When Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley took the reins of University City School District in 2016, she knew that she was in for a challenge.  The district had languished for years, and thestate score card in 2016 showed it barely hanging onto accreditation. Hardin-Bartley recognized a dramatic change was in order if this inner ring suburban district servin2,860 students, 84% of them black and 11% white, and 70% on free and reduced lunch, was going to reverse the trend.  She turned to the Transformational Leadership Initiative (TLI), a partnership between Washington University and the Santa Fe Center for Transformational School Leadership, to support her transformation work, beginning with the four elementary schools in the district. 

Hardin-Bartley’s plan for transforming the district began with challenging traditional leadership structures.   Each of the elementary schools would be led by a three-person team that included the principal and two full-time teacher-leaders, selected because of their strong classroom teaching and their abilities to build learning relationships with other teachers. The new superintendent’s goal was to develop educational excellence with empowered leadership teams who had the time and authority to work side by side with teachers in classrooms and engage in rich and focused study and conversation about practice.

Working with the Transformational Leadership Initiative (TLI), the leadership teams developed expertise with TLI’s learning conversation continuum, a set of five conversations about practice designed to support teacher autonomy and agency. In addition to well-designed peer learning conversations and collaborative inquiry, traditional conversations such as coaching, supervision and evaluation are reshaped on the continuum to minimize compliance and to build capacity.

                                       Transformational Leadership Initiative Continuum of Learning Conversations

                                                                                    The Implementation Plan

Each elementary school leadership team divided the teaching staff into thirds, and team leaders over the next three years gradually took responsibility for the end-to-end development of the teachers and the achievement of the students on their teams. The goals of this new leadership model were 1) to develop collective efficacy and aspiration, and 2) to insure all teachers were given the personalized support they needed to hone their teaching in support of deeper learning, and 3) to improve student outcomes.

A formal leader, either the principal or a teacher-leader, worked side-by-side with each small team of no more than 10 teachers. The teams were intensely focused on the district’s vision for deeper learning: creating classrooms that nurtured children’s ability to collaborate, create, problem-solve, apply high levels of reading and writing, and generate and investigate intriguing questions.  The leader encouraged, coached, modelled, provided resources, acted as co-learner; and, as the project progressed, supervised and evaluated the teachers on her team.

Year 1

During year one, the team leader coached each teacher on the team weekly and built strong relationships with the team members.  The school teams met regularly to analyze evidence of student learning and to study and plan ways to change the trajectory for low performing students and to ensure every child was challenged to do her best.

The three-member leadership team itself also met weekly to review the work of their teams. A transformational coach from the Transformational Leadership Initiative joined the leadership team twice a month to help support their work as leaders and coaches. In addition, the leadership teams from all the schools came together monthly for a full day of professional development and planning that included

  • opportunities to deepen practice with peer learning conversations, collaborative inquiry, coaching, and supervision;
  • strategies to improve adult learning and deeper learning practices in the classroom;
  • approaches to nurture a rich culture of inquiry, collaboration, and risk-taking.

In year one, the leadership teams began to use a broad array of peer learning conversations with their teacher teams to support learning.  These included such strategies as:

  • Book Studies
  • Lesson/Unit Study
  • After Action Reviews
  • Discussing Shared Classroom Observations
  • Examining Evidence of Student Learning
  • Studying Models of Excellence

By the end of year 1, the culture of the schools began to change in significant ways. One teacher-leader summarized the changes in her building:

Last year as a teacher in the district, I sort of felt like I was just another cog in the wheel of the machine. Switching to this new model has felt very freeing and has allowed us to bring positive energy to teachers–really praising them and showing them the things they are doing that work for students. I have gotten feedback that that’s not something that had always happened in the past. I’m not saying that it was meant to be negative in the past. But I think sometimes the perception of a walkthrough or somebody  coming in your building was negative. Now it’s more like, “When are you coming into my classroom next?  We’re doing this awesome project that I really want you to see!” It is more of a positive thing. Teachers want the feedback. They are excited to hear what we have to say. It is more of a partnership instead of a hierarchical  relationship. (Beyer, 2019)

Year 2

By year 2, the leadership teams had developed a good deal of confidence in their roles as leaders and their abilities to nurture their teams and coach for individual and team growth.  A teacher-leader noted:The role of the TIL (teacher instructional leader) is to empower teachers.  How I showed up as a math coach in the past was very different from how I show up now as a teacher-leader.  I am no longer trying to fix things.   I’m trying to build capacity of my team. One of the things that really excites me is my ability here is to see the classroom and the teacher and child with two lenses.  This system lens gives us the power to blow up things when they aren’t working. Seeing the impact of our work on our students—seeing student achievement in a different way--is amazing. We know what kids can do, and we can help remind teachers and change the narrative.

