Camren Vaughn checks his spelling of the word “house” as he works on a coloring project in Erin Murch's kindergarten class at South Heights Elementary School in Henderson, Ky. on Nov. 30, 2011. (Darrin Phegley/AP)

James H. Quigley is the former CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited and currently a senior partner in its U.S. member firm. He is also co-author of As One: Individual Action, Collective Power.

America’s students deserve better.

In 2009, the percentage of 16 to 24-year olds who failed to complete high school was slightly over 8 percent—a figure that has been dropping, but is still too high. In December, the Washington Post’s Donna St. George reported that, in the D.C. area, African American students are suspended two-to-five times as often as whites. Meanwhile, overall competency among American students—crossing geographic and socioeconomic boundaries—continues to fall behind those of other developed countries.

America’s schools, in short, are failing on three critically important fronts: retention, fairness and competitiveness.

As CEO of Deloitte for nearly a decade, I learned that, for any initiative to truly have an impact, there must be collective action behind it—a group of people working productively together toward a shared goal. This is what I call “As One,” individual action combined into collective power to implement change.

New accountability laws, increased school funding, and a greater use of digital technology for instruction, among other proposed improvements, will only be successful with strong, collective leadership in our schools. While our principals and superintendents may have a clear idea of what needs to be done, they cannot implement change on their own. Principals must be trained and empowered to be able to drive collective action on the part of their faculty focused on shared goals of student achievement.

Impending reforms will only have a lasting impact if superintendents can create a systemic leadership framework to support their principals and aspiring school leaders. This framework must be based on a defined leadership strategy that includes a variety of leadership development opportunities and is supported and reinforced through traditional talent management processes. Some of the key leadership development opportunities include:

Formal Learning: Principals and superintendents, like any effective leader, should have the opportunity to participate in formal leadership development learning programs to stay ahead of strategic and technological trends.

Mentoring: To complement formal learning, principals and superintendents could benefit from connections with those outside of their field, including members of the business community. Business leaders are an important stakeholder in our education system, and their active involvement in leadership mentoring could constructively bring another significant player in the “As One” pursuit for excellence in education.

Knowledge Sharing: Another piece of the puzzle is participation in communities of practice, which could include periodic “town hall” or public group meetings with principals, superintendents or subject matter experts from various areas, focusing on critical leadership skill gaps and targeted leadership challenges. This is the pinnacle of knowledge sharing and connecting with peers on what has worked and understanding where there might be opportunity for improvement.

Principals and administrators can also learn from some select high-performing public schools. Take two public schools in Dallas as an example: The School of Science and Engineering Magnet (SEM) and School for the Talented and Gifted Magnet, both of which were named the top spots on Newsweek’s 2011 public high school rankings. Both schools also made it to the top of the national list for the Washington Post’s High School Challenge.

SEM was rated 100 percent on college-ready student performance by U.S. News & World Report (a measure of the degree to which students master some college-level material). This can be attributed to the School’s leadership philosophy that very much mirrors a collective leadership approach. In fact, the School’s principal, Jovan C. Wells, shared on the school’s Web site that, “The teaching staff at SEM share a common goal of preparing our students for the rigorous demands that today’s colleges of science and engineering place on students”—a statement that truly embodies the importance of the “As One” leadership model.

Reflecting on today’s education challenges, “As One” behavior can begin with a small step. That effort can be sustained by a leadership framework embedded into our school systems. This is not a new idea, but it deserves renewed emphasis and commitment.