From School Improvement to Sustained Capacity: The Parallel Leadership Pathway


Frank Crowther

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    I have been traveling to Australia and working with its educators in one capacity or another for more than 20 years. In all that time, one of the most iconic and influential as well as indefatigable characters in Australian education has undoubtedly been and continues to be Professor Frank Crowther.

    Frank Crowther has seen it all—as a teacher, principal, researcher, university dean, president of the Australian Council for Educational Leaders, and now also of the world's most expansive educational administration organization, the Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration. He has been a relentless champion, and not always a politically popular one, of all that is just and right for dedicated professionals and disadvantaged pupils. In some of the bleakest years of educational reform, when budgets were cut back and standardized solutions were imposed with insensitivity and inflexibility, Frank was foremost among state governments’ caustic critics— to the point where, as the years came upon him, he seemed at risk of turning into a borderline curmudgeon. Courageously critical, he might well have pursued the path that is all too tempting for many of us in this work—to be clearer and more articulate about what we are against than what we are for.

    Defending the rearguard was more comforting and familiar than advancing the vanguard. You can gain a lot of professional popularity this way, and the approach does validate those who feel they have been victimized by politically driven reforms. But in the end, it doesn't get much done.

    Then a little over a decade ago, it became clear to me that something in Frank—an educator whose courage and candor I had always admired—had changed, developed, or transformed. Over ten years or more, I had returned time and again to Australia not only to enjoy its cosmopolitan culture and spectacular natural scenery, but also to engage with teachers and leaders across every state about how to build more professionally collaborative cultures in schools and direct these toward making school-driven changes that would benefit all students. Frank—always the avid learner and never one to turn a soapbox into a high horse—participated with his colleagues in many of these extended learning sessions: asking challenging questions while also embracing promising and proven ideas.

    And so, when I visited Brisbane in Queensland, Frank invited me to meet several of his colleagues in a restaurant by the river. The occasion was memorable for two reasons. First was the food. This was my first experience of Moreton Bay bugs—a trilobite-like crayfish that must be one of the ugliest items ever to be presented on a high-class menu. Moreton Bay bugs are like crusty old teachers who seem resistant to change. Beneath their brittle carapaces are mellifluous contents that can melt any soul, if you can only figure out how to break through the surface. Second, was the company—school leaders, teacher leaders, and now action researchers who, with Frank, had established and were now developing an innovative network of schools called IDEAS. IDEAS wanted to do for schools and their children what Moreton Bay bugs had done for their diners—take schools and teachers that had become ossified and ostracized and turn them into deliciously dynamic centers of change.

    Frank Crowther and his colleagues spoke in excited and animated cadences about the IDEAS schools network that they had created and were developing. They were passionate about what teachers could do with other teachers and how schools could help lift other schools. For all their commitment and enthusiasm, though, they were not naive about networks, nor were they innocents abroad when it came to educational change. In Australia and elsewhere, they had seen networks come and go. Some, like Australia's own National Schools Network, flourished well under government sponsorship, but collapsed just as quickly when political caprice shifted the focus somewhere else. Others that encouraged schools to share practices, commit to common principles, or even become critical friends tended to preach to the converted and attract schools that already possessed an innovative edge. As architects of the IDEAS network, Crowther and colleagues knew that they needed to avoid overdependence on political patronage or excessive reliance on like-minded volunteers and develop something more robust that would embolden leaders and both challenge and support professionals to bring about changes that would benefit all their students.

    At the same time, committing to a clear architecture of change meant avoiding becoming a restrictive and even oppressive structure of the kind that has become all too common in the past decade of imposed systemwide reform among controlling governments and the change consultants whose ideas and expertise have legitimized them. Targets, testing, and the standardized curriculum requirements that pander to the narcissism of political control have fabricated appearances of improvement, created false recoveries that manifest themselves in sudden spikes of improvement, turned the self-help of authentic capacity building into the cultlike compliance of imposed training, and narrowed the learning to a diet of basics that is the opposite of what creative and advanced knowledge societies require.

