Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Sustaining Leadership

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Sustaining Leadership

Article excerpt

The issue of sustaining change in education has to do with more than maintaining improvements over time. Drawing on their work with six schools involved in improvement efforts, the authors explore the crucial role that school leaders play in supporting and sustaining those aspects of teaching and learning that are themselves sustaining.

EDUCATIONAL CHANGE is rarely easy, always hard to justify, and almost impossible to sustain. Educational change that enhances deep learning among students is particularly problematic, and sustaining such change over time has presented severe challenges for education reformers.1 Discussions of the sustainability of educational change try to address these challenges, but they often trivialize the idea of sustainability by equating it with maintainability - with how to make change last. Here we develop deeper meanings of "sustainability" and examine the extent to which efforts to sustain change are in tune with the ecological origins of the concept.

We live in a complex and fast-changing knowledge society.2 Meanwhile, teaching and school leadership are in the midst of major demographic turnover. Such changes are not easy to control. Indeed, they require different ways of thinking about change in human and natural systems - ways that our conventional approaches to planned change have not allowed. We seek to link our deeper senses of sustainable change to significant leadership issues in education in order to develop key principles of what we call "sustaining leadership." Our work draws on a five-year program of school improvement involving six secondary schools in an urban and suburban school district in Ontario, as well as on Change Over Time? - a study funded by the Spencer Foundation that included a look at leadership over time in eight high schools in Ontario and New York State.

A Traditional View

For many years, change agents and theorists of educational change have been concerned with how to move beyond the implementation phase of change, when new ideas and practices are tried for the first time, to the institutionalization phase, when new practices are integrated effortlessly into teachers' repertoires and can affect many teachers, not just a few.3 Many long-standing practices - among them the graded school, the compartmentalized secondary school, tracking students by ability, and teacher-centered instruction - have been institutionalized over long periods of time and have become part of the "grammar of schooling."4 The persistence of this grammar - and of everyone's ideas of how schools should really work as institutions - has made it exceptionally difficult to institutionalize innovations and reforms that challenge the grammar, that imply a different and deviant institutional appearance and way of operating for schooling.5

In the face of this traditional grammar of schooling, the vast majority of educational change that deepens learning and allows everyone to benefit from it neither spreads nor lasts. This long-standing problem of institutionalization is now coming to be understood as the even more complex problem of sustainability.

The Meaning of Sustainability

Sustainability is more than a matter of persistence over time. It concerns more than the life and death of a change. As we have argued elsewhere: "Sustainability does not simply mean whether something can last. It addresses how particular initiatives can be developed without compromising the development of others in the surrounding environment, now and in the future."6

This definition implies several things. First, sustainable improvement is enduring, not evanescent. It does not put its investment dollars into the high-profile launch of an initiative and then withdraw them when the glamour has gone. Sustainable improvement demands committed relationships, not fleeting infatuations. It is change for keeps and change for good. Sustainable improvement contributes to the growth and the good of everyone, instead of fostering the fortunes of the few at the expense of the rest. …

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