We were exposed to three great presenters who challenged us to consider the value of great leadership in our schools, valid and reliable assessments of our students and teachers, and the creative and entrepreneurial elements of our public education system.

Learning Leadership column, April 2013 edition of eSchool NewsThis year’s National Conference on Education, from the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), was held in Los Angeles in February. More than 2,500 superintendents and other K-12 administrators attended the event. The general sessions featured three notable presenters who focused on the transformational theme that prevailed throughout the conference.

Leadership in our schools is recognized as essential to high-quality education. Best-selling author Jim Collins has focused on the world of business in “Good to Great” and “Great by Choice”—but prior to his session at the conference, we spent an hour on the phone going over the issues affecting education today. His remarks zeroed in on leadership at the school level, particularly the role of the K-12 principal. His thinking is that the theories he advances in his books apply to school leaders as much as they do to the titans of industry [see story here].

Superintendents will agree with Collins that the right principal can make all the difference in turning around a troubled school or maintaining a high level of performance in an already successful program. Collins spoke about an Arizona study that focused on two schools with similar demographics, but one school excelled academically while the other one did not. The study revealed that the difference was not extraneous variables such as funding, parental involvement, or class size. The difference was the principal.

I believe that the U.S. Department of Education might be well aware of this fact, because all of its models for turning schools around include a change in school leadership. Unfortunately, that requirement takes the superintendent out of the equation and has created problems for rural and small suburban school systems that have difficulty recruiting for the position. The problem might not always be a dysfunctional leader. It could be a lack of resources and inadequate personnel. This is a decision that should be made at the district level, not in Washington, D.C.

But to get back to Collins, he went on to talk about his trademark “BHAGs”: Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals. Great leaders are relentless in their pursuit of BHAGs, but once they achieve them they cannot rest on their laurels. Ongoing progress is essential, but it must be balanced with maintaining the core values and not pursuing change for the sake of change.

Linda Darling-Hammond was the general session speaker on day two. Linda is undoubtedly one of the most knowledgeable education researchers in the field. During President Obama’s first campaign for the presidency, Linda was one of his chief education policy advisors. She agrees with many of us that No Child Left Behind had noble goals, but unfortunately, many unintended consequences as well.