    IDEAS sought to avoid the two extremes that Dennis Shirley and I have called the First and Second Ways of educational change (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2009). The First Way of voluntary innovation created interesting islands and even archipelagoes of change, but these did not spread or last. The Second Way of market competition and standardization established a little more urgency and coherence but at the expense of professional commitment and authentic improvement. Instead, IDEAS was a Third and even a Fourth Way change strategy that established a firm framework to enable educators to support and challenge themselves and each other in achieving a higher purpose for the good of all students, especially the most disadvantaged— involving those very students and their communities in the change process itself. IDEAS and its champions understood that students and their lives were the purpose, teachers were the key, and that whatever the reasons for previous failure, the past was the past, and no blame would be assigned as schools forged a better path ahead.

    In time, the IDEAS network spread across Australia and then to other parts of the world and I had the privilege, if only briefly, to work with scores of teams from its schools. Frank and his colleagues began to document what they had learned and achieved and wrote two inspiring and informative books that turned into the best and most strongly supported accounts that have been written of teacher leadership in the educational literature. Believing at first that teacher leadership could sometimes supersede or even be developed in the absence of principal leadership, they continued to learn from their schools over longer periods and eventually revised their view, grasping that strong teacher leadership and effective principal leadership go together, enhancing both dissemination and sustainability. Their concept of parallel leadership, the basis of this book, emerged from that understanding.

    This is the third book arising from the IDEAS Project and the body of knowledge that has accumulated from its experience and achievements. It is a book based on compelling examples of schools that have made remarkable and sustainable breakthroughs in Australia, Asia, and Europe. It is a book that embeds what IDEAS has contributed within a wider and supporting literature of school improvement, leadership development, and educational change. And it is a book that shows how the principles of effective school change are also those of effective organizational change in social justice– driven organizations like Doctors Without Borders, Al Gore's environmental movement, the emergence of micro-credit as an alternative source of financing and development, or Mother Theresa's community in India.

    In the six dynamics of change that underpin the successes of IDEAS schools, Frank Crowther turns abstract ideas into common sense and makes common sense an inspiring and innovative force in turn. IDEAS schools must commit to the idea of revitalizing themselves; to the belief that things must dramatically change. They must do this in an organized and coherent way through moral commitments and common beliefs, not just through technical plans; they must almost literally “pull themselves together.” They must set a vision for the future that moves on but does not cast them adrift from their past. They must deepen the approach to teaching and learning, building on, challenging, and drawing together people's diverse talents as they do so. IDEAS schools must go public, share their practice, and advocate for what they believe in. And on top of all this, they must seek ways to sustain their success through widely distributed leadership, pervasive embedding of new beliefs, and orderly management of leadership succession.

    There is so much in this book to be learned and so many opportunities to apply it. In engaging and original exercises, you will have the chance as you work with these ideas to rehearse resistance, eat all your greens, go diving for treasures, and cross the Rubicon. This book is an invitation to change, an opportunity to learn, and an affirmation of the power of self-initiated improvement in a Kafkaesque world of systemic top-down models promoted by politically sycophantic consultants who have given up too easily on their belief in the power of teacher-driven change and the professionals who make it possible. It is a book that is the life work of someone who has helped change very many others by first changing himself. Admirable. Enviable. Unavoidable. Pick it up and you will not be able to put it down. I certainly couldn't!

    —Andy Hargreaves

    Thomas More Brennan Chair in Education

    Boston College

    November 2010


    Islands of hope existed in each decade yet even these remarkable islands drop below sea level when founders, principals or key teachers, leave. As long as any one individual is indispensible, sustainability is a distant dream.

    —Linda Lambert

    (2007, p. 311)

    Why this Book and Why Now?

