The New Fundamentals of Leadership

by Mike Schmoker
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XVII, Number 2, Leadership for Learning

“No institution can survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organized to get along under a leadership of average human beings.”

—Peter Drucker, management expert and author

Most people will agree that principals are the most important leaders in our school system. Most will also agree that effective leadership in schools is still dismayingly, exceedingly rare. The key to improving school leadership begins with demystifying it. We must clarify the most high-leverage routines and procedures for bringing effective leadership within reach of “average” human beings. To do this, leadership must be redefined around professional learning communities: team-based, cooperative arrangements between instructors and administrators.

At the heart of such professional learning communities is a commitment to having all teachers meet regularly with their colleagues for two primary purposes: 1) to determine, in common, the essential standards they will teach in each course on a common schedule, and 2) to prepare lessons and units together, assess their impact on student learning, and refine their instruction of the basis of these assessment results. If administrators focus on and coordinate such work, we will see record proportions of “average” human beings become highly successful school leaders.

photo of a multiple-choice test scoresheet.

A Case History

In “The Learning-Centered Principal,” Rick DuFour describes how he underwent a very deep change that saved time and made him more effective. In painful detail, he outlines his efforts to take the traditional evaluation/supervision model as far as it could go. He conducted an exceptional number of classroom observations, including preconferences and postconferences—a tremendous amount of work. But he found all of this had very little impact on achievement.

Odd as it may sound, he realized he was too focused on teaching and not enough on learning— i.e., on assessment results. As he puts it, he went from being an “instructional leader” to becoming a “learning leader,” something quite different. He didn’t stop observing teachers, but he began to spend far less time at it and far more time discussing and supporting student learning with his teachers as determined by teacher-selected, short-term assessment results. When DuFour turned his time and attention to monitoring, supporting, and rewarding each team’s ongoing success on common formative assessments, he realized that teachers learn more from each other in teams than from a supervisor running frenetically from teacher to teacher, giving advice. But he also learned that in order for teachers to learn from each other, certain fairly strict conditions had to exist.

First, he provided data to create a sense of urgency—not an easy thing in an affluent school with good scores. He collected data from other similarly situated schools from around the state and country; it revealed that their achievement levels, however high, didn’t compare all that favorably with these schools. These schools also used performance data to set goals and to target specific areas of opportunity where performance was lowest.

The next step was pivotal. For every course in his school’s curriculum, including electives, DuFour had staff carefully review state and district curriculum documents in order to select and teach only the most essential standards. They learned that they had to set strict limits on the number of topics and concepts. Teachers then built their own in-district end-of-course and formative assessments around these selected standards—all of which guaranteed a viable curriculum and were aligned with state assessments, Advanced Placement, and college entrance exams.

He then arranged for same-course teacher teams to meet at least twice a month, on a regular schedule, to prepare and improve their lessons together on the basis of results on their common formative assessments.

All this is great, but it’s not enough. To make it all coherent, DuFour met with teams on a regular basis to ask variations on the following questions:

  • To what extent were students learning the intended outcomes of each course?
  • What steps can I take to give both students and teachers the time and support they need to improve learning? (p. 13)

Finally, he rewarded and celebrated each teacher’s or team’s progress and accomplishments at faculty meetings.

Simple Practices, Rich Rewards

Such simple, core practices constitute the new fundamentals—a reasonable set of requirements that we should be emphasizing at the school, district, state, and national level. They are a far cry from the feckless, time-consuming distractions that now bloat our accreditation and improvement templates.

As a result of these efforts, which are the stuff of “simple plans” according to Collins (2001a), DuFour’s Adlai Stevenson High School went from average to exceptional and from exceptional to world-class. In a 10-year period, the school enjoyed uninterrupted achievement gains and appeared on every list of America’s best high schools. DuFour and his school received an array of national and international awards—not for fl ashy programs but for academic achievements.

