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Developing a School Vision: Lessons from Nominated Transformative Principals

Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association
March, 2008: New York

Brad W. Kose

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

A lineage of transformative, multicultural, and social-reconstructionist scholars have argued that educational leaders and

teachers not only need to examine how social conditions affect school beliefs and practices, but envision how education can serve as a

means toward a more democratic and socially just society (e.g., Banks, 1997; Banks & Banks, 2006; Gewirtz, 1998; Giroux, 1997;

Ladson-Billings, 1995; Marri, 2005; Sleeter & Grant, 1994; Westheimer & Kahne, 2004). This study particularly builds on leadership

for social justice scholarship (Grogan, 2002; Marshall, 2004; McKenzie et al., 2008; Shields, 2004; Shoho, 2006) and research that

argues that school principals can play transformative roles in this endeavor (Kose, 2007a; Kose, 2007c; Marshall & Olivia, 2006;

Riehl, 2000; Riester, Pursch, & Skrla, 2002; Theoharis, 2007; Touchton & Acker-Hocevar, 2001). Transformative leadership—

concerned with issues of equity, diversity, social justice, and oppression—is distinguished from transformational leadership that does

not necessarily seek to understand or address these issues (Brown, 2004; Shields, 2004, in press).
One potentially relevant principal role concerns their support in developing a transformative school vision. A large body of

normative and critical literature suggests that a collective and shared school vision is a characteristic of effective schools (Glickman,

Gordon, & Ross-Gordon, 2007; Knapp et al., 2003), helps foster inclusive and equitable schools (Capper, Frattura, & Keyes, 2000;

Riehl, 2000; Scheurich & Skrla, 2003), directs positive school change (Fullan, 2001a; Fullan, 2001b) and ideally guides quality

professional development (Bredeson & Johansson, 2000; Lindstrom & Speck, 2004; Sparks & Hirsh, 1997; Tallerico, 2005). Recent

research also demonstrated that principals can leverage school visions for transformative hiring, curriculum development, professional

learning and school improvement (Kose, 2008).

Transformative school improvement seems particularly important considering extensive research and scholarship on the

negative influence of low expectations and deficit-thinking for students of color, students living in poverty, and students in special

education (Capper et al., 2000; Deschenes, Cuban, & Tyack, 2001; Shields, Bishop, & Mazawi, 2005; Valencia, 1997). Although

various scholars have argued that principals should build a common lived and written vision to guide equitable school improvement

efforts (e.g., Capper et al., 2000; Knapp et al., 2003; Lindstrom & Speck, 2004; Scheurich & Skrla, 2003; Tallerico, 2005), there has

been little empirical examination of principal practices that shape the development of a transformative collective vision.

The purpose of this investigation is to understand (a) how principals help develop transformative school visions and (b) what

vision statement qualities or dimensions provide principals with leverage for transformative school improvement. In this paper, I

examine the development and content of written school visions in schools led by principals nominated for transformative practices.

While an implicit shared or lived mission is important, I concentrate on the written vision because other research has demonstrated
that a written vision provides principals with an explicit framework or resource to guide specific transformative school improvement

direction (Kose, 2007a, 2008). The analysis of these vision processes and statements may help illuminate potential pitfalls, guidelines,

and promising leadership practices in creating more transformative written and shared visions. For instance, given the resistance that

principals for social justice face (Theoharis, 2007), the ways in which principals develop and construct school visions may thwart or

propel their transformative aspirations. Two research questions guide this inquiry. What leadership—and especially principal

leadership—practices guide the development of a school vision or mission? What written vision statement “dimensions” provide

leverage for transformative practices?

Theoretical framework

This study falls under the broad paradigm of critical theory (Kincheloe & McLaren, 2000; Lincoln & Guba, 2000), but rather

than locating systems of oppression, it seeks to study leaders who are preventing, subverting, or addressing oppression through their

leadership. More specifically, this study is informed by leadership for social justice scholarship. Recognizing that social justice has no

fixed or “universal” meaning (Bogotch, 2002; Shoho, Merchant, & Lugg, 2005), this study examined the practices and school visions

of principals nominated for exemplary practice in fostering equitable achievement and student learning about diversity and social

issues.

