Many districts nationally, especially urban centers, have hired instructional coaches to work side by side with teachers in improving the teaching and learning process. The results have been mixed nationally and the role is under fire in many districts. Districts that are spending a lot of money on these positions have placed their bets on this position to improve student achievement.

Stop the presses, we missed something along the way that has placed these key roles in jeopardy. We assumed that the best teachers make the best coaches. We never looked at other fields that have tried this premise with generally poor results. The best doctors often do not make the best chiefs of staff or Hospital CEO’s, the best scientist does not necessarily make the best lab manager, and the best professional athletes often fail as managers and coaches.

What is missing?

The assumption that smart talented people know how to coach is erroneous. The fact that colleagues are comfortable providing direct feedback to each other on how to improve performance is also a flawed assumption. The premise that excellent specialists can set high expectations for their colleagues and adjust their coaching to help them succeed is also ill advised.
Some coaches feel that they have no authority to evaluate and therefore cannot direct other teachers to change bad habits or change instructional strategies and practices.

What we (FMS) have discovered

Based on our extensive research on the profiles of high performing leaders in education and the best approaches to building high performing teams we have discovered significant data on instructional coaches.

Using one of our highly validated and reliable inventories for leadership, The Workplace Personality Inventory (WPI), we have assembled data on these instructional coaches. The four highly significant areas of our WPI inventory necessary for leadership are:

1. Achievement – the behavior to set and convey the highest standards for results and improvement
2. Persistence – The behavior to persevere through obstacles to get results
3. Initiative – To take action to get the results without waiting for permission
4. Leadership – Being comfortable and confident in assuming a leadership role

Our research has shown that high performing educational leaders receive high scores in most of these four areas. Instructional coaches tended to score low in all four areas.

As we have gathered this data nationally and discussed the findings with districts and the instructional coaches themselves the following has been discovered:

1. Their role has not been defined as playing a leadership role in improving student achievement. In fact coaches are often told that they are a resource
for teachers to use if they desire.
2. They believe they cannot provide direct feedback on improvement to their colleagues.
3. They are often not part of school leadership teams.
4. The assumption is that the principal is in charge of improving results.

What is the problem and the solution?

The problem is that to improve student achievement, especially in urban schools, we cannot rely on only the principal to drive results. In addition, our data has shown that most principals do not exhibit the behaviors that will produce results. The instructional coach role is positioned poorly as part of the leadership in a district and school to obtain sustainable improvement.

The coaches are not trained to coach others for success. They are seen as subject matter/content experts not coaches. The hiring process and coaching of the coaches is almost non-existent on how to improve the performance of colleagues. The final area we have discovered is that many coaches are hesitant to work with teachers they believe are difficult and resistant. Therefore, they spend time with the cooperative and interested teachers.

The solution involves the following
– Re-position this role as a leadership role.
– Realize that strong instructional coaches who know how to provide direct feedback are often more successful than principals at helping teachers change and improve.
– Provide training on coaching for results.
– Hire people that have the profile that will get results.

This change of approach for instructional coaching will get better and faster results in student achievement. We at FMS have begun to help districts with this change with immediate results.


I was lucky that as a young administrator in the Boston Public Schools, I was mentored by Dr. Robert Peterkin. Bob was a former Superintendent in Cambridge, Milwaukee, and the former Director of the Urban Superintendent Program at Harvard University. Bob explained that the best practices and actions would not always prevail in solving problems and achieving goals. He told me that he would help me understand that I was missing one skill that would prevent me from achieving my goals. Bob explained that this particular skill was not part of any university curriculum, but it was essential that every school leader develop it to be successful. The training Bob bestowed on me has helped me many times throughout my career. And it’s a training that I continue to extend to principals and central office staff in our coaching engagements.

What’s in a name?
The concept of “politics” has numerous definitions: the theory and practice of influencing others; the art of compromise; and the ability to “get something done” to name only a few. I continually meet educational leaders who are frustrated and sometimes demoralized by what they see as politics operating outside and within their system – in the community, the teachers’ lounge, the board room – spawning actions that they see as running counter to what is best for students. Learning how to look through a political lens, however, can help educational leaders to anticipate and manage local politics. It can empower school leaders to build alliances and garner support for high impact strategies that do improve the likelihood of school success. The knowledge and skills necessary to work effectively in a political setting are paramount to being successful in education today. So, how do you become “political”?

