I have been blessed with a few decades worth of work in education policy, and I have never seen a moment with more potential.

While it is possible and valid to reflect on the last twenty years and be disappointed that we didn’t make blistering-fast progress, it’s just as valid to be proud of the accomplishments we have made: reliable information about school performance, better evidence about key factors in school success, and the emergence of a whole new set of education choices that show what is possible.

Teachers have been the engines behind the best of what has transpired in the past two decades, and we rely on their initiative to create the best models of schooling going forward. This is as it should be.

In most professions, those who specialize in their techniques attract clients drawn to their work and success. In short, they can bring their skills to the marketplace and succeed there. In schooling, too, many moons ago, this was the case. It was teachers who created the design of a local school meant to serve the students in a particular area.

In our broader public-education sector, however, we gradually eroded this leadership role for teachers in the early part of the twentieth century. That was a loss. But today, that role is resurging, and we must see our “five-star” teachers and school leaders—not state policies—as those will drive success.

At the end of the day, success in schooling happens at the school, as a function of the skills and beliefs of the people in that school. The practice of excellent instruction is the job of a school. As lawmakers lose confidence in our school systems at large, however, we often try to “apply” excellent practice through legislation. That is just not possible.

What is possible is for lawmakers to create policies that incentivize, to create pathways to leadership for those educators who seek it, and to ensure that we set very clear achievement goals and have systems in place to measure those in meaningful ways.

Laws and regulations can successfully define and dictate expectations, accountability, and transparency. They cannot and should not attempt to dictate methods.

We must shift our focus away from finding ways to improve mediocrity and towards identifying, accelerating, and expanding success.

We often say that A schools, or five-star schools, should be “celebrated.”

Honestly, without discounting the importance of positive reinforcement, what does that mean? A celebration at my workplace is called a contract for more work. It is recognition that I can do more and better and that I should be paid more and produce more of what is excellent about my work. I have the opportunity and responsibility to expand my impact if I am having a good effect.

How can we do that with schools? A five-star school strategy pursues excellence only. It shifts our actions from deciding which punitive actions we must impose on schools that fail the standard to gathering our best practitioners together and asking them what they are doing and if they would be willing to do more of it or teach others how to do it. Our work becomes finding out from them what it would take.

Let’s just ask them: Could you expand or replicate your work if the law incentivized it and the funding formula aligned with it? Is there a way for the law to assist you in recruiting the perfect kind of teacher for your environment? Will higher salaries answer recruitment needs?

I want to be very clear about this approach: it is NOT a charter-school approach or a district- or virtual-school approach. It is an excellence approach. The biggest divide we have in our school systems today is not between governance styles. The biggest divide is between the performance of schools that are successful and those that are not.

Great schools have simply made the decision to get there. No amount of outside pressure or elaborate laws can take the place of that decision. Laws might create the tension that spurs the decision, but only school leaders can implement the work. We must move with those leaders.

But we must do more than just say thank you. Reward these leaders with more work. Stand behind them, keep supporting their work, and help them to do more of it. We should ask ourselves if our policies are focused on expanding what is working, rather than attempting to improve what is not.

Our children’s lives are literally changed by the leadership of the schools they attend. Excellent schools offer students an earned confidence in their own abilities, help children see themselves in their community and the world beyond, and urge young people to offer the world their very best. The stakes are so high.

And we can’t afford to lose the potential of this moment and the leaders who have brought us here. These great leaders are everything to us, and I believe they will take us all exactly where we want to go. We need to focus on building a road they can travel.

Lisa Graham Keegan is the principal partner at the Keegan Company and founder of the Education Breakthrough Network. This editorial was adapted from comments given on Monday, January 6, 2014, at the Idaho Business for Education Legislative Academy in Boise.

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