    School leaders in today's world often seem to be caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. School improvement is a case in point. If, on the one hand, principals and their co-leaders are not leading a comprehensive process of school improvement, they may be accused of “near enough is good enough” complacency by their system supervisors and also by their school boards and councils. But if they are leading such a process, they may harbor deep-seated doubts as to whether the immense effort that the process requires of them and their colleagues will have commensurate payoff.

    According to leading international authorities, their doubts are justified. For even if their process of improvement is sound in theory, it may not be responsive to key systemic priorities or contextual values. Moreover, important infrastructural considerations that are required to see the improvement process through to a point of long-term embeddedness—such as retention of key staff, continuity in systemic priorities, provision of external supports, and leadership succession strategies—may not be in place, resulting in the jeopardizing, or even undoing, of their efforts.

    It is for reasons such as these, says Linda Lambert in our opening quote, that the sustainability of hard-earned success remains for many schools a distant dream. While islands of educational hope may occasionally be built, they are of limited value if they drop below sea level whenever a new educational wave sweeps through.

    It is in the context of this debilitating void in educational understanding and practice that this book has been written.

    I became convinced in early 2008 that major developments in educational thinking during the preceding decade had resulted in the evolution of a very powerful new concept—“capacity building.” This concept appeared to me to be essential to the work of 21st-century school leaders because it goes beyond processes of improvement to emphasize the sustainability of what has been achieved through an improvement process. In so doing, it appeared to provide an overdue response to the expressed needs of school leaders for guidance about how to get past the “boom and bust” cycle of school improvement that has plagued them since the school improvement movement began about 30 years ago.

    My confidence in the concept of capacity building as a critically important tool for 21st-century educational leaders derived in large part from my analysis of five highly credible school capacity-building models that had been developed internationally over the previous decade. This examination led me to believe that capacity building may very well represent the missing link between school improvement and sustained school success. If principles of capacity building are not acknowledged in a school's improvement process, I deduced from my analysis, school improvement is conceptually, strategically, and practically incomplete.

    But this book derives also from serious research with which I have had personal involvement. In mid-2008 I turned my attention to a major school improvement initiative—the IDEAS Project—with which I had close association (co-director) and which had enjoyed apparent success in 300-plus schools in a range of international contexts. The IDEAS Project was about to be evaluated in one large education district where it had been comprehensively implemented. Based on perceptual data, the 22 schools in question had shown important improvements in teacher morale and student engagement over a four-year period and were in the process of attempting to consolidate those improvements. What insights, I wondered, could the impending research reveal about sustainability as a feature of hard-earned school success? And what implications might ensue about the promising new concept of school capacity building?

    The research project that was undertaken over the next six months resulted in the COSMIC C-B capacity-building model that provides the basis for this book. It was with a sense of deep satisfaction that I decided in early 2009 that answers to three core questions were within grasp:

    • What is needed for school improvement to become sustainable school success?
    • What are the constituent parts of capacity building as a process of building and sustaining school success?
    • What forms of leadership are needed in order to ensure capacity building for sustainable school success?

    And so my colleagues and I began to think about the possibility of this book.

    so, Why This Book and Why now?

    In a nutshell, the answers to three questions of critical importance to school leaders are now available. But they have only just become available. This book represents a state-of-the-art description of what capacity building means and how to use a particular form of distributed leadership—“parallel leadership”—to achieve and sustain it. The book not only presumes to provide insights, processes, and skills that are essential to 21st-century school leadership and management, but it may well be the first major publication to illustrate how the roles of school leaders—principals and teacher leaders— vary and strengthen in relation to each other as a successful school improvement process evolves into a sustainable capacity-building process. It is a cutting-edge book that will help ensure that hard-earned improvements in school outcomes can be sustained, that professional effort toward school improvement can be justified—and that school leaders’ sanity can be preserved (or restored).

    What Makes this Book Unique?

    This book has four features that make it unique.

