AASA School Solutions

What Highly Effective School Leaders Do To Sustain Success


Whether turning around low-performing schools or closing gaps among all schools throughout the district, effective leaders draw on common principles and practices to sustain their students’ success.


The lessons we at the HOPE Foundation have learned over the past decade were recognized in a 2011 study by the American Institutes for Research of the Mansfield Independent School District (outside of Dallas). The study found a “strong correlation between implementation (of these approaches) and student achievement gains.”


Alan BlanksteinAlan Blankstein

Other independent studies indicate the guiding principles found in Failure Is Not an Option® are effective regardless of district size, geography and demographics when used as a comprehensive system and framework for action.

For all these reasons, AASA has made the HOPE Foundation a School Solutions Center partner. AASA Executive Director Dan Domenesch stated: “We are impressed to see how entire districts using this process are able to collaborate in the face of significant challenges.”

In addition to the six principles described in my book Failure Is Not an Option®, five lessons emerge from the scores of districts using the FNO model to scale excellent practices of outliers.

Five Lessons
Successful school and district leaders advise colleagues to consider these five lessons.

NO. 1: FOCUS ON PRIORITIES. Effective leaders manage distractions while honing in on core priorities meaningful to their learning community.

NO. 2: REMEMBER THAT THE ANSWER IS IN THE ROOM. Surprisingly, even the lowest performing schools have good teaching under way. The challenge has always been in defining and scaling the excellence of these outliers.

NO. 3: CELEBRATE QUICK WINS EARLY ON. One principal with whom we worked moved the school from a D to an A rating within three years. Among her first actions was drawing a line down the center of the hallway dividing it into two traffic flows. That simple change helped to eliminate fights. She also created an orderly release at the end of the day so children wouldn’t all run to catch their buses. These tangible benefits motivated staff while bringing order to the school.

NO. 4: SHIFT THE CULTURE TO SUSTAIN SUCCESS. Much attention these days is on structural changes, including firing 50 percent of the teachers and requiring collaboration time. The structural approaches, however, can’t address how people interact within the new structures. Research shows what Ben Waxman, network leader for New York’s CEI-PEA, shared: “Having been responsible for support to low-performing schools in New York City for much of my career, I have come to the conclusion that ‘restructuring’ the instructional program as an intervention is doomed to failure without a significant accompanying cultural change.” The same could be said of high-performing cruising schools whose culture is often one of contrived collegiality or isolationism.

NO. 5: CHOOSE A METHOD FOR CHANGE. Having a common framework for action, and common language to articulate those actions has made it possible for the leadership teams and school communities to define excellent teaching, provide feedback and prioritize actions based on common values and mission. In the case of Mans­field ISD, this helped them to manage incoming students who were significantly poorer and more diverse (the district is now “Recognized” in the state).

The Whole District
When the HOPE Foundation began this work in Alton, Ill., (outside of East St. Louis) in 2001, four of the nine school leaders involved left during the first year. Luckily, the foundation had been working with the complete leadership team at each district school, as opposed to just the principals. The remaining principals mentored the incoming ones and the school-based leadership teams, composed mainly of teachers, helped direct their schools as the new principals gained their bearings.

Regularly bringing the network together to implement the FNO model was one of many roles this enlightened district leadership played to assure success. Others can be found at www.hopefoundation.org. In short, there are commonalties among effective district and school leaders’ actions. This article shares some of them.

Alan Blankstein president of The HOPE Foundation based in Bloomington, Ind. E-mail: ablankstein@hopefoundation.org

AASA School Solutions Partners
Eleven firms make up the AASA School Solutions Center. NJPA is a premier partner.

NATIONAL JOINT POWERS ALLIANCE,® municipal contracting with vendors

ECRA GROUP, research, analytics and accountability solutions

HMS, dependent health-care eligibility audits

HOPE FOUNDATION, professional development for leadership teams

K12 INSIGHT, survey tool

MEDEXPERT, medical issues management services

ORGANIZATIONAL HEALTH, organizational audits of human capital

PFM-FINANCIAL SERVICES, procurement card program for schools

POWERIT, cost-saving web technology solutions

PROPELLSHOPS, no-cost operation for school fundraising

TUTOR.COM, online tutoring