Methods

I employed a qualitative multi-case study (Stake, 1995, 2000; Yin, 2003) and other complementary qualitative or critical

research approaches (Carspecken, 1996; Miles & Huberman, 1994; Strauss & Corbin, 1998) to re-examine two relevant qualitative
studies. I re-analyzed observational, interview, and artifact data from these studies that focused on how principals influence

transformative professional learning in their buildings. In particular, the research questions guided this reanalysis.

Participants. In both studies, I used a purposeful snowball sampling technique (Bogdan & Biklen, 2003) of peer nomination to

identify principals known for exemplary practice that included fostering (a) equitable achievement for traditionally marginalized

students and (b) student learning about diversity and social issues in their schools (see Kose, 2007b; Kose, 2007c for extensive

nomination and data collection procedures). Fifteen total principals participated in both studies. To answer the second research

question, I examine data collected with 14 principals who had vision statements (one school did not have a mission or vision

statement). To answer the first research question, I focus on the six principals who helped shape the development and content of their

school vision (the other eight inherited their vision statements). All principals served in public schools. Four of these schools were

situated in large “school choice” districts where students applied for enrollment—in two schools, students were selected by random

lottery, in the other two, students were selected by achievement criteria. Seven principals were female and seven were male. Nine

principals were White, five were Latino/a, and one was African American. With the exception of one principal who served 15%

students of color and 12% students from low-income backgrounds, the other principals served 30-100% students of color and 30-

100% students who qualified for free and reduced lunch. Eight principals served more than 70% students of color.

Data collection. The first, more in-depth study involved a multi-case study of three principals—two elementary and one

middle level. Data collection included three 90-120 minute principal interviews with each principal, thirty-six 45-60 minute teacher,

special education teacher, or other school personnel interviews, more than 20 observations at each of school site, and school vision
artifacts. While these data focused on the role of the principal in professional learning, a considerable amount of data concerned the

link between principal practice and developing a school vision. Eleven principals were chosen from the second study. Data collection

consisted of one 90-120 minute interview and occasional member checks with principals in small, medium, and large high schools.

Although this study was not as in-depth as the previously mentioned one, several interview questions focused on understanding how

principals developed or utilized their school’s vision.

In short, both studies contribute toward a theoretical understanding of answering the research questions. The data for each

principal or school vision across both studies were organized into individual cases of the multi-case study, which allowed for cross-

case analysis (Yin, 2003). Because the unit of analysis centered broadly on the principal’s role in building a transformative vision, a

meaningful comparison was made across school sites and levels.

All interviews were recorded and transcribed, while observations entailed thick description and were transcribed or

summarized into electronic format. I used the electronic qualitative software program NVivo to recode data at low levels to build up to

higher levels of theory for each research question. A combination of analytic strategies such as direct interpretation, rival hypothesis

testing, pattern matching, explanation building, and cross-case comparison were employed to answer the research question. For

example, I created a code “types of participation” for organizing data that illuminated different formats or venues for staff or

community participation in the school’s vision development. In one case, the principal was involved with the development of school

vision as a teacher and later became the school principal. In this instance, I focused on the general leadership practices of vision
development to compare to the other principals’ practices. To strengthen school and participant confidentiality, I organize the findings

into themes across schools and minimize individual or school details.

Findings

I organized the findings into two sections that reflect the two research questions. The first section focuses on how six

principals helped develop their school’s vision. The second section conveys three transformative dimensions of vision statements that

provide principals with leverage for fostering transformative practices.