Year 2 brought intensive work for the leadership teams in several key aspects of transformational leadership, most importantly transformational supervision. Leaders used their supervision of the team primarily to build collective efficacy and individual agency, not so much to seek compliance on a list of “must dos.” They learned:

  • to help teachers set powerful goals to move their work forward,
  • to create environments for teachers where they have the opportunity to practice and develop new skills,
  • to analyze assignments and discuss student work samples at sophisticated levels,
  • to analyze classrooms for SOTEL (safety, outcomes, teaching, engagement, and learning) (Marshall, 2013),
  • to have directive conversations when things were not going well,
  • to use an equity lens when looking at classrooms,
  • to apply systems thinking to find ways of thinking that were inhibiting the work and to move from reacting to problems to transforming mental models,
  • to use the design cycle to help the team create new ways of doing their work,
  • to illuminate strengths of their team members

By the middle of year 2, the leadership teams felt they were ready to supervise their team members. This confidence was illustrated in the remarks of one teacher leader:

 If you told me at the beginning of this project, I would be confident supervising a team of teachers, I would have said you were crazy.  But getting clear about what supervision is and isn’t and having time to practice the skills we need has made me confident.  It seems a natural extension of the current work we are doing.

 Year 3

As year 3 with this cohort kicks off in the fall of 2019, the teams are ready to build their skills in collaborative inquiry and evaluation and confident their leadership is making a difference. Survey data from the Panorama survey suggests real changes in both elementary teachers’ and children’s sense of efficacy, belonging, and risk-taking at the end of year 2 in the project. Survey data also points to teachers’ increasing comfort implementing deeper learning. And while the District doesn’t yet have standardized test scores for the year, we do see in internal assessments steady growth in reading, writing, concepts of number, and scientific understandings. It is a hopeful beginning.

Current Reality in Most Schools

University City’s distributed leadership model contrasts to the approach of most elementary schools, where one over-worked principal is responsible for the development and evaluation of 20-50 teachers. In fact, the average principal interviewed in the Bain Report a (study of distributed leadership) is directly responsible for the performance and development of 37 teachers, as well as additional non-instructional staff.  The authors of the Bain Report note, “… [the 37 teachers] compare to a span of five people for the average manager of highly skilled professionals like accountants or human resource specialists. Even managers of less skilled employees, like call-center workers or janitors, typically have direct responsibility for only around 15 people.” (Bain, 2016)

As the Transformational Leadership Initiative team works in schools across the country, overwhelming system demands around teacher evaluation are a common concern among principals: too many people to evaluate…too complex of a process…too little leverage. These demands are, we believe, a major reason why high quality school leaders leave their positions, frustrated with mandates that place almost all hopes for change in guaranteed low-leverage processes and structures that keep school leaders frantically busy, consistently feeling inadequate, and even the best and brightest tragically ineffective in moving their schools forward.  This is supported by experts in the field:

Teacher evaluation is a low-leverage strategy for improving schools, particularly in terms of the time it requires of principals.

                                                             Dufour and Marzano (Dufour and Marzano, 2011)

Evaluation has become a polite, if near-meaningless matter between a beleaguered principal and a nervous teacher.  Research has finally told us what many of us have suspected all along: the conventional evaluation…does not have any measurable impact on the quality of student learning. In most cases it is a waste of time.

