• The Core Collaborative

Leading Student Success Through Systems

Updated: Sep 6, 2019

by David M. Horton, Ed.D.


Education and educators would be well-served to view their work as a system that can improve its production and service.

W. Edwards Deming is remembered as being one of the great explainers of business and marketing. One of his lasting legacies is that his number one cornerstone for managers and leaders is to appreciate the knowledge of the system, to constantly look to improve the system’s production and service (Deming, 2000).


Education and educators would be well-served to follow the thinking of Deming. That is, to view the work of education as a system that can improve its production and service.

Although education is not quite the same as a business making and selling widgets we can improve our delivery instruction and our service: how we interact with students, parents and the community.

We could even extend that thinking to say we can examine service as an external function to students and parents and an internal function to service to staff. The point of this is to recognize that each of these examinations involves systems. There are systems that are or can be in place to support the interaction with how we deliver instruction and how we work with external and internal stakeholders.


These systems can be measured, described and even quantified. Because of that, we can then look for ways to improve them. We can look for inefficiencies, breakdowns, and weaknesses. Once these are found, discussions and plans can be made to correct and support them.


For purposes of our examination of systems, we will focus on one broad area: Personal systems. This is designed to give leaders and leadership teams the ability to examine not just themselves but the organization.


Systems are critical because they can be examined impersonally. There is no need to go after people individually. Instead, the focus becomes on the system in which we work.


If the system has inefficiencies or lack of production then we discuss why. The beauty in spending time in this endeavor is that it retains the dignity of individuals and anchors in the belief that with support and training people can do good work.


Systems support this belief. Time spent building and maintaining systems is a good investment.


Understanding Personal Systems


Systems are put in place to keep things moving efficiently.

Good managers have good personal systems. These personal systems range from the way one organizes oneself to the expectations communicated to staff. Systems are put in place to keep things moving and efficient.


Having systems allows for routine maintenance and improvement. These periodic examinations keep the view away from personal attack or criticism but instead, look at how the performance and behavior of the leader or individual enhances or detracts from total team productivity.


It becomes a much simpler discussion when it is about the value that leaders add or don’t add to the performance of the organization. It then becomes the focus of the leader and leadership team to self-evaluate to ensure that they are adding to the overall success of the school.


Prompts for Practice


To provide some focus and reflection, use the following three prompts to examine how either you or your leadership team are thinking about systems. These prompts can be used both as a self-reflection or as a “starter” with a team. Also, there are a few follow-up prompts that can further extend the thinking or conversation as needed. These prompts need not be used in order or completely. Instead, use what is applicable and appropriate to open up productive conversations.


Self-Evaluation / Team Evaluation Prompt #1


I/we take responsibility for student achievement by bringing a team approach to tackling problems.


Respond with one of the following: Usually / Sometimes / Not Yet


Systems of success begin with the individual leader. One must ask: “How committed am I to looking at myself first in terms of systems and habits that lead to or don’t lead to the success of my organization?”


A leader must take personal ownership of the habits and systems that may or may not be leading to improved student achievement. One of those personal systems is the commitment to building teams and being sure that teams run in the organization.


The educational culture we operate in demands that leaders believe in teams and do everything they can to use teams to tackle the problems and challenges we face in today’s schools (Wagner, 2006).


A leader must take careful stock of the messages they send that may overtly or covertly communicate their faith and belief that the teams can get the job done. The leader must also make it a regular habit to organize, manage and support teams in their functions. This requires a commitment that even when things get busy or rushed that the teams receive the attention and preparation needed to perform at their best. Meaning, supporting teams is one of the most important things a leader can do.


Conversely, missing an opportunity to support a team may be a deflating or morale-damaging experience. Try to always do your best to be positive and action-driven with teams to keep this momentum flowing.


Reflection and Follow Up Discussion Questions (Personal or Team)

  1. How do I/we as a school leader create and maintain personal systems of success that help support the other teams I/we interact with?

  2. What routines and systems are in place now in our organization that signal to all staff that teams and team success are a top priority?


Self-Evaluation / Team Evaluation Prompt #2


Our organization regularly communicates the expectation of what quality work looks like for teachers and students.


Respond with one of the following: Usually / Sometimes / Not Yet


A system that is a must and one that has to be regularly attended to is that of communicating the expectation of performance. It is the responsibility of the leader to describe and set the expectation of what quality work looks like (Ainsworth & Viegut, 2006).


It is also critical to point out that this expectation also requires that the leader provide proper and adequate support. Simply setting an expectation without providing support is foolish and detrimental.


Leaders should spend some time and conversation looking at how well this expectation is treated as a system. There should be a periodic revisiting of how well this is communicated and the level of success achieved. The idea of making it a system is that performance expectations are regularly revisited and examined.


Reflection and Follow Up Discussion Questions (Personal or Team)

  1. How often do I/we revisit the discussion of what “quality” means?

  2. Do I/we provide support to staff to achieve the target of quality work? If so, how?


Self-Evaluation / Team Evaluation Prompt #3


The leader/leadership team creates the expectation to narrow the focus and scope of the curricular/instructional/assessment task at hand.


Respond with one of the following: Usually / Sometimes / Not Yet



There are always a million things we can look at and study in education. No shortage of ideas and next steps. A system that has to be put in place from the leader is a communicated expectation that the focus is narrowed for the task at hand (Ainsworth & Viegut, 2006). This narrowing must be a regular occurrence.


It must be a system at the school or district. There must be a constant revisiting to examine how well the focus is tight and the area of attention is narrowed. Looking to improve student performance or teacher performance dictates that the target be specific and achievable.


It is up to the leader to create a system where all teachers know what the target is, how to achieve it, and how to adjust to the peculiarities of their classes.

Reflection and Follow Up Discussion Questions (Personally or Team)

  1. Does our organization have systems in place to keep the focus on goals to be both narrow and specific?

  2. How often do I/we revisit the instructional targets for the school?

  3. Is a system in place to bring checks and periodic examinations during the school year of performance toward our achievement goals?


Why Do This Work?


We have to have leadership in schools that can bring sustained results. These results bring with it a culture of success, inclusivity, engagement, and effort. Getting to these things requires leaders and teams who can marshal resources, solve logistical problems, support positive tone and solve day-to-day problems all while keeping everyone focused on the bigger target – student learning.


As discussed above, this effort will require an understanding of the pressure and time constraints involved. There must be effort given to the building of teams and sustaining of teams. There will have to be a commitment to a common language and direction.


The team has to have a belief that this effort will pay off if everyone is on the “same page.” Once staff knows the “why” they can understand the “what.” And, once the “what” is understood then they can collaborate to determine “how” they will achieve the goals set out before them.

What are three ideas that come to mind to keep personal systems moving in a productive, positive and student-driven way? Please share

Works Cited


Ainsworth, L., & Viegut, D. (2006). Common formative assessment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


Deming, W. Edwards (2000). Out of the Crisis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Wagner, T., Kegan, R., Lahey, L., Lemons, R. W., Garnier, J., Helsing, D., & Howell, A. (2006). Change leadership: A practical guide to transforming our schools. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

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