The Chronicle of Higher Ed recently ran a valuable piece containing many inspiring anecdotes of university successes entitled “How to Build a Perception of Greatness.” In it, they “outline some principles of slowly and sustainably building a perception of greatness,” drawing upon examples at dozens of colleges and universities. It bears to reason though that some of these principles might also apply to K-12 schools. Four of these principles follow:
Playing to your Strengths. It may be an obvious one to begin with, but as the article notes, “many colleges have been reluctant to focus on just a few strengths.” The reporting they collect at the Chronicle suggests though that as hard as it is, it is powerful: “identify unique or distinctive strengths and put resources into those, perhaps at the expense of others.”
Examples include Ball State’s immersive learning program, which requires students to complete projects for practice experience, and Northeastern’s required cooperative-education program. “Even elite universities can end up diminishing and diluting the impact of their programs by refusing to highlight a few.”
This is old news, but still valuable: Know your school’s strengths, invest in them, develop them further, and become the best school you can be in those ways.
Looking from the Outside In: This is a more complicated or nuanced idea.
Colleges are accustomed to looking at themselves through a traditional set of metrics: numbers of graduates, graduation rates, etc. [Now] colleges will have to learn to look at achievements from the perspective of the public… In other words, colleges must look at themselves from the “outside in” rather than just the “inside in.” Do students graduate having learned how to solve problems? Were they prepared to enter the workforce? Where are they 10 years after graduation?
When DePaul officials looked at the factors that might lead people to recommend the university to others, the traditional measures dropped off the list and were replaced by more outside in factors: the balance between the academic and social experience, the support of career planning, the strength of the relationship between the community and the university, and the university’s engagement with global issues.
As K-12 schools, we need to showcase the fine qualities of our internal community: our excellent teachers, our fine programs, our terrific student work. But, as this article explains, we also need to articulate how our schools relate to, prepare for, and contribute to the world outside of our campus if we want to be recommended and valued in the wider community.
Showing Off Your Assets: “Lots of colleges have strong programs. The ones that are perceived as high quality are better at promoting them.” Some schools are too modest, the article explains: instead, we need to be unafraid to tout our accomplishments in schools.
Schools should have a position that is “authentic, in demand, and distinctive… [Then] colleges can be more deliberate about showing off their academic prominence by thinking strategically about what professors are doing in the classroom and laboratory, or at academic conferences, and not being timid about promoting these activities in public.
Use alumni too, the Chronicle argues: tell stories about alumni, so as people can better appreciate the value of a school’s education.
This is great advice: we need to be more willing to publicize stories from our schools, and showcase our excellence in ways that align with our core messages and mission. What the article doesn’t mention is how terrific is it that we have new social media tools and platforms upon which we can do so. Schools can and should be using facebook, blogging, twitter, and other media to share, publicize, and tout their school’s values and achievements, and their students’ success.
Putting a Face at the Top. Leadership makes a big difference; our school-leaders need to be willing and determined to lead, putting a face to the articulated vision of the institution’s future and a relentless process of communicating and reinforcing that vision and the program to get there. From the Chronicle:
Nearly all of our experts agree on one thing. Colleges can either thrive or founder on the basis of their leaders.. Leadership is the number one factor in determining institutional success.
“There is an element of clear, strong leadership that is not going to take no for an answer. They are leaders willing to point the way. Instead of saying ‘we are going to try to get buy-in and bring everyone along,’ they say ‘That’s where we’re going– let’s go.'”
These leaders have some balance of charisma, vision, and sometimes aggressive self-confidence.
There is a 20-60-20 rule about organizations as a major stumbling block. While 20 percent of the employees will be enthusiastic about about change, and 60 percent could be persuaded to go along, 20 percent will resist no matter what… ‘The people who don’t make the transition moving forward are the people who spend too much time and energy trying to persuade those 20 percent who are never going to change.”
The institutional success of visionary and personal leadership is greatly enhanced by stability and durability of leadership, the article explains and demonstrates with multiple examples. “Some of the most effective leaders have had a lot of time in the chair.”
We know Jim Collins is right in Good to Great when he says that effective leadership does not have to be highly charismatic, but it does have to be articulated, future-oriented, focussed and relentless. Schools should always be cultures of collaboration, trust, and teaming; we who lead schools should always emphasize that the value of the organization lies in the quality and commitment of our many teachers. But, if we can take the appropriate lessons from this Chronicle article and from Collins, we should also be willing and ready to lead with a strong conviction about learning, an idealist visions of our institution’s future self, and a commitment to articulating, acting, and reinforcing that vision with every decision we make and communication we issue.