Ideas are good, but people are great

Over ten years ago, I was involved in founding a school in Massachusetts. The school model—a seamless early childhood/elementary school – had all the research behind it and innovative practices you could hope for:

  • A focus on developmentally appropriate practice and children’s social emotional development
  • A focus on early literacy development
  • Skilled preschool and elementary teachers with master’s degrees and experience (over 150 applicants applied for 10 positions)
  • Emphasis on strong and continuous partnerships with families
  • Research-based learning goals and curriculum

We attracted considerable startup funding and won the approval of the local superintendent, school committee, and teachers’ union.

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The one thing we didn’t have was the right person to lead the school. The principal we hired—though, new to the profession–was dynamic, smart, and passionate. We hoped he would grow into the job as the school grew from a small early childhood setting to a full PreK-5 setting. But, in short, we settled. The principal lacked the clarity of purpose, instructional knowledge, and supervision and communication skills needed to inspire and develop staff and ensure excellence. He also lacked the political savvy to work effectively with the district, other leadership colleagues, and key partners. The school sputtered along – achieved less than stellar academic results, and never lived up to its original vision. The principal left after his fourth year. The board, of which I served on, did not make the hard choice soon enough to replace the principal with the right leader.

This is the story of many education and social sector improvement efforts. While we as policy makers, innovators and reformers  place great emphasis on ideas, resources, and structures—often falling in love with how smart and organized they make us look—we dramatically  undervalue  the importance of people in schools and organizations as the lynchpins for success.

For instance, while schools may have the same or similar learning standards (state or district mandated), curriculum, resources, technology, extended learning hours (etc), they vary widely in performance.  Why? Because these factors are not what ultimately matter. It is the skill and passion of leaders and staff that drive results. And unlike ideas which are scalable, exceptional people are not.

It is the skill and passion of leaders and staff that drive results. And unlike ideas which are scalable, exceptional people are not.

So how can schools and organizations ensure that they have the right people? While there is a considerable amount of research on and innovative efforts underway to attract, train and support effective education and human service leaders and professionals, I believe there are three key principles that schools and organizations can follow when making important personnel decisions:

1. Start with the right people

This involves three components:

  • Look for the Learners .  Regardless of background, knowledge and skills, leaders and staff at all levels should demonstrate a tireless commitment to self-improvement – to listening, learning, self-reflecting, and adapting to changing situations, challenges and opportunities.  If this is not the case – then you hire someone who will not grow as your organization grows and essentially will be the same person 10 years from now. 

  • Stand and Deliver .  Beyond a commitment to learning, organizations must also establish non-negotiable skills for positions, and then assess candidates on these skills through real-time performance of job-relevant tasks during the selection process.  For example, schools might have a principal candidate observe a lesson and debrief with the teacher, meet with families to review effective literacy practices, draft a proposal to the board on the best use of discretionary funds for next year, etc.

  • Cut your losses.   Within the first year/two years, when leaders or staff are not performing up to expectations, and do not respond to critical feedback or professional support, organizations should make the hard choice to let them go.  To hold on to them is to do both the organization and the leader/staff person in question a disservice.

2.   Sustain the right people .   Organizations should support leaders and staff with ongoing professional development — so they continue to learn, to be the right people.  However, importantly, this professional development should include skill or competency-based learning—not professional development focused on required hours or credits to qualify for pay-scale increases or performance reviews.  All professional learning should result in leaders and staff demonstrating real evidence of mastery of a specific skill or set of skills (see: A Middle Path to Professional Development ).   

3.   Create a ‘ right people culture .’   Whether you call it a Learning Organization , Collegial Culture , or something else, when organizations send the message— from the board, to leadership, to staff—that they look for and support skilled and committed people, and attend to their continued professional growth, they are more likely to attract and retain great staff and achieve results.  In their survey of more than 4,800 teachers in almost 250 schools across the country, The New Teacher Project (TNTP) found that schools with a pervasive commitment to high quality teaching skill, ongoing skill development, and opportunities for teacher collaboration, kept more top teachers and realized better results for students compared to schools serving the same student populations.

All of these principles, of course, sound easier than they actually are. It is hard to assess job candidates over a short period of time. It is even harder to let someone go, after you’ve hired them. And in the day-to-day running of a school or nonprofit, it’s difficult to find dedicated time for professional learning and collegial collaboration. However, effective schools and organizations realize that not doing these things is what leads to hardship in the long-run, and often results in an underperforming school or a mismanaged nonprofit. 

Jake Murray has served as the director of Aspire since February 2009. Prior to joining Aspire, he served for four years as a child and youth planner for the City of Cambridge, overseeing strategic planning, quality improvement, and program development for early education, out-of-school-time, and youth development services. He also served for five years as a director of community partnerships for the Harvard Children’s Initiative, leading a range of collaborative efforts to improve education outcomes in Boston and Cambridge. His research interests include professional learning models, new teacher development, and school-community partnerships.

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