Stevenson’s rise to prominence demonstrates that fairly simple, reasonable practices will have a dramatic effect on learning (reread the above if you’re not sure). A new definition of leadership is needed, one focused on such fundamentals and built on the strength of self-managing teams, which will have an exponentially greater impact on achievement than management as usual.

Redefining Leadership: Toward New Fundamentals

In its large-scale study of successful schools, Beyond Islands of Excellence, the Learning First Alliance similarly found that school leadership needed to be “redefined” (Togneri, p. 3). How? Along the same simple lines we have emphasized here: cutting through the layers of denial to acknowledge opportunities for better performance and using assessment data to keep it real and monitor progress. Most importantly, the successful schools replaced typical professional development with regular times for self-managing teams to prepare and improve their lessons together.

On this last point, the Learning First Alliance is emphatic: these school districts were successful across socioeconomic lines because leaders understood that effective teamwork is fundamental. They “worked on working together” (p. 9). This makes leadership simpler; perhaps radical and challenging, but much simpler. The leader’s primary task is now to equip teams at every level to solve problems, to generate and celebrate the small wins that we now know are so important throughout the learning community.

If this sounds too good or simple to be true, it is actually quite consistent with the theme of team-focused “simplicity and diligence” with the “simple plans” that Collins found to be the hallmark of effective organizations (2001a, p. 177). His hedgehog concept points out how single-minded diligence beats multifaceted complexity any day of the week (2001a, p. 90–91). Similarly, Pfeffer and Sutton point to the “simplicity and common sense” in effective organizations that make teamwork their “core value” (2000, p. 205). Years ago, management expert Tom Peters urged us to “stop rejecting the simple”; the best companies were eliminating entire layers of management and supervision by as much as 40 percent. This unleashed the untapped energy and expertise of highly efficient “self-managing teams,” which exercised their own leadership as they invented, innovated, and refined their practices to produce a steady stream of small, tangible wins (1987, p. 160). In the school professional learning community, the leader’s job is not to “mass inspect” every lesson taught but to orchestrate and support the work of teacher teams by meeting with them and reviewing and celebrating short- and long-term assessment results.

In the area of leadership, less is more. We’ve seen how our misconceived improvement plans complicate, overload, and thus divert leaders from this simple, continuous focus on teams and student learning (Schmoker, 2004).

As management authority Peter Drucker writes, “the easiest and the greatest increases in productivity in knowledge work come from redefining the task and especially from eliminating what need not be done” (in DuFour and Eaker, 1998, p. 151).

This is eerily similar to Collins’s advice when he urges us to “focus on what is vital—and to eliminate all of the extraneous distractions . . . stop doing the senseless things that consume so much time and energy” (Collins, 2001b, p. 104). As DuFour’s success makes so clear, there are two vital elements above all else that leaders should especially focus on: effective teamwork and a truly “guaranteed and viable curriculum” (Marzano, 2003, p.22–25).

Leadership Starts With a Radical Commitment to a “Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum”

photo of a man at a desk.

Marzano’s works formalized the colossal importance of a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” (Marzano, 2003, p. 22–25). From Marzano’s perspective, a guaranteed curriculum allows states and districts to “give clear guidance to teachers regarding the content to be addressed in specific courses and at specific grade levels. It also means individual teachers do not have the option to disregard or replace assigned content.” Too often instead of a common or guaranteed curriculum, we have curricular chaos— wildly divergent topics being taught by teachers in the same grade level at the same school (Schmoker & Marzano, 1999).

A viable curriculum, Marzano tells us, ensures “the content that teachers are expected to address must be adequately covered in the instructional time teachers have available” (2003, p. 24). Without a guaranteed and viable curriculum, teams can’t succeed; they can’t even work together. Leaders must arrange times for teams to formally map and create a schedule for teaching the standards they select in each course and then ensure that the standards are actually taught. These maps must provide a roughly common schedule that allows teacher teams to coordinate and assess instruction together. They should clearly and explicitly reflect adequate attention (versus inflexible or lock-step conformity) to state-assessed reading, writing, and math standards and to intellectually engaging instruction and assessments—e.g., the “power standards” (as Doug Reeves of the Center for Performance Assessment calls them) that reside at the upper end of Bloom’s taxonomy.