    First, it describes in detail not just what capacity building means, but the constituent elements (we call them “dynamics”) that schools should engage in to achieve enhanced school success and to sustain that success. COSMIC C-B details the six process dynamics that school leaders can employ to ascertain the quality of their school improvement processes and, if necessary, adjust in the interests of achieving sustained school success. There exists no other educational resource, to my knowledge, that interprets and explains capacity building in this way. In essence, if the COSMIC C-B model is applied in a school's improvement process, then enhancing school quality need not be the hit-and-miss business that it has been far too often in recent decades.

    Second, this book develops the emerging concept of parallel leadership to a new level of understanding by demonstrating its distinct meanings at different stages of the capacity-building process. Almost without exception, school-based leadership has been regarded over the past 30 years as one-dimensional, with little or no allowance for the developmental phase of a school's improvement process. This book not only elevates parallel leadership to a new level of understanding; it also outlines the various functions of principalship and teacher leadership that are pertinent to each of the six capacity-building dynamics. In this regard, this book can be said to break very important new ground.

    Third,Chapters 2 through 7, which are devoted to the COSMIC C-B dynamics, contain an unconventional feature. That is, each chapter contains two case studies—one being a snapshot that illustrates the meaning of the respective dynamic in a school setting and the other being a description of the dynamic in the workings of another human service institution. Readers will find that the six noneducational case studies relate clearly to the education snapshots and to the theme of the chapter. School capacity building, it becomes apparent, is not dissimilar from capacity building in other sectors of community life.

    Fourth, each chapter concludes with a simulation that has been developed specifically to enable school leaders to develop advanced understanding of, and expertise in working with, the six COSMIC C-B dynamics. By completing the full sequence of six simulations, school leaders can have confidence in their ability to apply comprehensive capacity-building criteria in school improvement processes that they may have in train and in leading school workshops relating to the various dynamics.

    Each of these four features makes this book distinctive. Taken together, the four features make it unique, a “book with a real difference.” In summary, my associates and I undertake in this book to provide school leaders with three specific means of professional assistance:

    • A research-based, capacity-building model—COSMIC C-B—that shows what must be done in a school if school outcomes are to be improved and those improved outcomes sustained
    • New insights into a particular form of distributed leadership—parallel leadership—that has been demonstrated as fundamental to sustained school capacity building
    • Professional learning experiences, in the way of original simulations, that can be experienced as a means of internalizing the essence of the six COSMIC C-B dynamics
    How to Make the Most Productive Use of this Book

    There are three ways that you might use this book productively. But where to start?

    Before addressing this question, examine the COSMIC C-B diagram (Figure 1.1) with the following questions in mind:

    • Which of the six dynamics do you think you probably understand reasonably well already? Which do you probably understand least well?
    • Why do you think the dynamics expand and deepen as the C-B process unfolds?
    • Why do you think the arrows that link the dynamics, and that represent parallel leadership processes, expand as the six-dynamic C-B process unfolds?

    As an experienced—or, equally important, aspirational—educational leader, you have no doubt drawn on a wealth of background understanding in answering the three questions. What you have undoubtedly seen for yourself is that you already have at least a cursory understanding of what this book is about. That being the case, you can proceed with confidence to determine how to use the book in any of three important ways.

    The first use you might make of the book is needs based. For example, your need may be for increased understanding of how to create energy and excitement for what your school's improvement process might achieve. If that is the case, then Chapters 2 and 4—the first and third COSMIC C-B dynamics—would be your immediate reference point. You will find that the combination of case studies, relevant literature, leadership analyses, and simulation exercises relating to committing to revitalization and seeking new heights go a long way toward showing how you can enthuse your school and community for your personal goals and convictions.

    But you may want more from this book. You may feel the need for understanding capacity-building as a holistic process and also for the leadership underpinnings of the six constituent C-B dynamics. If that is the case, then the Introduction and Chapter 1 provide a brief overview of school improvement and school capacity-building models, Chapters 2 through 7 provide detailed analyses of the six individual dynamics, and Chapter 8 provides a reflective summation of the COSMIC C-B model and of new insights into parallel leadership. The eight chapters, taken together, contain what we regard as the essential insights for 21st-century school leaders regarding holistic capacity building.

