From Good Schools to Great Schools: What their Principals do well


Susan Penny Gray & William A. Streshly

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  • Dedication

    In memory of our good friends Jim Hilton and Larry E. Frase


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    List of Figures and Tables

    Figure 1.1 Framework for the Highly Successful Principal 5

    Table 1.1 Criteria for Selection of Principals to Interview 13

    Table 2.1 Field Elementary School: API Similar Schools Rank 17

    Table 3.1 Range of Personality Exuberance of the Highly Successful and Comparison Principals 28

    Table 4.1 Bay View Elementary School: API Similar Schools Rank 40

    Table 5.1 Mission Elementary School: API Similar Schools Rank 49

    Table 6.1 Mountain High Elementary School: API Relative Rank and Similar Schools Rank 58

    Table 9.1 Pines Elementary School: API Similar Schools Rank 84

    Table 10.1 Eagle Elementary School: API Relative Rank and Similar Schools Rank 94

    Table 12.1 McREL's Balanced Leadership Framework Responsibilities, Average r, and Associated Practices 115

    Table 12.2 Relating Collins’ (2001) Leader Behaviors to Peters and Waterman's ([1982] 2004) Principles of Leadership 120

    Table A.1 Code Families 131

    Table B.1 School Demographics 133


    A competitive world has two possibilities for you: you can lose or, if you want to win, you can change.

    —Lester Thurow, former dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management (1938)

    When I first learned of the book Good to Great Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don't, by Jim Collins (2001), I wondered how schools and their leaders could use his research to improve the leadership in our public school system. The authors of this book have studied this question by looking closely at a sample of our very best school principals and comparing their behavior and characteristics with Collins’ research. What they learned was both surprising and challenging.

    As members of the faculty at San Diego State University in Southern California, Susan Penny Gray and William A. Streshly prepare school administrators. They present in this volume evidence that supports a new paradigm for apprenticing school administrators—one that differs from the traditional model of unresearched best practices and standards. The book represents a research-based glimpse into research-based best practices. Grounding the concepts in a research format similar to the one Jim Collins used, the authors have made it their business to become informed about the best ideas and theories of leadership in schools. In this researched model, school site leaders can learn to look closely at their leadership through the experiences of super-star models and reflect on their own behaviors to move schools toward a more excellent school experience for their students. School leaders can use this book to inspire activities that transform their schools and reframe their professional behaviors.

    Gray and Streshly maintain that the authors of the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium standards have not gathered sufficient empirical evidence to support their standards, and that the standards too often amount to little more than craft knowledge. This is disturbing to those of us involved with professional development, since the standards being widely adopted by states across the country are based at least in part on that consortium's standards. In using the Collins research model, the authors suggest a new paradigm for school leadership training. They observed some commonalities of leadership with the CEOs Collins studied, as well as an additional concept—the ability to work well with groups.

    When my youngest daughter, Alysia, became an administrator last year, she observed that none of the classes she had taken during her administrative credential program was helpful in her planning of what to do at her assigned “failing” middle school. In the jargon of educational administration leadership, she was experiencing a dichotomy between theory and practice. This book will help support my daughter with the critical decisions in her commitment to educating all students at her school, and, as Collins writes, to care enough about the company (students/school/faculty) to endure the pain of “Level 5 decisions.” She and I are convinced that, without school leadership knowledge and commitment at Level 5, our national goals of equal access to rigorous content for all students will not be realized.

    We know from Collins’ research on leadership that there is a gap between the Level 4 and the Level 5 of the five-level hierarchy of leadership ability. Gray and Streshly found the difference between Level 4 and Level 5 to be the maintenance of gains over a sustained period. This major shift from today's view of excellence is a key difference that is often overlooked and nearly neglected in society's rush to judge schools from the current high-stakes testing frenzy.

    “What can I do to make a difference and bring my school to excellence?” Do you want to know what to give to that new or experienced principal that will answer that question? The authors have given us insights through conversations with truly great principals so that we may model them and improve our own operations. Using the behaviors of Level 5, super-star principals will support the development of great educational leaders who are able to engage in long-term leadership of schools that are effective for all students and faculty. This book is a valuable preservice book for administrators, as well as a book to be read by all site leaders who are ready to meet the challenge of a school for all students.

    MargeHobbs EdD


    North County Professional Development Federation

    San Diego County, California


    It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

    —Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens), author (1835–1910)

    The purpose of this book is to explore the leadership characteristics of principals who have enabled their schools to make the leap from good student performance to great student performance. Our intended audience is practicing and aspiring school principals, as well as those responsible for the design and delivery of principal preparation programs.

    Inspired by Jim Collins’ research on outstanding private sector CEOs as reported in his book Good to Great (2001), we embarked on a similar investigation of the qualities of outstanding principals. We compared our findings with Collins’ Good to Great to see what we could learn from this prominent private sector research. What we learned should help every educator who seeks excellence in school leadership.