Looking through a political lens
My book, Leadership and Teams, The Missing Piece of the Educational Reform Puzzle, detailed seven competencies that highly effective school leaders tend to demonstrate. The seventh competency, “Building external networks/partnerships” speaks, in part, to creating political alliances. The following four points speak to this idea of networking and forming partnership, and will help integrate political thinking into your leadership work. These precepts are just the beginning and will help you weather the storms that could overwhelm you as your navigate the often treacherous waters of educational reform today.
1. As you confront a decision, list all the constituents / stakeholders that could impact or be impacted by your decision.
2. Identify what each group stands to gain or lose from your decision. If you are not sure, make some inquiries to find out how some of those stakeholders might feel.
3. Determine what your decision would be without regard to politics
4. Adjust your strategies to consider the politics without losing the results you wanted to achieve.

The reality is…
I included a section on politics in Leadership and Teams, and at least one reviewer saw my words as condoning politics and in its influence on education today. I was not condoning politics, especially the kind that results in stagnation, but the reality is that politics won’t go away and will continue to derail educational leaders who ignore its power and influence on results.

The Public K-12 Education System has always been viewed as the institution to prepare students to be well rounded citizens for a democratic society and for post-secondary education. Vocational schools have always been the place to prepare students for the world of work. Colleges and Universities were designed to prepare students for their future career by providing a solid liberal arts foundation. While some specialization for careers occurred in both technical and undergraduate schools many careers required a graduate school education.

It is clear that the mission of the K-12 school system is still relevant and the roles of vocational schools, colleges, and universities are still important today. However, the world has changed dramatically over the last 5-10 years and will continue to do so. Vocational schools have become much more sophisticated by integrating technology into all aspects of careers. Colleges and Universities now allow students to specialize earlier in their tenure to choose a career direction in their first and second year.

Now it is time for K-12 education to shift its focus from how things have always been done to how things must be done for today and tomorrow’s world! The influx of technology has fundamentally changed our life and our position as part of a global society. This shift demands a change in how we look at the role of our K-12 schools in preparing students for the challenges and opportunities that are an every-day part of their lives.

Chasing the Technology Dragon
The implications of a technology-based society and economy on education involve the acceleration of the education process. Students need to learn about technology at younger ages to prepare for their life and the world of work. Adults need to become more agile in the digital world to be able to navigate the technology landscape for both life and work, and to relate to the children. Everyone must adjust to a world that moves quickly, expects frequent communication, and exemplary customer service. And, educators must all learn to develop vast networks of contacts and form partnerships to reach their goals.

Isolation, silos, and doing it alone is no longer possible or effective. Results are the focus for today not compliance to bureaucratic rules and regulations. Leaders must be allowed to lead by School Boards hiring and developing strong Superintendents and Principals that can make fast decisions and take risks to increase results. Finally, teachers need to focus more on building students competencies for success in today’s world and less on only content knowledge as the path to future success.

This transformation of our schools to 21st century or future-readiness is a difficult and often a painful process. Our federal government and state agencies are distracting our schools with constant new initiatives that are disconnected from each other and from the needs of our global society. Most of our higher education institutions are struggling to prepare teachers and administrators for a world that is rapidly changing with the new influx of technology and innovation.

Leading for Change
So how do we change the educational culture when the messages they are hearing are bringing them backward and not forward to today’s opportunities? Examples of fundamental change in other sectors are never driven by our government. Instead, they are driven from the fringe. Leaders who are not part of the current culture, and the outside partners who are not invested in preserving the past, are the people who will help education overcome the barriers that curtail change and innovation.

In the education world, it is the new leaders of today and the pioneers from the past who must drive the change. The true leaders who understand or are at least open to this change in role must band together and drive this change.

In Massachusetts, recently 80 Superintendents “stormed” the legislature and said “Enough is enough” to all the constant mandates and initiatives that are not tied to results. This is a start for the change that must happen now.