    But you may want more than understanding. You may feel the need to become an expert practitioner in capacity building as a schoolwide developmental process. If that is the case, the simulations that are outlined in the final section of each chapter are intended to serve your purposes. Having read the chapters, find several colleagues with needs similar to your own and work your way through the simulations. That task completed, not only will you have acquired important practice-based insights into the six dynamics, but you will also be ready to lead capacity building with school or cluster colleagues. Given the fundamental importance of capacity building as a 21st-century educational process, that is an exciting and important day to look forward to.

    How to use this book? Decide which of these purposes, or combination of purposes, suits your needs and proceed from there.

    Organization of the Book

    This book follows a straightforward organizational format.

    The Introduction sets the scene by providing an up-to-date analysis of international developments in both school capacity building and distributed leadership. In Chapter 1, the COSMIC C-B model is introduced along with a description of the research design that was used to assess the IDEAS School Improvement Project, and that led to the creation of the COSMIC C-B model.

    A uniform format is used to organize each of Chapters 2 through 7. That is, following a brief introduction, a real-life snapshot description of the workings of the dynamic is presented. The meaning of the dynamic is then explored, drawing on material from the snapshot as well as authoritative literature. This analysis is followed by examination of school leadership principles in relation to the dynamic, once again using a combination of material from the snapshot and recent authoritative literature. That done, a noneducation case study of the dynamic is presented, along with a series of reflective questions. To conclude the chapter, an original simulation activity is outlined, incorporating comprehensive guidelines for use by school leadership teams, school staffs, or cluster members.

    Two resources are contained in the final section of the book. The first outlines the IDEAS Project core concepts. The second outlines the research design and methodology for the evaluation of the IDEAS Project. It was this examination that provided the stimulus for development of the COSMIC C-B model.


    The past decade has posed immense challenges for educators. One challenge in particular may be regarded as standing above all others—the school improvement movement, where so many doubts have been raised about sustainability that many committed principals and teacher leaders have been left wondering whether their energy-consuming efforts are justified.

    The next decade should be much better. For while current challenges will no doubt continue—and new challenges will no doubt emerge—we finally have within our grasp a detailed understanding of school capacity building—what it means, its constituent parts, and its underpinning leadership principles. In the chapters that follow, we endeavor to bring the capacity-building process alive and to illuminate how you, as a “parallel” school leader, can use it to enhance the success of your school and sustain that success into the long-term future.


    November 2010


    This book results from a decade or more of concerted thinking about one question: How can educational leaders ensure that the successes of their schools become valued and permanent fixtures rather than fleeting and peripheral ornaments? In my inquiring, researching, and building of tentative explanations over this time, I have been aided by a distinguished network of professional colleagues.

    Of most importance have been the nine co-contributors of the book: Lindy Abawi, Dorothy Andrews, Joan Conway, Rosalia Cutaia, Senthu Jeyaraj, Marian Lewis, Giuseppe Micciche, Allan Morgan, and Shauna Petersen. Their chapter contributions have given the book “spice” as well as academic rigor and practical relevance. And then there are my “critical friends,” people whose job it was to tell me I had more to learn—particularly Trish Bevan, Emma Brennan, Steve Brown, Trish Browne, Susan Callaghan, Bryan Connors, Natalie Crowther, Mark Dawson, Ross Dean, Sybil Dickens, Steve Dinham, Jim Dowie, Judy Dunne, Greg Duthie, David Eddy, Mike Gaffney, Marie Geoghegan, Tom Hart, Norm Hunter, Doug Jeanes, Bev Johnson, Colin Leech, Jenny Lewis, Mary L'Estrange, Angus Lucas, Warren Marks, Elena Masters, Chris McRae, Simon McGlade, Lee Mittens, Elizabeth O'Carrigan, Shirley O'Neill, Graeme Smith, Helen Starr, and Allan Walker.