    As social institutions go, large public schools organized in political hierarchies are fairly new phenomena. The modern-day school principal is also relatively new. These days, buffeted by political storms, the position is changing rapidly. This may be one reason we do not have a lot of empirical data describing what the very best of these leaders do. This state of affairs was unsettling to us as we contemplated redesigning our principal preparation program at San Diego State University. More than a decade earlier, we had participated in the Danforth Foundation's principal preparation network, and as a result had incorporated several effective instructional approaches in our preparation program. Moreover, our department was familiar with the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) standards and the California version of those standards. Nevertheless, we continued to be bothered by the dearth of research supporting the content of the standards, especially since these standards would soon shape our principal preparation program.

    At the same time, we were intrigued by the research on CEOs of very successful companies on which Collins’ (2001) bestselling book reports. We wondered if the behaviors and characteristics of our great business leaders that Collins described in this book might also be found among the best of our school principals. Beginning in 2003 and for the next two years, we embarked on a project to find out.

    The Purpose of the Book

    The purpose of this book is to share what we learned about the behaviors and characteristics of a group of highly successful, or super-star, school principals. The book is intended for practicing principals, aspiring principals, and their supervisors, as well as for faculty in administrator preparation programs and others interested in the effective leadership of our schools.

    While we were conducting our research, we were struck by the idea that the behaviors and characteristics of these stars could be learned. In other words, we could equip most of our administrative candidates with interpersonal skills and approaches to human problems that could help them succeed in doing what they set out to do. At the same time, we are also realistic about the weight of our findings. This was a small study, and although the findings raise important questions, they must be viewed as clues, not as conclusions. We were convinced, however, that sharing these clues with our colleagues was extremely important for two powerful reasons: the behaviors of the principals we studied tended to match the CEOs studied by Collins, and—probably most important—the behaviors of the principals we studied were linked directly to student achievement.

    Isllc Standards

    Some of the ISLLC standards are supported by sound empirical evidence. Much of it, however, is craft knowledge or best practices. The origin of this craft knowledge often harkens back to brainstorming sessions with prominent educators and experts who then validate the resulting standards. This means they are read and judged to be accurate by a large number of the same sort of experts who developed them to begin with. In a sharp criticism of the process, Fenwick English (2005) recounted that the Educational Testing Service used 14 subject-matter experts to conduct a job analysis. This resulted in statements about the responsibilities and knowledge areas needed by beginning school administrators. These statements were then mailed to more than 10,000 principals who either agreed or disagreed with the statements. English avered that the exercise is a validation exercise: “It is not a measure of the truthfulness of the responsibilities or knowledge areas per se” (p. 5).

    To be clear, the ISLLC standards accomplished what they were supposed to accomplish. They are an example of the best we can come up with, given our present knowledge base. As a result of our discomfort with the dearth of hard data to support these standards, we became convinced not only that more research is needed, but also that another approach is vital.

    Good to Great

    For this reason, our interest was aroused by Collins’ (2001) work. He began by identifying great companies and asking, “Why?” This approach was similar to what Peters and Waterman ([1982] 2004) did in the 1980s when they investigated the leadership practices of the top companies of that day. The idea in both cases was to examine great operations and determine why they were great.

    Examining “Great” Principals

    As we started our research, we became convinced that we could use the same approach Collins used in order to gain insight into the characteristics and behaviors of our very best principals. What ensued was a qualitative examination of six highly successful principals. We wanted to know more about principals who make their schools champions.

    Traditional Principal Preparation Questioned

    We had good reason to wonder about what makes a great school administrator. Our program at San Diego State University had all the regular features—all supported by the conventional wisdom of the craft. Part of the rationale for licensure is to protect the public, and requiring school administrators to be educated in school law would certainly seem to fit this criterion. And how about curriculum management and school finance? Or leadership? All, according to conventional wisdom or craft speculation, should be part of the preservice training in a solid school administrator preparation program.

    We were reminded of the experience of a young superintendent we know who was in the first year of his first superintendency The county superintendent usually called on the local district superintendents to screen papers for superintendent openings in the county. This young superintendent was asked to serve on the paper-screening committee for a school district superintendency along with two other prominent superintendents—one of whom had been honored recently as superintendent of the year by the American Association of School Administrators. The conversation began with the usual question, “What qualifications are we looking for in a superintendent for this school district?” The young superintendent replied with conviction, “I think he or she should have principal experience.”

    Years later, the young superintendent recalled he was embarrassed to learn that neither of the successful superintendents he was meeting with that day had been principals. His belief in the necessity of principal experience was based on craft speculation. There was some commonsense support for the notion, but no empirical evidence. We believe that most of what we teach is important, but is it critical in order to prepare great school administrators?

