May 29, 2007 Feature

Learning the Deep Structure: Elements of School-Based Leadership

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Third in a four-part series on educational leadership

Speech-language pathologists in a leadership capacity can profoundly influence school-based practice. I found this out personally more than 25 years ago when taking a short course at an ASHA Convention. The professor teaching that course led me to re-think what school-based practice was really about. This article looks at such leadership by describing commonalities among exceptional educational leaders and among highly effective schools, and then—using examples from my own leadership journey—shows how one's bedrock values and beliefs ultimately fuel the leadership process.

Learning from Leaders

In a series of interviews with 43 eminent individuals considered "educational leaders," Goldberg (2001) identified five commonalities shared by most educational leaders. The leaders all held strong bedrock values and beliefs in what they were doing, had the courage to swim upstream on behalf of their beliefs, possessed a social conscience toward racism and poverty, and maintained a seriousness of purpose, holding to high standards and devoting years of service to their causes. As a result, they were able to gain situational mastery (the happy marriage of personal skills and accomplishment) in their leadership context and were able to win others to their values and beliefs. They used their bedrock values and beliefs to articulate a vision that ultimately elevated the quality of the schools they led.

Highly Effective Schools

So what did these educational leaders accomplish in the schools or organizations they led? What makes some schools better than others? Highly effective schools share common features irrespective of location (urban, suburban, rural) or family income levels. Good schools have teachers and specialists who believe that every child can learn and that every student is everyone's responsibility. These beliefs are present in all high-performing schools and they form the bedrock values of the larger educational process. Other critical features include collegiality among teachers, parent involvement, and an ever-present belief that teamwork and sharing unites all school professionals and staff. Administrative control is usually at the school level and central administration is perceived as a source of help, not of power.

Most, if not all, of these schools have instructional leader principals who place an emphasis on high-quality instruction, high standards, data-gathering, and most importantly, collaboration, problem-solving, and teamwork. Their leadership cultivates a context in which the varied needs of all students can be met and amplified to high levels of performance.

The Road to Leadership

School SLPs, given their strong backgrounds in communication and language, their extensive training in clinical assessment and individualized instruction (intervention), and their willingness to work collaboratively as a team, are uniquely qualified to establish themselves as school-based leaders. But the road to becoming a school-based leader is not an easy one, as I can surely attest. Leadership is not something that our universities "train-into" our students. There are no "clinical hours" for leadership, no ASHA leadership standards to meet.

Like many students today, I was thrilled to finally graduate, begin receiving a paycheck, and stop eating macaroni and cheese. I earned hundreds of clinical hours in graduate school doing treatment, so when I took my first job in the schools that is what I continued to do. I assumed a caseload of students and provided hours of treatment to all of them. I fashioned my first bedrock beliefs from the popular song, "give a little test, do a lot of therapy, get down tonight." I was happy to have a job and wanted to please my principal. All I wanted to do was become the best clinician I could be.

It often makes me wonder just how many students today graduate and continue on to become clinicians as they were trained, as I did, and as did the person I replaced. Since that was the expectation and the tradition, it was difficult-if not almost impossible-to assume any other role. Or at least, that's what I thought at the time. I had been trained to do treatment, work independently, and work on my own. At the time, clinicians knew that competence really meant not working with and through others; it meant being able to work independently, with little to no supervision. During my seven years as a school SLP, my caseload grew to more than 100 students. I was overwhelmed, and my students made little progress. I felt alone, marginalized to the edge of the educational process, but I still tried to be the best clinician I could be.

And at the ASHA Convention, everything changed. I attended a short course presented by an upstart professor, Elisabeth Wiig. How could I have known that this creative woman would become my friend, colleague, and mentor for more than 25 years? During her presentation, Wiig spoke about "the necessary and sufficient elements" for therapeutic success: more than one treatment (learning) context; shared stimuli across those contexts; and, most importantly, more than one person (intervention agent) involved in the process. She said a good barometer of success would be to ask all of our students' teachers in May or June to share three things that the student worked on during the speech-language pathology intervention. When I did this, I found that teachers didn't have a clue about what I had been doing all year. This forced me to begin re-thinking what school-based practice was really about. That short course changed my life.

The next year I decided to leave the public schools and pursue a doctorate at the University of Cincinnati (UC). Almost immediately, things began to change and leadership was actually discussed. UC allowed me to use my schools background to chart a new course for excellence, one with a focus on language, literacy, and team-based practice. There, I had the good fortune to be taught by Richard and Laura Kretschmer, and work closely with Nancy Creaghead. I formed a life-long professional partnership with Elisabeth Wiig and my work was greatly influenced by Jack Damico, who taught me to think "context-first." These individuals and the other participants in this series—Judy Montgomery, Barbara Ehren, Nickola Nelson, and Steven Griffin, my student—have helped me to reshape my bedrock beliefs so that I can have a powerful influence on student clinicians and they can begin their careers with a more diverse leadership perspective in forming bedrock beliefs.

Building Leadership Potential

None of my students will ever graduate and find themselves alone in a treatment room as I did. Clinical training is a small part of what it takes to fuel one's leadership potential. Students at The Ohio State University will have a better start in building a foundation with a stronger and more diverse set of values. Students not only prioritize literacy development as a major core value, but they have been bombarded with information about leadership. They are asked to become process-based thinkers and encouraged to adopt a systems-focused perspective on teaching and learning. Students are taught to believe in collaboration, consultation, problem-solving, qualitative assessment, early intervention, and most importantly, prevention. As Griffin says, if we roll up our "prevention sleeves" for language and literacy during the preschool and early school years, we can defeat learning disability. He believes it. I believe it-and so do the student clinicians he supervises. Read about Griffin's educational leadership in the area of literacy in the companion piece at right.

As you read the articles in this series, reflect on the vision and values presented. I am convinced that most SLPs have the potential to step out of traditional roles and lead. To me, leadership does not take a long time, like becoming "real" in The Velveteen Rabbit. It is something you discover when you finally come face-to-face with the Wizard and learn that leadership, like other elusive qualities, is something within us from the start. The journey is yours.

Wayne A. Secord, is a senior research scientist in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science at The Ohio State University. He has authored or co-authored numerous articles, books, tests, and intervention programs on assessment and treatment of speech and language disorders, and served as the editor of Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools from 1992 to 1998. Contact him at

cite as: Secord, W. A. (2007, May 29). Learning the Deep Structure: Elements of School-Based Leadership. The ASHA Leader.


Barth, R., Fullan, M., Lezotte, L., Eaker, R., & Dufour, R. (2005). On common ground: The power of professional learning communities. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Dunne, D. W., & Delisio, E. R. (2004). Common elements of effective schools. Wallingford, CT: Education World.

Goldberg, M. (2001). Leadership in education: Five commonalities. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(10), 757-777.


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