Integrity Even When He Loses

The guest speaker in my "Leading U.S. Schools" class today was a man named Jeff Gilbert, who is the principal of Hillsdale High School. His school (and his leadership) have been featured in the Washington Post ("How one school created a ‘safe, comfortable place’ for students and teachers") and Newsweek. Among other accomplishments, Hillsdale was in the 99th percentile for school climate among all California schools in 2014. Jeff is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Education and is being honored tomorrow with an Alumni Excellence in Education award.

Jeff was awesome. The three former teachers I was sitting with in class all remarked about how they wished they had worked under his leadership. He was thoughtful, intelligent, and humble. He has clearly enjoyed some success at Hillsdale, but kept referring back about how much more work there is to do, and pointed out some metrics he wants the school to improve on.

One of the first readings we were assigned in this class was a report commissioned by the Wallace Foundation called How Leadership Influences Student Learning, a review of research by Kenneth Leithwood, Karen Seashore Louis, Stephen Anderson and Kyla Wahlstrom. One line in particular stood out to me: "There are virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around in the absence of intervention by talented leaders."

I thought of that line again today while Jeff was speaking. He is clearly a talented leader, and he's accomplished a lot. In his 13 years as principal, he has implemented significant changes in school culture, structure, and instruction, including small learning communities, heterogeneous grouping for the freshmen and sophomore classes, and a graduation process that includes a portfolio defense component.

What fascinated me most about Jeff's success is how he (and his school) did it. He basically was hired to turn around the school -- at one point, about 1/3 of incoming freshmen students were requesting to transfer to another school. It was pretty bad.

When we think of the "talented leaders" referenced by Leithwood and co. in the review of research, it's easy to think of big, loud, outspoken personalities with giant charisma and charm, and prescriptive visions and plans to turn around a failing school -- the type of person who loves to talk and be in front of the room. Top-down type leaders. That is not Jeff. Jeff is not big and loud -- he's thoughtful and inclusive, and he's implemented a pretty remarkable system of school governance at Hillsdale.

Another piece we were assigned to read for class, also by Kenneth Leithwood (this time with Alma Harris and David Hopkins) makes the claim that "school leadership has a greater influence on schools and students when it is widely distributed." This, too, reminds me of Jeff. Hillsdale is governed by what Jeff describes as their "legislative branch," with at-large reps (teachers), house leaders (teachers), and administrators. The administrators get a total of one vote on the council. All major decisions are voted on using a 1-5 scale. 5 = I'm in, put me on the committee, 4 = I vote yes, 3 = I'm not sure, 2 = I disagree but I won't stop it from happening, and 1 = I am stopping this, it violates my principles and values. Every person on the council has veto power.

How often does a principal walk into an important meeting about school policy and cede his authority in the name of shared decision-making? He told us about times when he, as principal, was on the losing end of an important vote. “Alright, I lost. I didn’t win that vote. What do we do now?” he said. He really, truly believes in this approach. Who wouldn't want to work for a man with integrity, whose behavior matches his values, even when he loses? 

You would think a principal hired for a school turnaround would come in with edicts and demands and orders. That seems to be implicit in the NCLB-style, heavy-on-accountability approach to school turnarounds. If a school is failing, you fix it or shut it down. A strong leader comes in, creates a vision, sets high standards and expectations, makes the plan for moving forward and drags the teachers and students with him/her. The leader fixes it.

That's not how things happened at Hillsdale.

The last thing Jeff said before he left was pretty powerful, and not something I had heard during the debate throughout the "accountability era" of education; at least I had never heard it put this way.

“You start talking about accountability when shared responsibility stops working.”

I think what he meant is, if you need to start talking about accountability, something has already gone wrong.