    Our research has led us to suspect that highly successful principals possess certain characteristics and behave in specific ways that cause their schools to be very successful. However, our research, like the recent research of Collins (2001) and of Peters and Waterman 19 years before ([1982] 2004), only provides strong inference—not irrefutable truth. Collins studied only 11 companies; Peters and Waterman, 75 companies. Moreover, we tend to believe in naturals: we believe that a few people are endowed with propensities that they are able to develop without a preparation program. Thus, conclusive proof is elusive. We need much more research of the kind Jim Collins has done.

    Chapters 1 through 10 attempt to answer the question, “We know what to do, so why do we fail?” We look deeply in this book at specific qualities of the highly successful school principal. The bulk of this book is dedicated to looking at each of the leadership qualities as exhibited by principals whose schools have been very successful in increasing student achievement—regardless of the many barriers the principals have encountered.

    In Chapter 11, we consider the commonalities and differences between school principals and business leaders. In addition to a discussion of the disparities, we look at observable leadership attributes universally applied to both public schools and the private sector.

    Finally, Chapter 12 provides insights into the potential of people to become successful school leaders. We make a case for a new paradigm for administrative preparation programs that will do more to promote success for school leaders in the work of twenty-first-century schools.

    An Intimate Look at Super-Star Principals

    We invite you to explore with us how Collins’ research in the private sector might apply to schools. More than that, we invite you to see how the in-depth discussion of the interviews with each of the highly successful principals gives you a priceless intimate acquaintance with the hearts and minds of star-quality school leaders. You will discover, as we discovered, that these powerful people represent a wide range of personalities, and at the same time exhibit a solid core of leadership qualities and characteristics that coalesce to create startling success in their schools. You will see through the eyes of these leaders in the trenches, and you will experience, through their words, what it takes to produce great schools.

    At the end of each chapter, we have posed some key questions about the leadership principles discussed in the chapter. We encourage you to reflect on these questions as they apply to your own professional growth. In addition, we offer suggestions to principals who are working to adapt the text for their own use.


    This book began as a research study. As such, we owe a great debt to the late Larry Frase of San Diego State University and Bruce Matsui and Charles Kerchner of Claremont Graduate University for their guidance in the planning, implementation, and analysis of the study. In addition, our thanks go to the faculty of the Educational Leadership Department of San Diego State University for sharing their words of wisdom with us, and serving as a valuable resource for information about the current status of school administrator preparation.

    The process of turning a research study into a book manuscript takes time—not only for the hours of rewriting and reorganization, but also for the change in mind-set from academic to professional. We acknowledge the assistance Kathy Juline gave us in editing the book and commenting on the voice and flow of the story we told. A special “thank you” goes to Dr. Chyll, who drew the cartoons for this book.

    This book and the study it describes would not have been possible without the participation of the 11 principals of the original study. We appreciate their candor and thoughtfulness that led to the insights in this book.

    Finally, we would like to thank our respective families for their emotional and intellectual support throughout the development of this book. When we needed feeding, they fed us. When we asked to be left to our work, they shut the door. When we requested an audience to try our ideas out on, they were in the front row.

    Pubisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin Press gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following individuals:

    Brenda Dean, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction

    Hamblen County Department of Education

    Morristown, TN

    Mary Lynne Derrington, Professor

    Western Washington University

    Bellingham, WA

    Joen Hendricks-Painter

    Educational Consultant

    Yuma, AZ

    Allison Hoewisch, Associate Professor

    St. Norbert College

    De Pere, WI

    Mary Johnstone, Principal

    Rabbit Creek Elementary School

    Anchorage, AK

    John Pieper, Fifth-Grade Teacher

    Webster Stanley Elementary School

    Oshkosh, WI

    Ted Zigler, Professor

    University of Cincinnati

    Cincinnati, OH

    About the Authors

    Susan Penny Gray, PhD, has been an educator for more than 40 years in Indiana and California, including 15 years as Director of Curriculum Services for the San Marcos Unified School District in San Marcos, California, and seven years as a member of the Educational Leadership faculty at San Diego State University (SDSU). During her tenure as Director of Curriculum Services, she was responsible for the development, implementation, and maintenance of exemplary programs in reading and language arts, mathematics, history and social science, and science for Grades K-12; these programs have been recognized throughout California. She was also responsible for effective teacher and principal support strategies that, during the years under her direction, evolved into a powerful system of coaches and facilitators of staff development. Dr. Gray has “walked the talk” in helping principals become truly effective instructional leaders. Her insights give down-to-earth, practical meaning to the research discussed in this book.