Developing a Vision

A few contextual factors provide a background to understand the vision development practices that follow. In four of the six

cases, the school vision was developed in tandem with the opening of a new school. The other two principals took positions in existing

schools; one facilitated the process of creating the school’s first vision while the other helped revise the school’s vision. At the time of

each study, principals’ perceptions—and in the first study, teacher interviews and observations—indicated that most school

stakeholders were “on board” with these (now developed) visions, although four principals noted some negligible resistance. During

the process of vision development, each school seemed to have, in the least, a critical mass of stakeholders who supported principles

of achievement equity and affirmation of students’ cultural backgrounds. Indeed, the four new schools were created in part for these

purposes. However, only one of these new schools was created with the explicit aim of teaching students about social justice. Finally,

all six principals explicitly or implicitly indicated that they accepted the principal position (correctly) anticipating a critical mass of

support (although not necessarily overwhelming support) for degrees of diversity, equity, or social justice practices. I know turn to
several promising practices in developing transformative school visions and focus on two approaches to developing a school vision:

one solely with the school, and one with the school and community. (The nature of written school visions are described in the second

section).

Provide a vision rationale. Principals implied or argued that stakeholders should understand the purpose and benefits of

developing a vision as an important initial step in vision development. Principals argued that stakeholders should understand that an

explicit shared vision communicated the school’s values, provided future direction for decision making, and potentially coordinated

school efforts within a flexible framework. For example, both principals in existing schools pointed out multiple, disconnected

activities and programs of their schools. They successfully contended that a school vision could coordinate and integrate school efforts

under a broad umbrella. One principal added that, “If teachers are going to change [to align with a school vision], they need to know

it’s going to benefit them as well as the student.” In this case, selling points to an integrated vision included increased collaboration

possibilities, more efficiently distributed workloads, and focused school efforts on quality student learning.

Provide multiple participation opportunities. As discussed subsequently, principals helped build school visions with their

school staff or with their staff and surrounding community. Regardless of either approach, principals suggested or implied it was

critical to include all key stakeholders, including traditionally marginalized voices, to ensure their ownership in a truly shared vision.

Stakeholders should be provided with multiple stages and opportunities of participation. In four schools, stages included brainstorming

and data gathering, organizing ideas under broader headings, re-examining or revising broad headings, and writing the vision.
Principals helped organize and sometimes facilitated this vision development through separate but interrelated large and small group

discussions.

Engender transformative discussion. Five of the six principals also indicated or implied that part of the principal’s role in

vision development was to ensure that transformative ideas such as equity, affirming diversity, or learning for social justice were

infused into the vision discussion. Ideally, other stakeholders brought these ideas up own their own, but principals also offered these

transformative ideas, typically by connecting them to others comments or practices. I analyze more specific aspects of transformative

vision content in the next section.

Vision development with school staff. Three principals developed their school vision primarily with their school staff (and little

external input). One principal explained that her school, which used achievement criteria to select student applicants, was created five

years prior to her arrival. In her first year, this principal led her staff through several visioning exercises that primarily focused on

articulating what characteristics they wanted students to develop by the time they graduated from high school. They sorted these ideas

into six vision themes, one of which included socio-political development where students examine issues of identity, oppression,

privilege, and power and develop commitments to addressing them. The principal later utilized these six themes for staff discussions,

professional development and curriculum development. She recalled that in terms of developing justice-oriented citizenship and other

transformative aspects of teaching and learning,

I think we had a lot of seeds here when I arrived, and a lot of things kind of naturally growing… There were a lot of great

things going on here individually, teacher by teacher, club by club. But there wasn’t really a real coherent, centralized vision.
Another principal waited several years before realizing the potential power of a unifying school vision. She noted that her

school had many different programs involving diversity, environmental education, and social responsibility, but they too were

disconnected and uncoordinated. After considerable self-study and reflection, she pointed out various issues of disparate programs and

potential advantages to a more unified school vision for both faculty and students (e.g., easier to manage, communicate; more focused

student learning). However, in comparison to the previously mentioned principal,

I did not want to start from scratch. I looked at the different programs that were started by different people and began fitting

them into a vision along with the beliefs of community and school, what I felt the school and staff wanted. I tried to make it

more defined and connected.

