Guest Book Review: "Leverage Leadership" is Very Good

Why are so many charters pretty good, mediocre, or bad? Ie: not excellent. Much energy is expended analyzing mediocre and bad. My own view is they tend to misunderstand the role of school culture, how the Misbehavior Tax undermines teachers, and therefore the need to have teachers rowing in the same direction in that domain.

But why aren't pretty good charters, well, really good?

Spencer Blasdale and I talk about that a lot, over the years. Spencer taught, then was a school leader, and now he consults. He visits many charters around the USA. I like talking to him because he sees all the variance among charter schools.

Spencer had emailed me a review of Paul Bambrick-Santoyo's new book about school leadership. (Paul leads North Star charter schools in Newark. Those are part of a charter management group called Uncommon). With Spencer's permission, I'm sharing his review with you.

Spencer writes:

“I try to get into everyone’s classroom at least once a week or so.” [A. Typical Principal]

“I saw her in the first semester but things have gotten pretty busy since then.” [A. Nonymous Teacher]

I could’ve picked these quotes from just about any of the schools that I’ve visited this year (or the school that I led), with one notable exception –- a small, start-up charter school in Missouri.

That school just received its MAP assessment results and found that in a single year, the average fifth grade student grew 2.3 – 2.5 academic years in reading, math and science.

Why was that school such an outlier among charters? Spencer continues:

The reason is because the Principal came from the UnCommon Schools network and she had been steeped in their thinking about how school leaders can and should spend their time. What she does is captured by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s new book, Leverage Leadership, which was released yesterday. If I were to become a leader of a school tomorrow I would systematically pull each of the 7 levers described in this book.

Got that? Your gift-giving to principals just got easier. Spencer continues:

A study by the Urban Institute reveals that Principals spend, on average, 6% of their time on “day-to-day instruction:” observing instruction, coaching teachers, developing or leading professional development, using data to drive instruction or evaluating teachers. Doug Lemov presents this statistic in his forward to Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s new book. Lemov contrasts the 6% average with the systematic approach of the leaders that Santoyo has captured and how they are relentless about working with teachers to improve instruction.

But there is also a note of realism in this leadership guide -– the recommendation is that a principal should spend 25% of her/his time with teachers and should work with no more than 15 at a time.

Santoyo’s book follows his successful Data-Driven Instruction published in 2010, and it uses a similar structure to Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, published in 2011. The successful formula includes the following:

•real examples to point to (mostly in the charter world although district examples are included in this book), •2-3 minute video clips to illustrate techniques or practices •Lots of tools and practical take-aways

Most importantly, these books are written by and for practitioners. In Santoyo’s newest book, for example, the audience includes school leaders, superintendents, district leaders, coaches and teacher leaders – anyone who is in a position to help coach teachers. He includes a section on “turnaround” in each chapter (although I didn’t think this was a strength), and there is a full chapter devoted to the role of Superintendent.

Here are the seven levers that Paul discusses, roughly corresponding to each chapter in the book:

Instructional Levers:

1. Data-driven instruction. Define the roadmap for rigor and adapt teaching to meet students’ needs.

2. Observation and feedback. Give all teachers professional, one-on-one coaching that increases their effectiveness as instructors.

3. Instructional planning. Guarantee every student well-structured lessons that teach the right content.

4. Professional development. Strengthen both culture and instruction with hands-on training that sticks.

Cultural Levers:

1. Student culture. Create a strong culture where learning thrives.

2. Staff culture. Build and support the right team for the school.

3. Managing school leadership teams. Train instructional leaders to expand your impact across the school.

Question: If you have to choose two levers only (say if you were prioritizing and trying to turn around a school), which two would you choose?

Answer: Santoyo suggests #1 and #1. That is, data-driven instruction and student culture. He makes a compelling argument about how both of these are necessary pre-conditions for great teaching and learning.

Paul makes two interesting arguments for his choice. First of all, he makes a very compelling case for the fact that “rigor” is defined only through choice of assessment or performance task. Secondly he talks about how even the best leaders observing can only hope to see 1% of actual instruction and thus you have to rely on robust, frequent assessment data.

Once you have established the basics, however, the central argument of this book is that there are two key drivers for high-performing schools: spending much more time coaching and using more effective coaching tactics. And I’ve seen this work in the small charter in Missouri: a Principal spending 45 min./week with each teacher, part of the time spent on very specific feedback on the lesson and part of this time spent in planning the next week’s lesson.

The book provides a format for coaching as well as tools and video snapshots of coaching in action – both one-on-one instructional feedback as well as instructional planning for the upcoming week. There are examples of a principal’s schedule as well as a principal’s notes from teacher coaching sessions. While some of the video clips seem a bit staged, the 2-3 minute length provides just enough time to get the essence of the practice itself.

The book isn’t going to the bestseller list (Fifty Shades will lock that up for a few more weeks), and I was disappointed in a few areas. Although I understand the need for testimonials throughout, I skipped over most of them while reading unless I knew who was writing. Personally, I didn’t find the cultural leadership chapters (one for students and one for staff) all that helpful.

What was fundamentally compelling to me was a coherent instructional model that has proven to raise the bar for rigor and results in schools. For example, I loved the method for developing high quality instructional leadership through redefining leadership team meetings.

This is a great observation. Leadership meetings in most charters, including ours, tend to be massive logistical exercises. Coming events (a trip, an Assembly, a PD day, a parent council meeting). Problem-solving (a discipline hearing, an upset parent, a fried teacher). One thing Paul advises, and many Uncommon schools succeed in executing, is orienting those meetings away from the urgent and towards the important. The reason Spencer finds it so compelling is he knows, from personal experience, how hard it is to achieve this in actual meetings.


Imagine if a school continually used the following high-leverage actions for principals and instructional leaders during their meetings. What would happen to the capacity for coaching and instructional improvement?

What are the highest Leveraging Leadership Check-in Actions?

Data-Driven Instruction •Analyse data from an interim assessment of one of the teachers the leader supports: plan out the analysis meeting the leader will have with that teacher •Observe the assessment analysis meeting (in person or watch video of it). •Role-play the analysis meeting.

Observation and Feedback •Review the observation tracker. Has the leader observed enough? Are the action steps measurable, actionable, and bite-sized (can be accomplished in one week)? Is the teacher making progress based on the pattern of action steps over the past month? •Observe the teacher with the leader and compare your sense of the most important action steps with what the leader has written in his or her observation tracker. Do you agree on the best action steps? •Observe the feedback meeting (in person or watch video of it). How well is the leader implementing the six steps to effective feedback? •Role-play the feedback meeting.

Planning •Review a teacher’s curriculum plan or lesson plan together. Is the teacher proficient on the rubric for effective plans? •Review a leader’s feedback to a teacher’s curriculum or lesson plan. Is it the right feedback? Do teachers seem to be implementing the feedback? •Role play leading a planning meeting.

Leading Professional Development •Plan a PD session together using the Living the Learning template. •Observe the PD session (in person or watch video of it): Where can they improve in their delivery of PD? •Rehearse the PD session

I know Paul B a little bit, and the rest of Uncommon (Brett, Josh, Doug, et al) all helped Match back when they lived in Boston and ran charters here. They walk the walk. The alumni of our teacher residency who then go on to teach at Uncommon consistently describe getting more coaching than at many of our other customers (including the charter schools we run ourselves). These methods really seem to pay off.

If you're a leader at a pretty good school, and want to put your teachers in a better position to succeed but feel pinned by day-to-day issues, it's perhaps the no-brainer book pick of the summer.