    Dr. Gray serves on the SDSU Educational Administration Preparation Programs Advisory Committee. In her capacity on this committee and as a current member of the faculty of the Educational Leadership Department in the School of Education at SDSU, she has assisted in implementing changes in that school's administration preparation program. She has designed and currently teaches an administrative course on instructional improvement through evaluation and supervision. In this course, students participate in a walk-through supervision practicum, formal evaluation exercises, and the design of teacher and administrator evaluation systems. In addition, Dr. Gray teaches and coordinates the advanced administrator credentialing program at SDSU and supervises the fieldwork for administrative credential candidates at all levels.

    In addition to her involvement with the faculty of Educational Leadership at SDSU, Dr. Gray serves as an officer on the board of directors of California Curriculum Management Systems, Inc. She is certified to train administrators and teachers in conducting walk-throughs to support higher student achievement, and has implemented this training in several states across the country. She has also served as an external evaluator of schools and is a certified School Assistance and Intervention Team Leader for the State of California. She received curriculum management audit training from the California Curriculum Management Audit Center in Burlingame, California, in 1998. Since then, she has served on school district audits in California, Washington, Texas, Ohio, Arizona, Maryland, New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. She has also served on academic achievement teams conducting comprehensive on-site assessments of the educational operations of school and community college districts in California.

    Dr. Gray earned her undergraduate degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and her master's degree from SDSU. In 2005, she received a doctoral degree in educational leadership through the Claremont Graduate University/SDSU Joint Doctoral Program.

    William A. Streshly, PhD, is Emeritus Professor of Educational Leadership in the College of Education at San Diego State University (SDSU). Prior to coming to SDSU in 1990, Dr. Streshly spent 25 years in public school administration, including five years as principal of a large suburban high school and 15 years as superintendent of several California school districts that varied in size from 2,500 to 25,000 students.

    In addition to his numerous publications in professional journals, Dr. Streshly is author or coauthor of four practical books for school leaders: The Top 10 Myths in Education, Avoiding Legal Hassles (two editions), Teacher Unions and Quality Education, and Preventing and Managing Teacher Strikes.

    Professor Streshly serves on the board of directors of California Curriculum Management Systems, Inc. He received his curriculum management audit training in 1990 and now serves as a lead auditor. He has audited the instructional operations of more than 40 school districts in 16 states. His intense interest in the role of effective school leadership stems from his own extensive experience, as well as his in-depth observation of the work of hundreds of practicing school principals across the country.

  • Resource A: Research Methodology

    Semistructured Qualitative Interview

    This exploration was a qualitative study that included description, interpretation, understanding, and identification of recurrent patterns, as described by Merriam (1998). Collins (2001) and his researchers collected information by using a variety of methods. However, central to their examination of the leadership in the 11 Good to Great companies were open-ended qualitative interviews. The intent here was to replicate those interviews (as modified to apply to school leadership) with a group of principals whose schools moved from good to great in student achievement, and a group of comparison principals whose schools were good but did not move to great. Collins named the CEOs of the Good to Great companies Level 5 Executives. For purposes of this study, the name given to the principals of the schools that moved from good to great in student achievement was highly successful principals.

    The interview is probably the most widely used method of qualitative research. The flexibility of the qualitative research interview makes it attractive for purposes of this exploration as opposed to the rigidity of quantitative study In this study, as in Collins’ (2001) research, there is an emphasis on the interviewee's own perspectives and points of view. This is a process of finding patterns in the stories of the principals interviewed.

    One of the powerful aspects of Collins’ research is that it “zeros out systemic factors vs. whining factors” (2004). The leaders of Collins’ Good to Great companies and comparison companies all faced constraints outside their control. Similarly the highly successful and comparison principals in this study faced constraints such as union problems, hiring and firing restrictions, chronic personnel issues, and the diversity of the student population. Nonetheless, just as the Good to Great companies were able to outperform other similar companies, students of Good to Great schools were able to outperform students of other schools with similar demographics. People can often make breakthroughs despite those systemic factors.

    The interview process was semistructured. By using semistructured interviews, the interviewer collected a richer understanding of the information collected (Smith, 1995). These interviews were conducted with an open framework allowing for focused, conversational, two-way communication. The interview was guided by a series of questions that are modifications of the questions asked of CEOs in Collins’ (2001) research (see Resource C for Principal Interview Questions). As each interview progressed, participants were encouraged to raise additional or complementary issues relevant to the study's purposes. In addition, lines of thought identified by earlier interviewees were taken up and presented to later interviewees in second interviews for refinement of ideas. By using open-ended, semistructured interviews, we could explore what the interviewee saw as relevant and important (McCracken, 1988).