While I admire the superintendents for this courage, they must drive change themselves and allow outside partners in other sectors to help them. They cannot count on government bureaucracy to change. In fact, government is designed to preserve and protect not to lead and innovate. The Superintendents’ march should be a warning to our state Superintendents, commissioners and federal and state legislatures that change is happening and the grassroots effort, with support from the fringe leaders, will be driving this new direction. The legislature must change its role to supporting the change, not trying to drive it. They are not positioned well or equipped to lead this transformation.
I support and commend another Massachusetts effort led by Google, Oracle, Intel, and Microsoft to expand opportunities for students in computer science. If these companies join a grassroots effort to partner with our educational leaders this could be a catalyst for the transformation of our schools. It is my hope that this grassroots movement for change spreads nationally and other sectors, such as the technology field, provide the fuel.

I am concerned by a recent statement from a well-respected Superintendent. In response to my discussing the implications of technology on education, he said, “I guess this focus on technology may make sense, but we have to be careful that we do not lose our role in preparing students to be well rounded citizens.” He expressed concerns that if technology became part of a mandated curriculum that certain students may miss opportunities to follow passions outside the technology industry.

Let us become careful not to engage in the tyranny of the “or” and embrace the world of the “and” by realizing that technology is a life skill for all of us. Values are not sacrificed by including technology studies for our youth; instead, they are strengthened and give our students more ammunition to make a significant difference in the world. With these new tools we, as a society, are better equipped to pursue our passions and make real change. If we blink and miss the opportunities we will be disadvantaging our students, not enabling them.

I want to explore why some leaders fail to respond in a timely manner to messages or phone calls. This happens in all sectors; however, it seems to be most prevalent in education and state government. As a strong extrovert and committed to customer service, I am completely confused about why so many educational leaders do not respond to phone calls and e-mails. While timely responses are important there are many Superintendents, central administrators and Principals who just do not respond at all.

While I tried to understand this behavior I did allow for the possibility that they may have been overwhelmed with their work and all the demands and that it was not a personal matter. So I began to study this issue more thoroughly to ascertain why this phenomenon is so prevalent in education leadership circles.

Maybe these “non –responders” are so busy doing what they believe are important strategic actions for their districts they feel they do not have the time and energy to be distracted by people who they believe will not help them get their work completed. They may believe that you can’t respond to everyone and still stay focused on the improvement of student achievement. I wondered whether these non- responders were actually very successful and if this concern of mine was rather frivolous.
I just returned from a wonderful vacation in New Zealand and had the unique opportunity to meet many New Zealanders and one key leader in the Educational Ministry in Wellington. The New Zealand culture is so customer oriented and helpful to all visitors; it is amazing to observe. They truly relish helping people enjoy their country. The educational leader I met was referred to me by an internationally known educational consultant who did previous work in the country with principals.
I have never actually met this educational leader but he was kind enough to refer me to the person in the educational ministry. It was very interesting that this very busy leader responded to e-mails within a few hours. How can he possibly find the time?

When the NZ leader agreed to meet with me with no notice it was once again an example of someone who was very responsive. Maybe it was cultural and part of the NZ culture to respond quickly. When I spoke to her about the person who referred me she noted that he was so responsive to her and all the educators in NZ. Maybe, since he is from Canada it is cultural again. It could be that we teach (maybe subtlety) American leaders that if you don’t respond you will be viewed as very important and an excellent leader who is focused on the key work ahead.

Next, I started to think about several educational leaders that were high achievers who all respond to calls and e-mails within 24 hours. I started reviewing a list of people including; a former Commissioner, two leaders of state wide associations, a collaborative leader, several Superintendents and Principals who are “fast responders”.
Well, maybe the people I have mentioned are just not very busy. Then I began to think about this recently retired High School Principal of a very large urban school who was recognized nationally for the extraordinary success in improving student achievement. She must be busy like the other leaders who do not respond. However, she always responded to teachers, students, parents, and the community within 24 hours. I called her recently and she called me back in 3 hours apologizing for her tardiness. When I spoke to her I found out she was in Florida on vacation on the beach. It must be in her DNA to respond so quickly.

I guess I could conclude that our “non-responders” are just very busy and have good excuses for their behavior. I am sorry to be so direct with people who seem to get overwhelmed with their jobs and the countless requests that cross their desk every day. I do understand that they are not trying to be rude and are just hoping to keep their head above water.

