Making Collaborative Leadership a Reality

by Lee Anne Sulzberger, M.Ed.

Even as this school year comes to an end, school leaders are already considering how to improve teaching and learning for the coming year. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 is requiring schools and school divisions to close the achievement gap between traditionally low-performing student groups, including students with disabilities, and their typically achieving peers. In order to meet the needs of students with disabilities, schools must provide them "appropriate access to the general curriculum and effective instructional support" (DiPaola & Walther-Thomas, 2003, p. 4).

Given these mandates, the need for collaborative school leaders who can orchestrate and nurture professional relationships with the shared goal of improving student outcomes is evident. Collaborative leaders are defined as those leaders who have accepted the challenge of and the responsibility for building and sustaining a diverse team dedicated to successfully accomplishing a shared purpose (Rubin, 2002). To realize shared goals, collaborative leaders must create structures that support and maintain the relationships needed to further the shared mission and vision of the organization. Successful organizations have at their core the ability to "convert tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge on an ongoing basis" (Fullan, 1999, p. 16). In other words, organizations that are effective at this process can combine the collective values, skills, knowledge, and experiences of all stakeholders and unite them for organizational problem solving and continuous improvement. In other words, results.

How can school leaders ensure that structures to support shared goals become a reality in their schools? One way is to cultivate professional learning communities. DuFour and Eaker (1998) note that professional learning communities are characterized by:

  • Shared mission, vision, and values

  • Collective inquiry

  • Action orientation

  • Willingness to experiment

  • Commitment to continuous improvement

  • Focus on Results

School leaders can ask the following questions to determine if their school is a learning organization. Collectively, these features indicate that a school is operating as a learning organization:

  1. Does the school have an incentive structure that encourages individuals to adapt their behavior?

  2. Does the school have challenging but achievable goals that are shared by the stakeholders?

  3. Can members of the school accurately communicate the changes they are trying to make and where they are in the process?

  4. Does the school gather, process, and act upon information in a variety of ways that are appropriate for the purpose at hand?

  5. Is there an institutional knowledge base at the school, and are processes in place for creating new ideas?

  6. Does the school share information with parents and community stakeholders?

  7. Does the school receive feedback on how well it is serving students and parents?

  8. Does the school constantly refine its basic processes such as communication, gathering and using data, creating new ideas, etc.?

  9. Does the school have a supportive organizational culture that includes warm relationships, collaborative opportunities, and the necessary tools and supports for teachers?

  10. Is the school an “open system” that is sensitive to the surrounding environment, including social, political, and economic contexts? (Adapted from Brandt, 2003)

As planning begins for a new school year, leaders are urged to thoughtfully reflect upon the merits of collaborative leadership and the structures necessary to support the shared goal of improved academic achievement for all students.


Brandt, R. (2003). Is this school a learning organization? 10 ways to tell. JSD: The Journal of the National Staff Development Council, 24(1), 10-16.

DiPaola, M. F., & Walther-Thomas, C. (2003). Principals and special education: The critical role of school leaders (COPPSE Document No. IB-7). Gainesville: University of Florida, Center on Personnel Studies in Special Education.

DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.

Fullan, M. (1999). Change forces: The sequel. Philadelphia, PA: Falmer Press, Taylor & Francis.

Rubin, H. (2002). Collaborative leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Date: May/June 2004