Transforming Schools: How Distributed Leadership Can Create More High-Performing Schools


transforming-schools-220x207January 14, 2016 | Bain Report

By Chris Bierly, Betsy Doyle and Abigail Smith

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Idea in Brief

We know from hundreds of examples nationwide that extraordinary student outcomes are possible at the individual school level. These persistent rays of hope shine through even in the most challenging of educational environments. Breakthrough results in student achievement occur when the significant challenges our students face are met with an even greater level of teacher talent and dedication—when talented individuals work together to do extraordinary things. Yet we also know that these kinds of schools don’t develop randomly on their own; an essential ingredient behind each of these success stories is transformational leadership.

Two years ago, we conducted an in-depth study focused on how school systems could develop more school leaders with the capabilities required to transform their schools. Progress since has been highly encouraging. But our most recent research has uncovered another critical challenge: While many school districts and charter management organizations (CMOs) are investing in programs to develop more transformational leaders, there is rarely a plan in place to deploy these people effectively within an individual school setting. As a result, development efforts are fragmented, our principals are overwhelmed, and teachers lack the support they need to progress as instructors in enough numbers to produce high-performing schools at greater scale.

The opportunity is clear: We need to commit to models of “distributed leadership” in our schools that establish a cadre of talented educators in each building who have end-to-end responsibility for the development of the teachers on their teams.

A growing number of schools are stepping up to the challenge and we’ve identified a set of best practices that are starting to succeed in the real world. Our most successful systems are on a path to develop more transformational leaders. The next step is to put them in distributed leadership models that will enable them to move farther and faster to transform their schools.

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Chris Bierly is a Bain partner based in Boston and is the global head of Bain’s K-12 Education practice. He has more than 25 years of management consulting experience, advising clients across the private, public and nonprofit sectors. Betsy Doyle is a partner in Bridgespan’s San Francisco office and is a leader in its Education practice. Her work focuses primarily on improving educator development and retention, scaling high-performing school models and supporting effective education philanthropy. Abigail Smith is a Bain principal based in San Francisco and is a core leader of Bain’s K-12 Education practice. Prior to Bain she was a high school math teacher at a large urban public school.