    Demographic Information Questionnaire and Interview Procedures

    Collins’ (2001) researchers examined 56 CEOs via interview and document analysis for (1) management style, (2) executive persona, (3) personal life, and (4) each one's top five priorities as CEO. Demographic information was collected for each for background and tenure information. The same method was replicated with modifications for this study of principals in successful schools using the semistructured qualitative interview method and a demographic information questionnaire (see Resource C). Questions to guide the interview were based on those asked in Collins’ research, but with modification to be applicable to school leadership. Additional questions were added as necessary to extract more comprehensive information concerning the characteristics and behaviors of the principals. In addition, questions were added to look at life and educational experiences influencing the leadership of the principals interviewed. The demographic information questionnaire and principal interview questions were piloted with a principal who did not participate in the formal study. Questions were refined further based on the results of the pilot. The one- to two-hour interviews were conducted in private, in a location selected by each interviewee. All but one of the principal interviews were conducted in the principal's office at his or her school. One of the principals in the comparison group was interviewed at her home at her request. Before beginning the interview, principals were asked to complete the demographic information questionnaire. Notes were taken during the interview on a laptop computer, and the interview was tape recorded as back-up for the notes. Principals were contacted by telephone when clarification or additional information was warranted subsequent to the interview.

    Data Analysis Procedures

    The participants’ names, school names, and district names were kept confidential by using fictitious names. The records of this study were kept private; the researcher was the only person who had access to the original records. Immediately following each interview, the computer notes were compared with the taped responses to ensure all information had been recorded.

    The original responses to interview questions and data from the demographic information questionnaire for each participant were entered into ATLAS.ti qualitative analysis software. The responses for all participants were coded using the tools of the software. Categories for the first round of coding were based on an analysis of the responses in relation to Collins’ (2001) characteristics and behaviors of a Level 5 Executive. For example, we asked the following question: “What do you see as the top five factors that have contributed to the success in student achievement performance at the school?” One factor volunteered by a interviewee was “We all decided as a group to implement a new reading program at Grades 1–3. In the first year, we saw gains in student test scores. My teachers should be credited for that… and maybe [it was] a little [bit of] luck too!” Aspects of this statement were coded as consistent with Collins’ definition of compelling modesty. The second round of coding was expanded to include additional characteristics and behaviors generated by the interviewee (e.g., shared decision making, building relationships, visiting classrooms, trust). The earlier question and response example received an additional code of shared decision making. During the coding process, additional ideas generated from the questions asked—or by ideas volunteered from the interviewee—materialized, and coding was refined further to explore patterns among the principals interviewed relevant to the study. Related codes were grouped together in code families. Table A.1 presents the code families applied in this analysis.

    As noted in Table A.1, code family headings were the characteristics and behaviors that Collins (2001) identified in his Level 5 Executives. One additional code family heading was “building relationships.” As the principal responses were coded, notes were made to clarify reasons for the coding. The refined coding of the responses served to organize the data, interpretations, and connections to existing literature, analysis, and conclusions of the study.

    Table A.1 Code Families

    Resource B: Interview Participant Selection

    The intent here was to study the characteristics and behaviors of highly successful principals, and not of the schools themselves. Therefore, a measure of success was needed. Criterion for selection of the subjects in the study is student test performance, specifically the California Academic Performance Index (API). Student test performance is affected by many demographic factors that are not under the control of a principal. In order to eliminate as many of those factors as possible, the API similar school ranking system is used. In the similar school ranking system, schools are compared to schools with like demographics such as mobility, credentialed teachers, language, average class size, multitrack year-round schedule, ethnicity, and free or reduced price meals. It is important to note here that the schools in this study were not in the same similar schools comparison groups. These data are presented in Table B.1.

    The data presented in Table B.1 suggest that certain demographics of the schools may affect the success of a school. For example, there may be a positive relationship between year-round school configurations and the success of the school, and the percentage of English language learners may be a barrier to success as measured by student test scores. However, the State of California's API formula gave a certain weight to each of the demographics and did not weight these factors as important as others in determining API similar schools rank for schools. Each school's school characteristic index (SCI), a composite of the school's demographic characteristics, is calculated. Then a comparison group for each school is formed by placing the school's SCI as the median, and taking the 50 schools with SCIs just above the median and the 50 just below the median. Principals in these 100 similar schools have similar issues with which to contend. The 100 schools are sorted from lowest to highest according to their API base, then are divided into 10 equal-sized groups (deciles). Schools with a decile of 9 or 10 in rank are doing qualitatively better than the other 100 schools in their demographic group. For purposes of this exploration, 14 San Diego, Riverside, and Orange County school principals were identified initially. From those initial 14, 11 agreed to participate and three declined. Six of the 11 participants were identified as highly successful principals. The five remaining participants were identified in the study as comparison principals.