However, I do want to ask each of you who believe you are too busy to respond, to begin to change your attitude about each call and e-mail you receive. There is no excuse for no response or ignoring people for prolonged periods of time. Since several key leaders who get great results and have very busy schedules can and do respond, you too can join the ranks of the “fast responders”. You may have to learn how to be creative and use your assistant to help, or just send a quick e-mail back to the person that this is a difficult time for you and you will get back to them in a few days, a week or even more. Remember, you do not have to solve each issue immediately. People will respect you for your response and consideration. Most people recognize that each of their requests cannot always be a priority. I know I do.
The benefits that await our slow or non- responders are the additional resources that come directly to our fast responders. People will give their time more readily to our fast responders. One example is a corporate leader who volunteered to provide the resources of his company to help a school system with marketing. When he received no response in two weeks he withdrew his offer. Another example involved a corporate relations department offering $200,000 in technology and financial resources to a district. The Superintendent never responded to the call and the resources were given to a fast responder’s district.
Please take this blog as a direct but friendly caution that your lack of response can be detrimental to your relationships and success as a leader. While you may feel justified, the receiver often feels ignored and can even feel disrespected.

Although I have expressed my concern regarding the over emphasis on evaluation in changing and improving education in my new book (Leadership and Teams: The Missing Piece of the Educational Reform Puzzle) and first blog, we still have new evaluation systems jumping up all over the country. Since my data and research on leadership indicates that the best leaders keep their eyes on their goals and adapt based on compliance requirements, I must do the same.

The evaluation processes throughout the country talk about setting school, instructional and some sort of professional development goal for administrators. In Massachusetts this non- instructional goal is called a Professional Practice Goal.  In most Massachusetts districts they do not really know what this means or what data to use in setting their goals. Since most districts are compliance oriented and the deadlines for this goal setting are so tight (10/1/12) they are missing a key opportunity in developing high performance leaders.

This potential throw away goal is a key to success for most leaders. Instead of meeting the compliance requirements by creating goals that just propose to run better meetings, make staff happy, and spend more time with parents, it is critical to make this goal meaningful.

What data can be used to set this goal? Instructional data is for the instructional goal. How does an administrator know what their goal for real behavioral change should be in order to make significant and sustainable improvement.

Due to the genius of a real life Superintendent in Dover –Sherborn, Massachusetts, there is a new way to make this goal setting and evaluation process impactful. Valerie Spriggs used the data on leadership styles, behaviors, and values that we completed for her team to set real professional practice goals for her staff. In Massachusetts, the state department has a rubric that must be followed to set goals. This rubric tells administrators the areas in which to set these goals. The state proposes to set the goal based on a self-assessment of the rubric and the Superintendent’s viewpoint. There is no information on how to accomplish this goal or how each person needs to change their personal and professional behavior and practice to meet their new professional practice SMART goal.

Valerie, being a high performing leader (based on our research) kept her eye on the prize and then connected to the compliance requirements of the state. The goal for Valerie is real in-depth professional development for improved student achievement. Therefore, Valerie believed that the data from the inventories provided personal information on each administrator and therefore would meet the requirements of the new law.

Valerie stated that this process provided individual insights for administrators on their natural and adaptive leadership characteristics through the use of the leadership assessments.  The leadership assessments may include The Myers Briggs Type Indicator, The DISC, a Values inventory, and the Workplace Personality Inventory (WPI).  By using an informal, non -evaluative format the superintendent was able to engage each administrator in real behavioral change and improvement strategies.   All administrators shared that their data was accurate, insightful, and useful.

The details and specifics of each administrator’s professional practice goals are based on data consisting of a self- assessment, professional non-evaluative analysis, one on one coaching and mentoring.  The individuals identified written goals that provided an opportunity to refine previous practices, improve performance, and enhance job satisfaction.

The surface goals being written in other districts would not have meet Valerie’s requirements. The data she used on each administrator pointed to a deeper, genuine conversation that needed to occur with each person. Now other districts are using the leadership inventory data to set their professional practice goals. One Principal in another district wanted to create a legacy of leadership for her teachers. However, her profile indicated that she was focusing too much on writing evaluations and working in her office and less time coaching her teachers for success.