She brought this idea to her staff, that she believed the schools efforts and programs could be combined rather than separate. In

general, they thought it was a good idea and they discussed the initial framework the principal proposed. She created a volunteer

vision committee to hammer out details and facilitated several rounds of whole staff and committee conversations until they developed

the school’s official written vision.

A third principal’s involvement in school vision offers yet another example. In this case, he was hired by a national association

that had obtained district approval for starting a new high school based on its vision principles that included student community

engagement, personalized learning, and authentic learning. This principle recruited the school’s first staff members with this vision.

The principal used the broad and flexible vision as a framework through which staff members constructed collective meaning and

created school goals and curriculum. In short, the school adopted and fleshed out the vision framework; it did not alter or revise it.
Vision development with school staff and community. Three principals were part of the opening of a new school and its initial

vision development that included the school and community. In two cases, community activism ignited demand for the creation of

local schools that were more responsive to diverse students needs. In the other school, a small but powerful group of educators

generated ideas for a model school that gradually grew into a critical mass of community members. In all three schools, principals

played critical roles that included gathering input (e.g., through meetings, surveys, or informal contact), synthesizing or revising ideas,

and helping write the vision statement, all with multiple stakeholders’ involvement. They went extra lengths to ensure community

stakeholders of color or from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were included. As these principals argued or implied, persistent and

organized leadership was important because initial ideas rarely fit together and it took months or longer to satisfactorily integrate

multiple viewpoints. For example, one principal said his school considered dropping several ideas because the vision seemed too

complex, but they realized that each piece was necessary to support other ideas. In the end, they incorporated all of the big ideas into

the lived vision, although only a few are explicitly reflected in the actual written vision statement. Of course, this discrepancy raises

the question of what content should be included in the written vision statement, the topic of the next section.

Vision Content

As I analyzed 14 of the 15 school vision (and mission) statements of the principal participants, I realized that some qualities of

vision statements might be more effective than others in communicating, supporting, or aspiring toward transformative school

practices. Stated differently, the degree to which principals leverage school vision for transformative purposes such as hiring,

curriculum and assessment development, professional development, is somewhat dependent on the nature of the vision statement
(Kose, 2008). My analysis suggests at least three vision statement dimensions may support transformative school practices and

especially transformative teaching and learning.

Specific, clear priorities. In contrast to vision phrases or statements too vague to provide transformative traction (e.g.,

“excellent education”, “preparing students for the future”), or statements carrying dozens of equally important ideas, vision statements

with specific and clear priorities provided greater utility. In general, a useful vision idea carried substantive meaning that could focus

decisions, actions, or discussions. While there was not a magic or ideal number of ideas in a mission statement, principals who had

vision statements with a manageable number of crisp “big ideas” or concepts—that left room for creativity and continuous inquiry—

seemed to use their vision statements more than principals with vision statements that held ambiguous, conflated, or an overwhelming

number of ideas. For instance, several principals used the vision concept of affirming students’ diversity to guide staff meeting

discussions. As noted previously, a few principals helped develop a vision framework—with specific concepts sometimes captured by

an acronym—that became a memorable and living curricular framework for the school. Conversely, principals with overly general

vision statements reported they rarely or never used this vision statement as a tool for school improvement. Stated differently, a useful

vision idea also tacitly or explicitly mitigated, prevented or eliminated undesired practices. Several principals screened out teacher

applicants who did not fit their vision commitment to affirming diversity.

Emphasis on student learning. Although emphasizing student learning could be placed under the previous heading, it warrants

a distinguished position. While concepts other than student learning potentially stimulate transformative practices (e.g., diverse parent-

school partnerships), several principals, perhaps unsurprisingly, utilized vision ideas that emphasized particular forms or aspects of
student learning to focus teachers attention on student learning (rather than a multitude of competing concerns) or specific types of

student learning such as critical thinking, social skill development, responsible citizenship, environmental stewardship or social justice

activism. Unsurprisingly, vision statements which later served as curricular frameworks drew from these student learning concepts.

