform tasks at two grade levels higher than they are currently being asked to perform.This sort of reporting only brings about apprehension and distrust among parents and teachers, not to mention students! Teachers are already under fire from state legislatures with little comprehensive understanding of pedagogy, superintendents with minimal years of classroom experience, and layers of school leadership that are empowered to dictate details of their daily lesson planning. Is it any wonder that teachers are prone to lump the CCSS in under that familiar umbrella of misinformed governmental mismanagement?

    We in professional development have a huge task ahead of us. Our mission should be first to help teachers see that the Common Core State Standards are good – good for them and good for their students; once we do that, they will use them.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *