The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Schools

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A teacher in an elementary school

Over the past two decades, Stephen Covey's best seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has become a management bible in the boardroom. In his newest book, Covey provides a blueprint for employing those practices in the classroom. The Leader in Me, now in bookstores, tells how several principals nationwide applied his 7 Habits to their struggling schools. Surprise: they were a huge success. (See pictures of the college dorm room's evolution.)

TIME recently spoke with Covey about what The Leader in Me can offer schools, why skeptics should keep an open mind and what all this has to do with bailing out Detroit automakers. Below is an edited transcript:

Your new book focuses on the A.B. Combs Elementary School in Raleigh, N.C. Why write about this magnet school?

About 10 years ago, I was speaking at a conference on the 7 Habits, and this educator came up to me. Her name was Muriel Summers, and she was principal of A.B. Combs. Hers was a marginalized school, barely surviving. But Muriel was a visionary. She asked whether this material would apply to little children. I said, I don't know why not.

Describe what the 7 Habits looks like in practice in a classroom setting.

At A.B. Combs, the 7 Habits became the value system, so that when they teach academic subjects, they illustrate it. So, for instance, teaching a science class with a team experiment, the instructor would say [to the team], You came up with a solution that was better than either one of you proposed separately. But look at what you had to do to get there. You had to discipline yourself. That's Habit 1: Be proactive. You also had to come up with a vision, or the second habit, Begin with the end in mind. Then you lived by that and practiced what you learned — Habit 3: First things first. So little by little it became part of the culture of that school. So everyone became, in a sense, a leader, even if you were the leader of cleaning the classroom.

Grade the results.

Within a few years, A.B. Combs became the No. 1 magnet school in the country. I am astonished by what went on there. Let me give you another illustration: Dewey Elementary in Quincy, Ill. They took the Illinois Standard Achievement Test. The average score in reading before adopting the 7 Habits was 57.4% of students [achieving grade level]. It went up to 89.7% after one year. Math went from 77.4% to 100%.

The program No Child Left Behind trains teachers to train students to take tests, so they get high scores. But they ignore the whole child. Childhood is social, so social skills need to be learned. And character skills. The 7 Habits does that.

If the new Obama Administration asked, what would you advise them is the most important education priority?

Nurture a partnership between schools and families that will focus upon social skills and character as well as academic rigor and substance. That would require a new skill set around synergy.

Which of the 7 Habits do you think is most important to instill in kids?

I would say Habit 1. To be proactive means to take responsibility. All the other habits are based on that one. One of the toughest ones is Habit 5: Seek first to understand, and then be understood. Most people have never learned to listen within another person's frame of reference because they haven't got the internal security that affords the risk of that kind of open vulnerability to really listen deeply. The first three habits build that internal security.

Already many educators blame Big Business for the test-taking ethos permeating public schools these days. Why should they want another blueprint on how to make education even more corporate?

I too blame business. We're still in the Industrial Age, top-down, hierarchical, command-and-control model. We haven't moved to the awareness of the globalization of markets and economies that has produced a "knowledge worker" age, [where] leadership is moral authority rather than position or formal authority.

Look what's happening in Detroit right now. The presidents of the Big Three [automakers] are pleading for money without even dealing with the fundamental causes of their problems. Go to great companies that have transcended this, like Toyota or Southwest Airlines. They're empowering, they're customer-focused, and they don't throw their weight around. Even pilots will clean up a plane if necessary. People just aren't hung up on rules and regulations in place of human judgment and creativity. This is why Toyota, Nissan and other foreign companies are eating Detroit's lunch. (See pictures of the global financial crisis.)

When don't the 7 Habits pay off?

If there is misalignment, you'll find it will undo the efficacy of the principles. You may be thinking "win-win," but the system we've developed rewards "win-lose." People have been immersed in a comparison-based identity. Their sense of self is gone.

Are you surprised by the staying power of the 7 Habits?

I'm not, because they're based on principles I didn't invent. They're universal and timeless. And they're alive in all six major world religions, so they fit into anyone's belief system. Synergy in Buddhism, for example, is called the Middle Way. It doesn't mean a compromise between your way and my way, it means a higher way that the two of us create together. I'm not trying to teach some unique religion here.

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