Another administrator was developing her school team but was not meeting the compliance requirements of the district. In this case it was not the answer for the Principal to do the compliance work herself. In fact, the delegation of the compliance work with authority to her leadership team would allow the Principal to continue providing the leadership coaching to teachers that is needed for real improvements in teaching practice.

In another district, the Principal is coasting to retirement and is losing the drive to improve. This showed up on her Workplace Personality Inventory (WPI) as a low score in initiative. This self- reported data, allowed the Superintendent to have an in-depth conversation with the Principal about developing her team to increase the initiative in the school for new efforts such as teacher evaluation and the common core.

It is essential for Superintendents and Principals to have in-depth conversations about improvement in a constructive and motivating manner. Many districts are using a goal setting process based only on instructional data or negative incidents and/or judgments about a Principal’s behavior. The data provided by the leadership assessments is about each administrator’s style and behavior as a leader. If the data is used for positive motivating discussions and to set real goals for sustainable behavioral change, the evaluation process will get the results that the federal and State governments had hoped.

As Valerie Spriggs said about this unique opportunity:

“The most important role of a Superintendent is to build the leadership capacity in your district. Don’t lose this opportunity because you don’t have time.”

Can accountability go too far?

I am concerned that the focus on accountability in education nationally will result in long-term damage to school systems. I do believe that accountability is important and that evaluations need to be completed for teachers and administrators.

If I believe they are important, then what is the problem? The problem is that evaluations are being touted by many people as a panacea to all the ailments in education and presented as THE key to improving student achievement.

I believe that excellent teachers and great leaders who motivate others to perform at their best will turnaround education. The problem is great teaching and excellent leaders will not be developed though a new evaluation system.

We need to hire the best and motivate and inspire people to increase performance. Evaluation is not a motivating tool; it is a documentation of performance. While evaluations are necessary to remove poor performers, a focus on motivation and less on punitive measures will be more successful in getting the best out of people.

Let’s stop the focus on evaluation and talk more about continuous improvement and frequent feedback. Evaluations can be motivating if focused on continuous feedback and the skills needed to succeed. Unfortunately, some evaluation processes nationally are so cumbersome that it is hard enough to just complete the process once or twice per year. If we focused on continuous feedback on performance and continuous improvement of teachers and leaders, we would begin to implement a very different process.

What would be different? Leaders would begin with an honest look at their own leadership and talk with their teams about how they could improve and how they could receive frequent feedback on their successes and their areas for improvement. Next, they would spread their openness and honesty to leadership teams who would become proficient at giving and receiving continuous feedback, as well.

This process of building a team that is comfortable dealing with conflict and is open to help their colleagues succeed by pointing out how they can improve takes time. Once the culture of a school/ district changes, the need for formal evaluations will decrease. Think about it! If you were in a work environment where you knew no one was talking behind your back and everyone was open and honest in providing critical feedback to help you succeed, what would be gained from a formal evaluation process?

I still believe that evaluations should be done. However, they can be simple and clearly sum up areas for improvement. They do provide documentation for removing poor performers. However, if you create a culture of improvement and support there is no need to spend countless hours on evaluations.

I have been presenting this viewpoint across the country with data to support my findings that the best leaders spend little time on compliance tasks, such as following the letter of the law on evaluation systems. These leaders are building a culture of high performance teams that get sustained results. They put their time into coaching people, and developing school and system improvement plans that motivate and inspire excellence.

Why are we stuck in this world of accountability? Many people often say during my presentations, that this is probably an over-reaction to the lack of accountability and focus of education on results. I agree with this premise, however, we have once again over simplified the problem and are swinging the pendulum the other direction to cracking down on our teachers and administrators who are the very people we need to have enjoying their job and inspiring students to succeed.

We want fast results and innovation, but we over legislate and prescribe to our educators how we want them to behave. It is time to let our leaders lead and remove the barriers from their success. The great leaders have figured it out. They do not overreact to every new rule and regulation. They stay true to their values of inspiring people to achieve. They find creative ways to keep the rule makers happy.

I do believe the legislatures and DOE’s throughout the country want schools to succeed. They have chosen to follow a path they believe will be successful. It would take great courage and risk for them to change. So, since they will not likely change, you have a choice of whether to follow the spirit of the law or the letter.

Just remember, if you get results no one will be questioning you.


Lyle Kirtman is president of Future Management Systems of Beverly, MA.