    A book of this type is dependent on the willing involvement of principals and teachers in those schools from which the case study data and descriptions are drawn. The staff of La Trobe Secondary College, Meadow Fair North Primary School, Mazzarino High School, All Hallows Catholic Elementary School, Woodlands Secondary School, and Eltham High School in that sense made this book possible. Also of great assistance to the chapter authors were the principals and teachers at a number of other schools, including Fairview Heights Primary School, Kealba Secondary College, and Duncraig Senior High School.

    Corwin editors Desirée Bartlett and Debra Stollenwerk have been a professional pleasure to work with over the past year, considerate at all times but nevertheless totally straightforward and dependable in their judgment. Marlene Barron, who copyedited the manuscript, formatted it, and made numerous suggestions for literary enhancement, also deserves my deep gratitude. The Corwin reviewers who assessed the first draft—and seemed to almost gleefully destroy it—enjoy my ongoing gratitude and admiration.

    Finally, it is now 30 years since I completed my doctoral studies under the tutelage of Professor Fred Newmann at the University of Wisconsin– Madison. This book reveals Fred's continuing extraordinary influence on my professional life.

    Publisher's acknowledgments

    Corwin would like to thank the following individuals for providing their editorial insight and guidance:

    David Freitas, Professor

    Indiana University South Bend

    South Bend, IN

    David G. Hodgdon

    Superintendent of Schools

    SAU #38

    Swanzey, NH

    Ron MacDonald, Educational Consultant/Co-director

    Model Secondary Schools Project

    Bellevue, WA

    Natalie Marston, Vice Principal

    Mt. Hope/Nanjemoy Elementary

    Nanjemoy, Maryland

    Belinda J. Raines, Principal

    Northwestern High School

    Detroit, MI

    About the Author and Collaborators

    Frank Crowther, PhD, is Emeritus Professor of the University of Southern Queensland, where he was Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Education before retiring in 2006 to research and write about teachers as leaders in school capacity building. His lifelong passion is for the status of the teaching profession. His book Developing Teacher Leaders is a bestseller.

    Lindy Abawi lectures in curriculum and pedagogies at the University of Southern Queensland. She is a member of the Leadership Research Institute at the University of Southern Queensland and the IDEAS Project team. Her research interests relate to the intersection of school culture building and pedagogical enhancement.

    Dorothy Andrews, PhD, is Associate Professor of Education and Director of the Leadership Research Institute at the University of Southern Queensland and National Director of the IDEAS Project. Her principal research interest is school improvement, with an emphasis on professional learning communities, particularly the IDEAS Project.

    Joan Conway, PhD, lectures in pedagogies at the University of Southern Queensland. She is a member of the University of Southern Queensland Leadership Research Institute and the IDEAS Project team. Her research interests relate to collective intelligence and teachers’ professional learning.

    Senthu Jeyaraj lectures in psychology at James Cook University Singapore. Her doctoral thesis (almost completed) explores a cognitive dimension to the concept of schoolwide coherence. She is an associate member of the University of Southern Queensland Leadership Research Institute.

    Marian Lewis, PhD, is a senior lecturer in education at the University of Southern Queensland. A member of the University of Southern Queensland Leadership Research Institute and the IDEAS Project team, her research interests focus on knowledge creation in schools, professional learning communities, and teacher leadership.

    Allan Morgan, PhD, is an educational researcher and consultant, with a particular interest in school leadership processes and approaches. He is a member of the University of Southern Queensland Leadership Research Institute and the IDEAS Project team.

    Shauna Petersen lectures in literacy education at the University of Southern Queensland. She is a member of the University of Southern Queensland Leadership Research Institute and the IDEAS Project team. Her research interests relate to teachers as leaders.

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