    Table B.1 School Demographics

    Selection of the highly successful principals was based on the following criteria:

    • The principal's school had a sustained California API similar schools rank of 9 or 10 in 2001, 2002, and 2003. The rank of 9 or 10 is considered by California Department of Education as “well-above average” or “highly successful.” In 1999, the school's similar schools rank was two or more deciles lower than in 2001, but no lower than a 5. (The rank of 5, 6, 7, or 8 is considered by California Department of Education as “above average” or “good.”) The purpose here was to choose schools that had moved from “good” to “highly successful” in student achievement over the five years in the study. In addition, there had been no significant change in demographics at the school during the five-year period that might skew the test results (as noted in interviews or the school academic report). Ranking and demographic information was obtained on the California Department of Education Web site.
    • The school ranked in decile 4 or higher in both 1999 and 2003 in relative rank. In this relative ranking, a school's API is compared to all other schools in the state.
    • The principals of the chosen schools had been at the school for the entire time (1999 through 2003). This information was obtained directly from the central office of the district in which the principal worked and by reference to the California Public School Directories for the years 2000 through 2003.

    This study explored commonalities shared by highly successful principals. In order to see if these shared characteristics are different from those of other principals, a comparison group of principals was identified. The difference between the schools headed by principals in the comparison group and the schools headed by principals in the highly successful group is the sustained nature of each school's success. The comparison principals’ schools started at a similar level to the highly successful principals’ schools in 1999 with an API similar school rank of “above average” or “good,” but were unable to move to “well-above average” or “highly successful” and sustain that success. The primary criteria for the selection of principals in the comparison group are the following three:

    • In 1999, the school's similar schools rank was no lower than a 5 and no higher than an 8 (i.e., above average or good).
    • Subsequent ranks for 2000 through 2003 remained the same or fluctuated.
    • The principals of the chosen schools had been at the school for the entire period 1999 through 2003.

    The purpose of the study is to compare the characteristics shared by highly successful principals to the characteristics of principals heading schools that did not sustain success. However, in an effort to reduce as much as feasible the variables that might affect that success, the study also sought to identify schools that were as similar as possible. Therefore, principals in the highly successful group and principals in the comparison group were chosen where practical from their shared list of 100 similar schools. Direct comparison of individual principals between the two study groups was not intended in this study. This attempt to reduce variables between schools was partially successful. Four of the comparison principals headed schools that were in the same 100 similar schools lists as the highly successful principals. In a fifth case, a comparison principal was interviewed, but the highly successful principal from the same similar schools list did not ultimately participate. This comparison principal remained in the study because she still met the primary criteria for being included in the comparison group. In the last case, one highly successful principal in the study did participate but all of the potential comparison principals from the same 100 similar schools list declined to participate. Once again, because the intent was not to compare individual principals, this was not a serious obstacle to the study. In all, a total study set of 11 principals, six highly successful principals and five comparison principals, participated in the study.

    The project, along with other required materials, conformed to the Claremont Graduate University (CGU) Procedures for the Review of Research Protocols and the San Diego State University (SDSU) Human Research Protection Program: Guidance, Standards and Practices. Individual principal participation was solicited only after both CGU and SDSU Institutional Review Board approvals were received.

    Principals were initially invited through e-mail to participate in the study and given background information, significance of the study, and procedures for participation. All 11 principals were told that the criteria used to select them for the study was based on their API similar schools ranks from 1999 through 2003 and the fact that they were principals of the school for the entire time. They were not informed that there were two groups being studied, that is, highly successful principals and comparison principals. They were informed that they were under no obligation to answer any questions and that at any point they could stop or withdraw from the interview. They were assured that the records of the study would be kept private and that all responses to the interview questions were confidential. All six of the highly successful principals responded positively to the e-mail; we followed up their responses with a phone call to their school to schedule the first interview. The comparison principals were more reticent to participate. In every case, their initial reason for declining or hesitating to participate was that they were too busy at that time. A follow-up phone call by the authors or a research advisor assured them that participation on their part was important for the study and that the interview could be scheduled at their convenience. Ultimately, five of the initial eight principals in the comparison group either phoned or e-mailed and agreed to participate. Before the beginning of the interview, all participants signed a form giving their consent to participate in the study.

    Resource C: Principal Interview Questions Derived From Collins’ (2001) CEO Interview Questions and Demographic Questionnaire