Transformative language. A vision statement that is specific, clear, and focused on student learning of course does not

necessarily communicate transformative values or ideals. The findings suggest varying degrees of transformative language across all

14 school visions, which I organized into five categories: equity/inclusion, affirming diversity, responsible citizenship, learning for

diversity, and social justice/anti-oppressive learning. Equity/inclusion ideas included equitable access of various programs or

opportunities; high achievement for all students; or using flexible grouping or inclusive practices. This language often conveyed

equity or inclusion by using terms such as “each student” or “all students.” However, several vision statements did not explicitly or

implicitly suggest that “all students” included traditionally marginalized groups; that is, it was not clear if “all students” really

included all students. Affirming diversity ideas most often meant building on students’ cultural backgrounds or intentionally creating a

school that integrated students from diverse backgrounds. In two cases, vision statements explicitly stated that schools would also

affirm each student’s sexual orientation, socioeconomic, or linguistic identities. Responsible citizenship, closely aligned with

Westheimer and Kahn’s (2004) personally responsible and participatory citizenship, included responsible citizenship, environmental

stewardship, community involvement/engagement, and social and global responsibility. Learning for diversity concepts

communicated that students would intentionally learn about diversity (e.g., different cultures). Learning for social justice or anti-
oppression included student learning about social and environmental inequities, injustices, various “isms”, and oppressions and taking

action in addressing them.

As I implied to some degree, each of these five vision areas packed ranges of transformative power. While some used more

generic phrases such as “high achievement for all students” other vision statements made clear all students included traditionally

marginalized student groups. When analyzing this transformative language as a whole, one might initially conclude that a strong

transformative vision maximizes transformative concepts (i.e., explicit transformative language within five or perhaps more

categories). Certainly, the only two principals with transformative visions that captured all five categories in great breadth and depth

employed this vision for analogous transformative practices (e.g., in facilitating professional learning for social justice). However, the

findings suggest at least two rival theories that complicate this conclusion. First, in eight cases, principals with weaker transformative

visions (e.g., that included responsible citizenship but not learning for social justice) nevertheless leveraged their vision for strong

transformative practices. For example, two principals facilitated staff development that transformed the vision phrase of community

engagement into teaching and learning projects that included an examination the impact of racism in local environmental degradation

and in AIDS prevention and services.

Second, principals who helped build their school vision argued or implied that either (a) the level of transformative vision

language closely matched the transformative consciousness of their staff and community, or (b) increasing the intensity of

transformative language may have created staff or community resistance. Two principals told me that that their transformative vision

naturally stemmed from the majority of their staff and community members and additionally, that transformative ideas such as
learning for diversity would be less supported in more culturally homogenous rural or suburban contexts. I asked one principal with a

vision statement that included learning for diversity what might have happened if explicit “social justice” or “anti-oppression”

concepts were suggested when the vision statement was written. She contended that,

I think you have to look at the context, it might have been easier to put it in up front, but I never asked. I did feel like slowly

moving then—it depends on where the building is, I don’t know, it probably would have been hard. At that point, I think it

would have been harder… You have to move the whole community to make a difference, and that isn’t always easy to do

quickly. It takes a lot of [teacher] learning to have people working there and to see it is actually helpful to them in their

teaching; they can’t be scared into teaching in a particular way.

Thus, when constructing the ideas in a school vision, principals should exercise caution in writing powerful transformative

language. While a strongly worded transformative vision has the advantage of transparent language and legitimacy for staff

discussions, teacher recruitment, curriculum development, etc., it may be disadvantageous if it creates opposition that derails or

dismantles its purpose. Conversely, while a weaker or less transformative vision may create engender increased shared ownership, it

may lack transformative power. For example, ten principals indicated that transformative aspects of their vision provided substance

for future direction and growth for a few staff members (often veteran teachers) who were not “on-board” or resisted these same

transformative elements.

