For 15 years as a school and district leader, I continually worked toward creating a systems approach for the work we were doing that would ultimately improve student achievement. In Leading a High Reliability School, we offer a comprehensive look into a systemic approach to school leadership that can serve any school. In essence, this work establishes a union of two very profound and effective concepts: the PLC at Work™ process and the High Reliability Schools™ (HRS) framework.
When A Handbook For High Reliability Schools was published in 2014, we viewed it as step one in providing research-based direction for school- and district-level leaders to implement integrated systems for long-term school improvement. When coupled with PLC at Work, the HRS framework can provide systemic leadership answers for both turnaround schools as well as schools that are doing well and want to replicate their successes over time.
With strategic ideas and examples of practices that can help establish continuous improvement, these systems promote institutional integrity to stay true to the right work over time and keep school and district leaders from falling into the trap of chasing new initiatives every year. The key to long-term improvement and success is to establish and sustain the right work and give people a chance to get good at it. This also provides school- and district-level leaders an opportunity to get better at leading these initiatives and to establish strong teacher leadership within their systems.
Leading Indicators, Lagging Indicators, and Quick Data
The approach to leadership we establish in Leading a High Reliability School is based on three critical aspects that were originally introduced in the HRS Handbook. These include leading indicators, lagging indicators, and the use of quick data as a monitoring tool. Leading indicators provide district-level leaders with specific concepts they can use to establish the condition of defined autonomy within the district.
Defined autonomy creates the tight and loose relationship that helps all leaders understand the top-down versus bottom-up continuum for school initiatives. The leading indicators represent the tight, or conditions and systems schools need to establish in their operation. At the same time, the lagging indicators represent the loose, as schools have the autonomy to establish their strategies and system approaches for each of the leading indicators to suit their specific situation and needs.
Across the five levels of the HRS framework, there are 25 leading indicators. For each the 25 leading indicators, we provide a leadership reflective scale as a tool for schools to assess their level of implementation and work toward establishing solid systems of operation. The top level on each of the reflective scales is entitled “Sustaining” and means a school has put a leading indicator into place, has the lagging indicators to show it is in place, and has established quick-data systems to monitor and sustain the health of that leading indicator.
This system of leadership establishes an information loop to continually monitor critical aspects of the school’s operation. Through this monitoring, school leaders can recognize opportunities to celebrate continued successes or take immediate action to correct errors before they become system failures.
Ultimately, this puts more emphasis on systems of operations and less emphasis on the specific personal attributes of school leaders. This leadership approach can reduce the amount of backsliding or starting over that occurs when a new principal is hired to lead a school. In the High Reliability Leadership model, a new principal does not have to start over. Instead, he or she might bring some new ideas and thoughts about how the school can continue to improve on the leading indicators or implement leading indicators that are not yet established. This also allows new administrators a clear look into the work that preceded them and what the district expects them to establish and maintain during their tenure as principal.