    Principal Interview Questions
    • Briefly, give me an overview of your relationship to the district, years in the district and at the school, and primary jobs held in the district.
    • Give me a brief description of the demographics of the school. Students? Community?
    • Tell me a little about the staff of the school in 1999 [first year of the API].
    • Why do you believe you were selected as principal of the school?
    • What kind of leadership style do you think you have?
    • What kind of leadership style would your teachers say you have?
    • I'd like you to take a minute and write down the top five factors that you believe have contributed to the school's success in improving student achievement performance at the school. [Give interviewee a piece of paper.]
    • Now number them in order of importance with 1 being the most important factor.
    • Talk a little about the [top two or three] factors that you listed. Give me some examples that illustrate the factors.
    • What decision did the school make to initiate an increase in student achievement during the years prior [1997–1999?] to receiving a ranking of 9 or 10 on the 2000 API? What sparked that decision?
    • What role did technology play in all this?
    • What latitude did you have as principal of the school to make the decisions you had to make? In what ways were you restricted?
    • What process did you and the school staff use to make key decisions and develop key strategies that led to the increase in student achievement performance at the school? [Not what decisions the school made, but how did it go about making them?]
    • On a scale or 1 to 10, what confidence did you have in the decisions at the time they were made, before you knew their outcome? [10: you had great confidence that they were very good decisions with high probability of success; 1: you had little confidence in the decisions; they seemed risky—a roll of the dice.] [If interviewee had confidence of 6 or greater: What gave you such confidence in the decisions?]
    • What was the role, if any, of outside consultants, advisors, and central office personnel in making the key decisions?
    • How did the school get commitment and agreement with its decisions from everyone? Teachers, parents, students? Give me a specific example of how this took place.
    • What did you do to ensure that teachers continued to focus on improving student test performance?
    • What did you try that didn't work during the years before attaining a similar schools ranking of 9 or 10? Why didn't it work?
    • How did your school manage the pressures of district, state, and federal accountability while making these long-term changes for the future?
    • Many schools undertake change programs and initiatives, yet their efforts do not produce lasting results. One of the remarkable aspects of [Successful School's] transition is that it endured over several years, and was not just a short-term upswing. We find this extraordinary. What makes [Successful School] different? What were the primary factors in maintaining the similar schools ranking over the years?
    • Tell me about one particularly powerful example or vignette from your experience or observation that, to you, exemplifies the essence of the success at [Successful School].
    • I'd like to switch gears a bit here. Talk to me a bit about the administrative credential preparation courses you have taken. On a scale of 1 to 5 how would you rate them? [1: of value; 5: of great value]. [If 3 or more: Give me a few examples of elements of your course work that you believe to be of value to the work you do as a principal.]
    • Whom do you consider to be your mentor(s)? Talk to me about that person(s) and why he or she is your mentor.
    • Talk to me about some experience related to work or to your personal life or experience that you have had in the past that you believe helped to shape your leadership.
    • What did you do to ensure that teachers continued to focus on improving student test performance?
    • What do or did you want most for your school?
    • When you think about your work here, what are you most proud of?
    • What efforts do or did you make to ensure that the school continued to sustain its success?
    • When you leave your position as principal, what do you want to be remembered for?
    • What else would you like to tell me about the reasons for the success of your school in raising student achievement?
    Demographic Questionnaire

    Circle your responses.

    • Were you brought in from outside the district directly into the principal position at the school?
      • Yes
      • No
    • Length of employment in the school district before becoming principal of the school:
      • 10+ years
      • 4–9 years
      • 1–3 years
      • Less than a year
    • Age at the time of becoming the principal of the school:
      • Less than 25
      • 25–30
      • 31–40
      • 41–50
      • 51+
    • Length of tenure as the principal of the school:
      • 7–10+ years
      • 5–6 years
      • 3–4 years
    • Job held immediately before becoming principal of the school:
      • Principal
      • Assistant principal
      • Teacher
      • Other administrator
      • Other
    • Where did you receive administrative credential? (select one):
      • California
      • Other state
      • Other country
      • What institution? _____________________________
    • Received master's degree in (select all that apply):
      • Educational administration
      • Education
      • Other: ______________________
    • Received doctoral degree in (select all that apply):
      • Educational administration
      • Education
      • Other: ______________________
    • Work experience and other experiences (e.g., military) before coming to public education (select all that apply):
      • Military
      • Sales
      • Government
      • Technology/business
      • Other: ______________________
    • Total length of time employed as a teacher before becoming an administrator:
      • 15+
      • 10–14
      • 4–9
      • 1–3
      • Less than 1 year
    • Jobs held while employed in the current district (select all that apply):
      • Principal
      • Assistant principal
      • Teacher
      • Other administrative position
      • Other certificated position (not administrative)
      • Noncertificated position
    • Jobs held while at the current school (select all that apply):
      • Principal
      • Assistant principal
      • Teacher
      • Other administrative position
      • Other certificated position (not administrative)
      • Noncertificated position


