In a former life I spent ten years as a high school basketball coach. As I do with my administrative position now, I took a pretty cerebral approach to coaching basketball and to running a basketball program. One of the things I did to improve was to read incessantly about basketball. In my reading, I came across a book that has had a profound influence on my professional life, not only as a coach but also as a teacher and as an administrator. This book is The Smart Take from the Strong: The Basketball Philosophy of Pete Carril by Pete Carril. In the book, the author, former Princeton University men's basketball coach Pete Carril, explains how he often took ideas from more successful or more experienced coaches and programs and incorporated those ideas in his own program. The implementation of others' good ideas, for Carril, often resulted in improvements in his team and in his program without his having to reinvent the wheel.
I believe this principle applies just as well to educational leadership as it does to coaching. I believe strongly that educational leaders at all levels of administration and at all stages of their careers should visit other campuses to seek new ideas. There is no limit to what can be found on other campuses in terms of ideas for your campus. Likewise, there is no limit to which members of your educational community can benefit from visits to other schools. Heads of school, division heads, department chairs, classroom teachers, board members, counselors, development officers... the list goes on.
When visiting other campuses, there are a few approaches one could take in terms of fact-finding. First, if you have a specific need that needs to be addressed, seek out schools that are successful in the area or areas which you desire to improve. Perhaps a quick google search can point you to the right school. If that doesn't work for you, contact your accrediting agency or other school association (i.e. SACS, SAIS, NAIS, etc.) or perhaps your (or another) state department of education. The organizations should have at least a feel for, if not firsthand knowledge of, which schools meet the criteria you seek.
Second, if you have no specific need you wish to address by visiting another campus, select a campus to visit that has a great reputation in the community, in the state, in the region or in the nation. Again, accrediting agencies and state departments of education can be great resources for finding schools. Additionally, reports such as Newsweek's "America's Top Public High Schools" or the U.S. News & World Report "America's Best High Schools 2008."
While visiting the campus, ask to meet with teachers, students, administration and even plant managers. Ask questions, take notes and observe as much as time permits. Walk the halls, sit in classes, eat in the cafeteria, observe carpool. Absorb as much as possible on your visit. You may even want to take a camera to document some of the things you see. You never know where you'll find the next big idea for your campus. It might be in the Admission's Office, it might be in the cafeteria or it might be in the science lab.
Besides picking up great ideas for your campus, visiting other campuses provides great opportunities to network, to make contacts and to find mentors in the academic world. Who couldn't use more friends, social contacts and mentors?
If time restraints and budgetary restrictions prohibit numerous campus visits, try a cyber-visit. Many schools have amazing websites that can give you an overview of curriculum, organization, etc. Another affordable alternative is a phone call or an email. Many administrators and teachers would relish the opportunity to tell you some great things about their schools. Take advantage of that.
There is no one on your campus who would not benefit from observing other campuses. I urge you to make some visits yourself and to encourage others to make campus visits. If your campus currently is excelling to such an extent that you don't need any new ideas from other good schools, please contact me immediately and I'll be on the next plane to your campus, camera and notebook in hand.