Leadership in RtI: Three Big Ideas

Topics: Leadership

One of the things leaders in education do as a part of their professional careers is work on leadership skills. Initiatives such as Response to Intervention (RtI) require leaders to set a vision for how their school can look, work towards it, and sustain the focus over a relatively long period of time. Leadership is critical, very few would disagree. As a part of our leadership development, we are told of the many leadership behaviors that are correlated with student achievement. I recently participated in a multi-session leadership development program that identified no fewer than 66 different behaviors that might lead to better results in our schools. No kidding!

Reflecting on that experience is not comforting. Indeed, it has left me with more questions than I have answers to. How can one attend to all of these things at once? What if I forget something, will I doom the initiatives I am involved with? The entire experience was unsettling, until I sat down and started to think about it all in context. Leadership in schools is not about the myriad of key behaviors that are correlated .25 or more with student achievement. Leadership is not about trying to remember all of the variables that may have an influence. It’s not about checking off the degree to which I'm doing each of these on a daily basis nor about whether others notice.


Leadership is about inspiring others to become leaders.  Leadership is about creating possibilities within a school.  Leadership is about people.  And leadership is a lot of hard work.  All of which got me to thinking.  What exactly is it that leaders in effective schools do to produce achievement gains in their students?  Boiled down, bare bones, most important stuff.  First off, they don’t focus on scores of things.  Indeed, they focus on a small number of things.  More importantly, they focus on the RIGHT THINGS.  Which again started me thinking, what are the right things?  I thought about what I know from the research, but more importantly, I thought about what I have observed in school leaders who are extremely effective, those who invariably raise student achievement.  What is it they do?  And I came to a strong and I am certain, overarching generalization.  Leaders who are effective do three things — they do them relentlessly and they do them extremely well:


  1. Effective leaders cause their school to define what it is that they want their students to know and be able to do;
  2. Effective leaders cause their schools to align their curricula and instruction to teach students these things;
  3. Effective leaders keep score.  And they use results from their scorecard to improve teaching in a continuous improvement manner.

Everything else is attendant to these big three.  They place in priority those things that are central to our mission for our kids.  They give schools important focus.  And importantly, they produce results.  In reflecting on these big ideas, it occurred to me that a big part of the reason RtI is effective for schools is because RtI itself embraces these three concepts and provides tools for school leaders to breathe life into them.  Perhaps that leadership training course I took wasn't all that bad.

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RTI Needs a Teacher Leardship Corps In our blue-collar high school, I have been using Professional Learning Teams for many years to run a model that provides our PLTs with developmental benchmark reports that describe how well their course program is causing mastery on uniform standards. The model is combined with Response to Intervention so that the PLT’s goal is to produce 80% mastery. Early Intervention Teams lead the design of school-wide Tier 2 and 3 interventions. Social Emotion Learning standards are also measured to extend our understanding of student motivation and behavior. The SEL data informs the redesign of programs. The work is enormous! Every day, it is more and more clear that our teacher leadership corps is the real heart of our system. No principal and his or her assistant principals can manage it. The typical principal and two assistants with part-time department heads can never find the time to invent and pilot new innovative systems, track and analyze data, train and develop team capacity, and facilitate and supervise everyone that needs to be involved. In my experience, a department chair single-handedly cannot manage the data, program improvement, and staff development requirements properly for all of the courses in the department. I suggest we need new leadership systems to manage this work and as important, continue the work when a high quality principal leaves. We need to rethink leadership roles in education. If we keep to the concept that only administrators are leaders, we will never have the manpower to address all the problems that interfere with causing all students to achieve. While business tends to have supervisory or leadership ratios closer to one to seven, wealthy high schools tend around one to thirty, and many supervisors must oversee more than a hundred people. Teachers laugh darkly about how little they interact with their supervisor. This is the proverbial factory model, not a profession. While I think medicine is a better analogy for professional educational work, I would like to take a risk and use a military analogy to argue the need for a new conception of professional leadership. I thoroughly understand we are not the military. However sometimes, the military must do very complex work in very difficult situations, and they understand that leadership is critical to effectiveness and that it must be infused through the system. Unlike some nations, our military always has had not only officers, but also non-commissioned officers—sergeants and corporals. They are clearly recognized, respected and acknowledged for their very important leadership roles. The officer corps requires these “Non-Coms” to figure out how to implement the orders of officers in varying situations to insure success. Sergeants operate within protocols, but must use different strategies to succeed in varying situation. My teacher leaders do the exact same type of work! Schools need professionals with these responsibilities. An improving school needs a depth of leadership organized around a set of procedures and protocols that define professional work. We can confirm that our most difficult problem for implementing new effective designs is leadership—not just principal leadership, but teacher leadership. Therefore, all our new hires must demonstrate leadership abilities. I speculate how much easier a new principal will have working within a system that is operated by teacher leaders. Also, I can imagine how difficult it would be for a new principal to derail a quality system which is operated by teacher leaders who know how to argue every issue with formal problem-solving processes backed by extensive student performance data. I would think there can be many conceptions of teacher leaders. However, I offer ours as a concrete example of what I mean: 1. PLT member: This teacher needs to learn how to work with the team. Team members need to learn the protocols, learn to receive assistance from and provide help to their team. They need to learn to be in-charge of team projects, which will be evaluated and improved by the team and its leader. 2. PLT Leader: This teacher needs to thoroughly understand and be able to operate all the required professional protocols, such as using standards and benchmarks, running inter-rater reliability procedures, operating a problem-solving process, collecting and analyzing data, setting goals, using interventions, etc. The PLT Leader facilitates team meetings, keeps the team organized and efficient, delegates team projects and assignments, and most of all keeps the team centered on improving its program. This is important work, requiring responsibility, skill and training. It deserves respect. Clearly, no single administrator can run a set of PLTs, but he or she can debrief, mentor and support a number of leaders individually. 3. Instructional Coach: This is a teacher who can properly train other peers in research-based program, software and strategies, such as KU-SIM. 4. PLT Coach: This tearch has experience managing a PLT successfully and can mentor others. PLT Leaders can use the coach to help them advance their understandings and skills to improve their work and lessen their frustrations when problems are encountered. 5. EIT Head: After PLTs have identified groups of unsuccessful students, this person leads a design team which analyze why these similar students do not succeed and recommend solutions to the administrative team. They must track results. 4. Head of PLT Leaders Team: This person has been a PLT Leader and preferably, a coach also. His or her job is to manage the PLT Leadership Team, which is comprised of all the PLT Leaders. This team needs to manage or advocate how program improvement and staff development resources should be used to help the teams increase their success. The team advocates to administration what they believe is best for students, common concerns, and suggest school-wide innovations. Finally, the team is a problem-solving and support body for new PLT Leaders. This can be a very powerful group. Since they are all dedicated professionals, who know how to use and argue with data, it is difficult to ignore their requests and opinions. Our teachers do not receive extra pay for this work (of course, they deserve more). However, we continuously rearrange time to make everything possible. Teacher leaders do receive prestige from their peers and access to administrators. What seems most important is the confidence that grows within them that they are truly professionals, who know how to manage problems rather than be constantly frustrated. Thanks for reading! Howard McMackin, Ph.D. Rolling Meadows High School (IL) Empoweredhighschools.com