Skip Navigation
The Role of Educational Leadership in Ensuring Academic Success for Every Child

by Jill Jacoby

As Washington State enters its second decade of school reform, it can look with pride on its willingness to set high standards for student performance and a pattern of success in establishing a continuing upward spiral in students performance in reading, math and writing. The advent of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), while philosophically aligning with Washington educators' commitment to ensure that every child becomes a successful learner, has added urgency to the goal of increased accountability for the academic success of every child. The Act as presently written contains several provisions that are unworkable and must be revised. The accountability for the academic performance of categories of children who have historically been unsuccessful learners is, however, clearly the next step in Washington's educational reform.

The importance of leadership cannot be overstated in an environment where the goal is that every student will achieve at high levels. A systemic approach to student learning becomes vital. This systemic model becomes the guide for district, school and classroom decision making and communications. This concept may, at first glance, seem to infer that in a successful school district all leadership decisions are made at the central office. In reality the opposite is true. In an effective educational environment, leadership capacity is developed and supported at every level.

Although the superintendent has the ultimate responsibility to see that the mission of the district is clear and that the district direction is aligned with that mission, the refinement of the vision and the action plans that make that vision a reality are often the result of a cascading process of leadership, which engages affected departments and school sites in the decisions that they will implement. The key to this process is an analysis of student performance data and other evidence that gives insight into the effectiveness of instructional strategies and resources presently used in the district. Phillip Schlechty writes "...road maps are useless if all one knows is where one is going. It is important as well to know where one is presently located" (Schlechty, 2001).

According to a study of superintendents in high performing districts in North Carolina and Texas (Monk, 2003), there were three factors that the majority of superintendents believed were helpful as they led their districts through educational change: the most valuable factor was alignment of textbooks with state standards, the second was the development of state standards, and the third was statewide assessments linked to statewide standards. Washington State, working with teams of local educators, has addressed or is in the process of addressing these three factors. A " scorecard" is being developed to help districts sort through the wide array of instructional material reviewed during a typical textbook adoption process. Grade-level standards will be available for districts this fall and the Essential Academic Learning Requirements ( EALRs) linked to statewide assessments have been the foundation of Washington State's education reform work since the early 1990s.

Staff development is another area of shared leadership. The use of cascading coaching models is a powerful way to help administrators and teachers embed new skills and strategies in their daily work. Administrators find their classroom observations become more intentional and of more value to their staff if they receive on-site coaching from a supervisor or take part in structured classroom "walk arounds" where they learn to identify successful practices. Teachers find that having an on-site TOSA (Teacher on Special Assignment) coach makes it easier to apply new approaches and techniques in their classroom teaching. The coaching model builds mutual respect and increased mastery between all participants.

A third area that has assumed increasing importance for educational leaders is communication. Washington educational leaders must work with staff, community and parents to maintain and increase the sense of ownership and engagement that strengthens the school community. Research on successful school reform highlights the power of the inclusive educational family in making all students successful learners. Everyone who might possibly come into contact with a student is a partner in ensuring that student's academic success (Lein, Johnson and Ragland, 1997). For this attitude to flourish in a school or district, communication networks are crucial.

The superintendent, central office administrators and principals play two important roles. The first is to engage with parents and members of the community whenever possible. The interaction of educational leaders who are authentic spokespeople for their belief in the capabilities of all students in the school system to succeed wins deep, sincere support and ownership from parents and community members. The second role is to communicate to every school district employee how important they are in the success of students.

We all recognize and value the role of teachers but the bus driver, food service staff, secretaries, assistants and custodians are also powerful members of the school and district staff and need to know they are appreciated. When they share the school district's vision of success for all students the community responds. With the increasingly complex task of explaining all the aspects related to NCLB, a network of knowledgeable, caring adults becomes invaluable.

Administrators throughout the state are demonstrating the qualities described above as well as other leadership qualities that are unique to their personalities or their school district needs. Together, the educators of Washington State are taking on the challenges of educational reform and are positively changing the lives of the children they serve.


Peter C. Schlechty, Shaking up the School House: How to Support and Sustain Educational Innovation, Jossey-Bass Inc., A Wiley Company, San Francisco, 2001.

Betty Jo Monk, Leader to Leader: Meeting State and Federal Accountability Requirements, Texas Association of School Administrators, Texas; and North Carolina Association of School Administrators, North Carolina, 2003.

Laura Lein, Ph.D.; Joseph F. Johnson Jr., Ph.D.; Mary Ragland, Successful Texas School Wide Programs: Research Study Results, The Charles A. Dana Center, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, February 1997.

About the Author

Jill Jacoby, Ph.D. is Executive Director of the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA).

825 Fifth Avenue, SE
Olympia, WA 98501

You may also contact her directly by emailing

© August 2003 New Horizons for Learning

Search New Horizons


New Horizons Links

New Horizons home

About Us (NHFL)

Current Journal

Submission Guidelines


Follow us on Facebook, Linked In, and Twitter!

Facebook Icon Twitter Icon LinkedIn Icon

New Horizons Shop

Featured Item: Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist and Classroom Teacher

By Judy Willis | Purchase

Visit the New Horizons store on for more selections

New Horizons store on