To achieve the best possible outcomes for all students, a range of steps can be taken to improve their chances. These steps often begin with the appointment of effective school principals. Few schools are able to show significant improvement without first establishing strong leadership. In this article, we will explore the areas that effective school leaders focus on the most.
Vision – Better or Worse?
Effective school leadership begins with a clear vision. If the principal pushes for a school environment where the whole team is committed to holding high expectations for the students, then this will improve the chances of these students becoming successful.
The vision for the school comes from the top, only then can the whole team get on board with it. At a minimum, this vision requires: a strong drive, as often as possible it is necessary to work against entrenched ideas and stereotypes; an expectation from the principal that every teacher will share the same vision for students; and excellent communication skills so that the principal’s vision is clear for everyone else to follow and understand.
The best principals are the ones whose vision continues to grow as the school improves. The visions that best inspire success are visions that are not limited by perceptions or past benchmarks. “Doing better than last year” might be a vision that leads to smalls gains, but “Doing the best that we can for all our students” is a vision that will continue to propel a school forward.
Dedication to School Improvement
As the old adage says, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” It’s the same with school improvement, it’s not a quick fix. Even the best leaders cannot turn around a struggling school overnight. Additionally, following a change in leadership, it is not unreasonable to expect five years to pass before you really begin to see the full extent of the impact the change in leadership has had on the school. Much like starting a new business, with the common understanding is that it will take five years to show a profit, schools need a similar time frame to show results.
Along those same lines, it’s only logical that high turnover of leadership in a school can drive down the results of the students. It leads to staff who have low morale, lack of trust in the leadership, and do not share the same vision as the principal. When the average tenure of a school principal is four years, then leadership change is happening before the full benefits have been realized. This is a major barrier to achieving truly effective and lasting school improvements.
Teaching and Learning in the Classroom
The quality of classroom instruction has been shown to be the single most important factor in determining the success of students. For instruction to be effective, practice needs to be driven by research. Leaders who connect directly with their classroom practitioners have more success at driving effective changes in schools.
An effective school principal should have a firm grasp on what effective instruction looks like. They should know what their team is doing to stay up to date and what is happening in each and every classroom. The way to achieve this is via observations.
The best principals visit their teachers often, without notice, and provide bite-sized, actionable feedback on how they can improve.
Feedback should be given from the mind-set that every teacher has room for improvement, and it is the professional responsibility of the teacher to strive to be better every day.
This means that improvements in teaching and learning are best achieved when the principal treats their teachers as professionals. With respect and high expectations. If principals are to be effective, they must support their teachers professional growth and aspirations.
A 2004 study titled “How Leadership Influences Student Learning” found that school leadership was the second most important factor within schools in terms of impact on student achievement. It followed only classroom instruction. The quality of classroom instruction is strongly driven by the culture that is put in place by the principal, so by that extension, the effectiveness of the principal has a direct effect on the achievement of every student.
Utilize Assessments as Tools
Assessments are a vital tool for school leaders. The data collected can be invaluable, as long as it can be trusted. This means that the assessments used should be well planned, timely, and honest.
Effective principals are those who institute standardized assessment practices across their school. Testing, when done effectively, is a tool to drive learning for students as well as to measure their progress. In addition to the assessment policy, there should be one that governs the feedback given to students following their assessments.
Teachers should be supported by school leadership to share assessment methodology and to standardize their grading. This means that the results produced can be trusted, and the students are given an accurate picture of their attainment level.
Data is a useful tool, and the way it is used can make a huge difference in the impact that a principal can have on their school. Data and research-based decision-making ensures that there is a logical rationale behind decisions, and they are more likely to have a positive impact on the students.
Simply accepting the data at face value is not enough, however. The best principals will interrogate the data to find out what is behind the trend they are seeing. It is this deeper use of data that truly leads to high-quality decisions being made rather than knee-jerk reactions to bad numbers. We can all take a lesson in being more proactive versus reactive.
Accountability has almost become a watchword for education. A school is not going to achieve good results if teachers are allowed to stagnate. The only way to know which teachers are doing well and which aren’t is via effective and continual progress monitoring. Strong principals will link this progress monitoring to professional development so that the weaker teachers can be supported to improve, often by sharing practices of the stronger teachers.
Effective principals work within the union guidelines to hire the most dedicated and innovative staff. They are also not afraid to use the tools they have at their disposal to weed out teachers who are content to remain static. Poor results are not a reason to remove a teacher. Apathy about improving those results is.
The Principal Conclusion
For real improvements to be made, an effective leader is needed. This is a principal who is committed to a shared vision of a better school and who will work with their staff to implement the changes that are needed as shown by the data collected from effective and impartial assessments.
Author: Dr. Chandra Williams is the expert at turning around low performing districts and schools to close achievement gaps for students in school districts across the country resulting in double digit growth in reading and math. Learn more about her at www.CSAS.co.
Students Matter. “Importance of Teachers.” Timeline, 2011. http://studentsmatter.org/case/vergara/importance-of-teachers/