It doesn’t matter what we call this work or its final product. It may be a curriculum map or a pacing guide (perhaps not “curriculum guide” as so many of these wind up collecting dust). At Adlai Stevenson High School, they call this all-important work the curriculum process (DuFour & Eaker, 1998). To accomplish this foundational task, leaders should grant primary responsibility and leadership to teams and departments themselves. However, the maps should be formally reviewed by a savvy curriculum expert to ensure their quality—their viability— including their alignment with state assessments.

But again, creating a curriculum map or pacing guide isn’t enough. Despite the many workshops now offered on curriculum mapping, many teachers continue to report that there are as yet no mechanisms in their schools for ensuring that the most essential standards are actually taught or taught on any kind of agreed-upon schedule. Therefore, we must have . . .

The Courage to Monitor

In this most important area, a radical change is in order. We won’t have a guaranteed and viable curriculum until principals, perhaps with help of teacher leaders, have the courage to meet with teacher teams monthly or quarterly to look at evidence of curriculum coherence. Marzano recommends the same kind of administrative review that DuFour conducted for years. At these all-important meetings, teams must demonstrate that they are truly (1) teaching the agreed-upon standards and (2) ensuring that progress is being made toward annual achievement goals and that ongoing assessment informs adjustments in instruction to ensure that increasingly (if incrementally) higher proportions of students are learning essential outcomes on formative assessments.

Such meetings, though essential, mightily violate the “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture in which we still pretend that we provide a coherent curriculum when we clearly don’t. We must remind ourselves that the stakes are unusually high here and that a guaranteed and viable curriculum is a crucial factor that will make or break our improvement efforts (Marzano, 2003). Without such reviews (or some tough-minded equivalent) we shouldn’t expect serious improvement in our schools.

The Quarterly Curriculum Review

For “average” leaders to be effective, we have to make it easier—more comfortable, if you will—for them to ask for evidence of what standards are being taught and how many students are learning those standards. The following kinds of evidence would make these meetings meaningful:

  • Team learning/lesson logs: Logs should include evidence that teams are crafting and refining lessons, units, and assessments, along with measurable results achieved on those assessments.
  • Quarterly or other periodic or formative assessments: Assessments should show results achieved (e.g., 77 percent of students succeeded on this essay assignment or science inquiry or test on polynomials, whatever the case may be).
  • Grade books: Grade books should contain clear evidence that the curriculum is being taught. For some teachers, this may require that columns in their grade books be more clear and explicit about assessments.
  • Student work: Student work should include scored samples from key assignments. These samples provide an incomparable opportunity for leaders to acquire the ability to understand and support the quality of instruction and assessment. Leaders are learners, too.

These administrative reviews don’t have to be time-consuming or unpleasant—nor do they have to be perfect. Any good-faith attempt by the average administrator will have a major impact on curricular quality and consistency, especially if leaders, including teacher leaders, help each other improve. Leaders can help each other streamline the procedure, make teacher expectations clearer, and learn which information is most revealing of each team’s progress or problems.

I have some firsthand experience here. Years ago, in a middle school where I taught, the principal sat down with each teacher periodically to conduct such a review. We were asked to bring our grade books (a very revealing document, as you’ll find). We English teachers brought one sample of student writing for each written assignment along with the student’s rough draft . The principal could see lots of obvious things immediately, like the nature and number of our reading and writing assignments. She asked us fairly tame questions: How did this assignment go? What elements of the rubric were kids struggling with on this or other assignments, and how did we intend to improve in those areas? Did we need any help or support? It was a short but exceedingly powerful chat. In addition to these conversations, she made only occasional, quick visits to our classrooms— these have to be part of the leader’s repertoire as well. Anyone who has done systematic classroom tours knows that these don’t have to be that frequent or time-consuming.