Discussion
The findings suggest that principals can play important roles in shaping a transformative school vision. While this inquiry is

not intended to provide comprehensive guidelines for developing a school vision, it does contribute new knowledge to the extant

literature. In comparison to building a continuous improvement school vision (Fullan, 2001a; Fullan, 2001b; Leithwood, Aitken, &

Jantzi, 2006) or describing general procedures for school mission or vision development (National Study of School Evaluation, 2002,

2005), this paper offers empirically based analysis of developing transformative school visions. The major principal practice that

distinguishes transformative vision development from noncritical vision development is that principals provide opportunities for

transformative ideas to be explicitly discussed as the vision statement is being developed and in the case of larger community

involvement, intentional inclusion of traditionally marginalized groups.

One tentative conclusion is that principals should work with their staff and community to develop the strongest transformative

vision possible while avoiding unproductive or destructive resistance. This implies that principals need to understand the context in

which they work. Given the inertia of deficit thinking in education (Shields et al., 2005; Valencia, 1997), and the resistance that

principals for social justice encounter (Theoharis, 2007), principals could face a challenging tension: stronger transformative vision

language may result in decreased shared support. Stated differently, developing a strong transformative written school vision may not

be an early battle worth fighting in the long struggle toward creating socially just schools. As I noted earlier, principals can utilize

weaker transformative visions toward strong transformative practices (see Kose, 2008 for additional examples). Indeed, research

implies that (a) developing transformative schools is a long-term change process, and (b) principals can employ multiple practices to

move their schools in this direction, which may or may not involve a change of vision statement (Kose, 2005; Marshall & Olivia,
2006; Theoharis, 2004). Therefore, if the majority of staff perceives “social justice” or “anti-oppression” as too strong or negative,

principals might develop a written vision with less controversial language that lays the foundation for eventual transformative practice

(e.g., “social responsibility”, “community engagement”). Again however, given equal shared support, a stronger transformative vision

provides greater leverage for transformative practices than a weaker transformative vision (Kose, 2008).

One question is whether the development of a transformative vision should be a first priority. The data suggest immediate

vision development makes sense with a new school opening. However, several factors complicate this decision in existing schools: the

nature of the current vision, the principal’s years of service at this school, the beliefs and values of school stakeholders, and other

competing pressures. If a principal enters a school with a toxic culture or the budget in disarray, building trust or stabilizing finances

may be prerequisites to the development or revision of a school vision. However, as the vision statement is the official vision for the

purpose and future of the school, principals likely want to initiate this process as soon as appropriately possible to galvanize collective

direction and action.

An implication for practice is for principals to “begin with the end in mind” before initiating the vision development process.

For example, they might first consider broad dimensions or non-negotiables for a written vision statement from this paper (e.g.,

specific, focus on student learning, transformative language) or other sources (e.g., continuous improvement criteria, Leithwood et al.,

2006) that could frame future discussions. Principals might create their own ideas within each of these headings prior to vision

development and offer them as needed (i.e., especially transformative ones).


A few implications for research and theory are relevant. Researchers could investigate a deeper understanding of the

relationship between vision development and transformative school change in different contexts. For example, what is the nature of

visions in transformative schools that serve relatively homogenous student populations? How and when do transformative principals

entering an existing school in different contexts initiate vision development or revision processes? To what extent do different types of

transformative visions influence teaching or student learning? Theoretically, this inquiry joins a growing body of research that

delineates transformative principal practices. In tandem with parallel research (Kose, 2008), this paper demonstrates the principal’s

role in developing and utilizing a school vision is another means by which principals can move their schools toward social justice. In

comparison to noncritical approaches to developing a school vision (e.g., Leithwood et al., 2006), this investigation suggests ways in

which principals can more intentionally develop a transformative vision. It bolsters transformative scholarship that argues leadership

should build inclusive or equitable school visions (Capper et al., 2000; Scheurich & Skrla, 2003) but stretches transformative

leadership to also prepare students as justice-oriented citizens who extend the fight for social justice beyond school walls.

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