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    Suggested Readings

    Buckingham, M., & Clifton, D. (2001). Now, discover your strengths. New York: The Free Press.
    Using an online survey, readers identify five themes of individual strengths. Then, the authors show readers how to leverage the strengths for success as a manager of others.
    Collins, J. (2002). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. New York: HarperCollins.
    The prequel to Good to Great, this book covers the principles and practices of great companies, using a variety of companies that have lasted multiple chief officers for basis and comparisons.
    Collins, J. (2005). Good to great and the social sectors: Why business thinking is not the answer, Monograph to accompany Good to great: Why some companies make the leap… and others don't (Collins, 2001), Boulder, CO: Author.
    Collins reacts to questions about application of findings in Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don't to the social sector. The monograph looks at measuring success, getting things done from a diffuse power structure, getting the right people on the bus, and rethinking the economic engine all from the perspective of the social sector.
    Downey, C. J. (2004). The three-minute classroom walk-through: Changing supervisory practice one teacher at a time. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
    The author presents a curriculum-monitoring technique that capitalizes on building relationships through engaging teachers in reflective dialogue and focusing the energies of a school organization to enhance classroom instruction.
    Drucker, P. (2002). The effective executive: The definitive guide to getting the right things done. New York: HarperBusiness Essentials.
    Drucker is the author of the 53-year-old management classic, The Practice of Management. In The Effective Executive, Drucker identifies five practices essential to business effectiveness that can—and must—be learned. He demonstrates the distinctive skill of the executive and offers fresh insights into old and seemingly obvious business situations.
    • DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & DuFour, R. (Eds.). (2005). On common ground: The power of professional learning communities. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
    DuFour, Eaker, and DuFour offer a compendium of essays about the impact of collaboration and relationships in schools organized as professional learning communities.
    Frase, L., & Hetzel, R. (1990). School management by wandering around. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
    This book offers specific strategies and techniques for using “management by wandering around” (MBWA) to obtain excellence in schools. It is a logical companion to the Downey book, The Three-Minute Classroom Walk-Through, described above.
    Frase, L., & Streshly, W. (2000). The top 10 myths in education. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press.
    The authors expose 10 of the common myths about American public schools—myths that have blocked meaningful school reform for decades. The book is a must read for educational policy makers and administrators.
    Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
    Fullan draws on the most current ideas and theories of effective leadership, incorporating case studies to identify five core competencies of leadership.
    Kochanek, J. R. (2005). Building trust for better schools: Research-based practices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
    Besides making a case for the importance of trust, Kochanek offers an innovative process model of trust building in schools. Case studies of three schools are included.
    Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2002). The leadership challenge (
    3rd ed.
    ). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
    The book describes five practices of exemplary leadership based on extensive research by the authors.
    Matsui, B. (2002). The Ysleta story: A tipping point in education. Claremont, CA: The Institute at Indian Hill/CGU.
    The Ysleta Story is the inspiring tale of a school district that wasn't supposed to succeed—but did.
    McEwan, E. (2003). 10 traits of highly effective principals: From good to great performance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
    This book provides principals, administrative teams, and educators with resources to hone 10 skills and traits of highly effective principals.
    Peters, T. J., & Waterman, R. H. (1982). In search of excellence: Lessons from America's best-run companies. Reprint (2004). New York: HarperBusiness Essentials.
    Based on a study of 43 of America's best-run companies from a diverse array of business sectors. This book describes eight basic principles of management that made these organizations successful.
    Pfeffer, I., & Sutton, R. (2000). The knowing-doing gap: How smart companies turn knowledge into action. Boston: Harvard Business Press.
    The authors break down the causes of the gap between our knowledge and the application of that knowledge in business into five main reasons. After backing-up each reason with facts and examples, direct solutions are given to its remedy. Eight guidelines for action are then presented. Case studies of businesses that have made huge turn-arounds using this approach are included.
    Sousa, D. A. (2003). The leadership brain: How to lead today's schools more effectively. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
    The book examines what we know about the adult brain as applicable to leadership practice that sustains effective teaching and learning. The leadership practices described are compatible with Level 5 leadership.
    Streshly, W. A., Walsh, J., & Frase, L. E. (2002). Avoiding legal hassles: What school administrators really need to know (
    2nd ed.
    ). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
    A practical, nuts and bolts discussion of the school leader's role in the public school's conformance with school law—from the point of view of the practitioner. It is a practical guide to legally sound school planning.
    Waters, T., & Grubb, S. (2004). The leadership we need. Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning. Retrieved July 10, 2006, from
    A gentle, but honest, critique of the ISLLC standards for training administrators by researchers from McREL—a must read for everyone connected with preparing school leaders. The document includes standards with supporting research gleaned from metaanalyses.

    The Corwin Logo

    The Corwin Press logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. Corwin Press is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of PreK12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin Press continues to carry out the promise of its motto: Helping Educators Do Their Work Better.

    The 29,500 members of the National Association of Elementary School Principals provide administrative and instructional leadership for public and private elementary and middle schools throughout the United States, Canada, and overseas. Founded in 1921, NAESP is today a vigorously independent professional association with its own headquarters building in Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from the nations capital. From this special vantage point, NAESP conveys the unique perspective of the elementary and middle school principal to the highest policy councils of our national government. Through national and regional meetings, award-winning publications, and joint efforts with its 50 state affiliates, NAESP is a strong advocate both for its members and for the 33 million American children enrolled in preschool, kindergarten, and Grades 1 through 8.

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