I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?
(excerpted from an article by Larry Lashaway)
When some future historian tallies up buzzwords of the 1990s, "vision" will be high on the list. Schools everywhere want leaders who have it, and even modest incremental plans are routinely billed as "visions for the 21st century." Unfortunately, the exaltation of vision often leaves one question unanswered: Once you're done praising it, what do you do about it?
David Conley (1996) has found that many school leaders have become ambivalent—sometimes even cynical—about the usefulness of vision. Yet experts continue to regard it as a make-or-break task for the leader.
Why Does Vision Matter?
Robert Fritz (1996) says that organizations advance when a clear, widely understood vision creates tension between the real and the ideal, pushing people to work together to reduce the gap.
This unifying effect is especially important in school settings known for their "isolationist culture." Because teachers typically regard methodology as a matter of individual preference, empowerment strategies do not quickly lead to schoolwide changes in classroom practices (Carol Weiss 1995).
By contrast, schools with a clear vision have a standard by which teachers can gauge their own efforts. According to one teacher in a school that had recently developed a vision, "People are speaking the same language, they have the same kinds of informal expectations for one another, more common ground" (Conley and colleagues 1992).
David Mathews (1996) sees vision as a way of reconnecting schools to an increasingly alienated public. He says communities no longer see the schools as their schools. A vision that reflects the needs and purposes of the surrounding community not only improves education, it rebuilds the relationship between the school and its public.
How Do Leaders Facilitate Vision?
Even in schools that are deeply committed to shared vision, principals remain the key players, both before and after the school adopts a new direction.
Creating readiness is crucial. Conley notes that principals who have already adjusted to new ways of thinking often underestimate the time needed for others to do the same. He says that all participants must have the opportunity to examine their current thinking, develop a rationale for change, and entertain new models. This can be done by forming study groups, visiting schools or businesses that have already restructured, or collecting data that challenge comfortable assumptions (such as test scores or surveys of community satisfaction).
Robert Starratt (1995) emphasizes the importance of institution-alizing the vision. No matter how inspiring it sounds on paper, the dream will wither unless it takes concrete form in policies, programs, and procedures. At some point, curriculum, staffing, evaluation, and budget must feel the imprint of the vision, or it will gradually lose credibility.
At the same time, principals must remain focused on what the vision means in classroom terms. Richard Elmore and colleagues, after an indepth study of restructuring schools, concluded that enthusiasm for new visions does not automatically lead people to see the implications for teaching. They found that it was "extraordinarily difficult" for teachers to attain the deep, systematic knowledge of practice needed to make the vision a reality. Without unrelenting assessment, analysis, and professional development, the vision may remain a glossy facade rather than becoming a vital, living presence in the life of the school.
Above all, principals must create a climate and a culture for change. They do this by speaking about the vision often and enthusiastically; by encouraging experiments; by celebrating successes and forgiving failures; and by remaining steadfast in the face of the inevitable problems and missteps.
Experience has given advocates of vision a new appreciation for the difficulties involved, removing any illusions about a magic bullet. Yet they remain optimistic about its potential. As schools work through the challenges of vision, says Hong, "they discover that they perhaps can make the impossible possible."