                                                                     Mike Schmoker (Schmoker, 2018)

The Transformational Leadership Initiative places much greater emphasis on conversations to the left of evaluation on the continuum: peer learning, collaborative inquiry, coaching and supervision. These conversations better develop the internal accountability and professional agency so critical to transformation.  Evaluation practices are also reshaped to be more in line with the highly collaborative focus on professional growth that is a characteristic of the entire continuum.  For the approximately 10% of teachers whom we have found to demonstrate serious failures in meeting their professional responsibilities, we turn to improvement plans than may lead to removal. This approach counters the focus on intensive evaluation for all teachers that has sapped too many school leaders and kept them from investing in the real essentials for school transformation.

Getting Clear on the Work

In 2018 Mike Schmoker outlined what he called the “infrastructure essentials” for school improvement. They begin with a reasonably coherent curriculum, rich examples of lessons to support teachers in their teaching, and purposeful reading and writing in every discipline. (Schmoker, 2018) While this seems breathtakingly simple and straightforward, he goes on to note, “As numerous studies demonstrate, these essential elements are only rarely implemented; every credible study confirms that they are still pushed aside by various initiatives every year in the majority of schools.” (Schmoker, 2018)

The three essentials Schmoker outlines are solid necessities for school improvement; but for genuine transformation, schools need more than that. At TLI we add the following three characteristics:

  • A clear shared understanding of the kind of human beings the school hopes to nurture as well as a commitment to the learning environment and teaching practices necessary to succeed in this endeavor;
  • Shared leadership practices that build capacity of staff members to teach, learn and collaborate at high levels;
  • A powerful culture that grows from collective aspiration, inquiry, risk-taking and creativity.

These, we believe, are best developed with a flattened hierarchy and with rich learning conversations in support of deeper learning for both teachers and learners.

 Moving to A New Paradigm

Rethinking learning conversations in schools begins with two critical points. First of all, getting clear on the sophisticated practice of coaching (as well as the other leadership conversations) is an essential step in the success of distributed leadership. Effective coaching can’t be an ill-formed mishmash, dependent of the individual coach’s perception of her role.  Nor can it depend on the classroom teacher’s decision to open up her classroom to a coach. Schools that decide to empower teacher-leaders need thoughtful planning about what coaching will look like and its role in the broader continuum of leadership conversations. Everyone in the school is learning.  Everyone in the school is being coached in regular cycles that build individual and collective capacity.  No one can opt out. And the practice of coaching is studied and refined as thoughtfully as the practices of teaching and learning.

Secondly, coaching alone doesn’t provide the broad continuum of conversations that is necessary to support deep change. Work with distributed leadership in the Transformational Leadership Initiative includes a coherent combination of peer learning conversations,collaborative inquiry, coaching, supervision, and evaluation. Each of these practices requires study, practice and orchestration by school leaders.

The Transformational Leadership Initiative is premised on the belief that school change grows from powerful relationships and important human conversations. Only when we flatten the hierarchy, nurture a rich collaborative culture and dramatically change the conversations in our schools will we create the institutional transformation so necessary for 21st century students and their educators.


Beyer, K.  (2019) A Transformational Journey Towards Human-centered and Distributed Leadership in one Urban School District’s Elementary Schools, unpublished research study. St Louis.

Bierly, C. and Doyle, B. The Bain Report: Transforming Schools: How distributed leadership can create more high-performing schools. Boston: Bain and Company.

Dufour, R. and Marzano, R. 2011. Leaders of Learning: How District, School, and Classroom Leaders Improve Student Achievement (Bringing the Professional Learning Community Process to Life). Bloomington: Solution Tree Press.

Marshall, K. 2013. Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation: How to Work Smart, Build Collaboration, and Close the Achievement Gap. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons.

Schmoker, M. 2018. Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, 2nd Edition. Alexandria: ASCD. 


 Linda Henke Executive Director, Santa Fe Center for Transformational School Leadership (SFCTSL) Linda Henke is the co-founder with David Bristol of the Santa Fe Center for Transformational School Leadership. She is a popular executive coach for principals and top-level school administrators as well as a consultant with schools in year-long programs of school improvement nationally and internationally.

Victoria May Executive Director, Institute for School Partnership (ISP) and Assistant Dean of Arts & Sciences, Washington University May’s work with the ISP, the university’s signature program for strategically improving K-12 teaching and learning, inspires, connects and empowers teachers in local schools around exemplary resources.

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