You can’t imagine how powerfully these simple, time-efficient rituals influenced the quality of our teaching and ensured a guaranteed and viable curriculum.

This was decades ago before learning communities were common. In a learning community, the principal might have done this with us by team and saved even more time while giving us a chance to learn from each other; she might have met with individuals only if there were indications of a problem or need. In some schools, these team reviews might be conducted by department heads, as is increasingly the case now at Adlai Stevenson High School and the Glendale Union High School District (Schmoker, 2001).

In Johnson City, New York, department head Dan Hendery provided such periodic oversight, which resulted in an increase in the passing rate on the New York Regents exam from 47 percent to 93 percent in a single year. Leadership focused on instructional improvement and guided by formative assessment results led to this incredible improvement without the need for a new program or “strategic plan” (Schmoker, 1999, p. 96).

Wanted: A Simple if Radical Shift in School Leadership Practices

photo of a report card.

Such simple, flexible structures, combined with quick, periodic classroom tours, can result in astonishing improvements in school leadership. These processes could be mastered by virtually any average leader, especially with the help of department heads or lead teachers—thus distributing leadership, with manifold benefits.

But it will be a difficult transition. Such reviews run right up against the deeply felt but unexamined notion that teachers as professionals are best left alone and don’t need oversight. It will mean making a detailed, long-overdue case—which most educators have never heard—for a guaranteed and viable curriculum. It will also mean making the similarly ironclad case for self-managing teams and for examining assessments results and adjusting practice against assessment results regularly vs. annually. There will be details to work out, but in the end, such meetings must become a nonnegotiable expectation for professional educators. Like any other profession, we have to put evidence, regularly collected and examined, at the heart of collaboration and leadership.

We’ve seen what has happened in the absence of such a concern with evidence: a disastrous breakdown in two fundamental areas that, together, have more impact on learning than all other factors combined, i.e., what we teach and how we teach (Marzano, 2004; Mortimore & Sammons, 1987; Schmoker 2002). If we lose our nerve here, we are only pretending to want better schools.

Make no mistake: such simple, high-leverage, team-based leadership practices will have a palpable effect on instruction and the achievement gap. Our willingness to implement such eminently simple, reasonable new routines will be a crucial test of how professional we are and how much we care about kids and schools.


  • Collins, J. (2001a). Good to great. New York: Harper Business.
  • Collins, J. (2001b, October). Good to great. Fast Company, 51(1), 90–104.
  • DuFour, R. (May 2002). The learning-centered principal. Educational Leadership, 59(8), 12–15.
  • DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work. National Education Service.
  • Marzano, R. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • Peters, T. (1987). Thriving on chaos. Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Pfeffer, P., & Sutton, R. (2000). The knowing-doing gap. Boston: Harvard University Press.
  • Schmoker, M. (2004, February). Tipping point: From feckless reform to substantive instructional improvement. Phi Delta Kappan, 85(6), 424–432.
  • Schmoker, M. (2002, May). The real causes of higher achievement. SEDL Letter, 14(2), 3–7.
  • Schmoker, M. (1999). Results: The key to continuous school improvement. Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • Schmoker, M. (2001). The results fieldbook: Practical strategies from dramatically improved schools. Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • Schmoker, M., & Marzano, R. J. (1999, March). Realizing the promise of standards-based education. Educational Leadership, 56(6), 17–21.
  • Mortimore, P., & Sammons, P. (1999, September). New evidence on effective elementary schools. Educational Leadership, 45(1), 4–8.
  • Togneri, W. (2003, March). Beyond islands of excellence: What districts can do to improve instruction and achievement in all schools—A leadership brief. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Mike Schmoker is author of The Results Fieldbook: Practical Strategies for Dramatically Improved Schools. This article is drawn from a chapter Mike has written for a new book called The Opportunity.

photo of test papers.

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