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Leaders of Learning: How District, School, and Classroom Leaders Improve Student Achievement

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For many years, the authors have been fellow travelers on the journey to help educators improve their schools. Their first coauthored book focuses on district leadership, principal leadership, and team leadership and addresses how individual teachers can be most effective in leading students—by learning with colleagues how to implement the most promising pedagogy in their classrooms

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9 Chapters

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Chapter 1: School Improvement Means People Improvement

ePub

Public schools are being asked to do more with less for an increasingly more needy clientele.

—Larry Lezotte

Contemporary American educators confront the most daunting challenge in the history of public schooling in the United States: they are called upon to raise academic standards to the highest level in history with common core standards that are so rigorous and include such challenging cognitive demands that they align with the highest international benchmarks (National Governors Association, Chief Council of State School Officials, & Achieve, Inc., 2008). Furthermore, schools are to bring every student to these dramatically higher standards of academic achievement. No generation of educators in the history of the United States has ever been asked to do so much for so many.

Teachers and administrators are expected to meet these unprecedented standards while serving an increasing number of students who historically have struggled to find success in traditional schools. Huge racial gaps exist in the United States in graduation rates, test scores, and advanced proficiency. According to a study by the McKinsey Group, black and Latino students are, on average, two to three years behind white students of the same age in academic achievement, and their high school graduation rates are 20 percent lower than the rate of white students ( Alliance for Excellent Education, 2008). The percentage of black and Latino students is increasing in the United States, and by 2023 the nation’s students will be a minority majority. As the McKinsey study concluded, “As a greater proportion of blacks and Latinos enter the student population in the United States, the racial achievement gap, if not addressed, will almost certainly act as a drag on overall US educational and economic performance in the years ahead” (p. 11).

 

Chapter 2: The District’s Role in Supporting the PLC Process

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It should come as no surprise that one result of the multiplicity of activities (in districts that demonstrated dramatic gains in student achievement) was a collaborative, professional school culture. . . . Leaders understood that the way to attain their ambitious goals was developing a collaborative and professional school culture, what is commonly called a “professional learning community” today.

—Allan R. Odden and Sarah J. Archibald

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, researchers Ron Edmonds, Wilbur Brookover, Michael Rutter, and Larry Lezotte began to challenge the conclusions of earlier studies that asserted educators had little or no influence on student learning. They presented evidence that some schools were, in fact, significantly more effective than others in helping students from similar backgrounds learn at high levels, and they identified first five and then seven conditions that correlated with more effective schools. This Effective Schools Research focused on the climate, culture, and practices of the individual school and ignored the school district.

 

Chapter 3: The Principal’s Role in Leading a Professional Learning Community

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Principals arguably are the most important players affecting the character and consequence of teachers’ school-site professional communities. Principals are culture-makers, intentionally or not.

—Milbrey McLaughlin and Joan Talbert

In chapter 1, we articulated the need for school reform and presented a rationale for the power of the professional learning community (PLC) process to generate and sustain a type and level of reform hitherto not available to K–12 educators. At a very basic level, school reform is about substantively changing people, and PLCs are a necessary condition to this end. Chapter 2 clarified how central office leaders can contribute to this effort in schools throughout a district. This chapter addresses the principal’s role in developing the capacity for change using the vehicle of the PLC process. We begin with a brief discussion of the research on school leadership.

The research supporting the importance of effective school leadership in creating the conditions for effective schooling is growing rapidly. It was not that long ago, however, that some educational researchers and theorists believed principal leadership had little or nothing to do with student achievement. For example, in their meta-analysis of thirty-seven studies from 1986 to 1996 conducted across a variety of countries, Witziers, Bosker, and Kruger (2003) could find no correlation between principal leadership and student achievement and concluded that there is little if any relationship between the quality of the principal’s leadership and student learning. They punctuated their point by titling their report “Educational Leadership and Student Achievement: The Elusive Search for an Association.”

 

Chapter 4: Creating the Collaborative Culture of a Professional Learning Community

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Effective leaders with moral purpose don’t do it alone. And they don’t do it by hiring and supporting “individuals.” Instead, they develop and employ the collaborative. . . . The collaborative, sometimes known as professional learning communities, gets these amazing results because not only are leaders being influential, but peers are supporting and pressuring each other to do better.

—Michael Fullan

Katie Haycock (1998) summarizes the research on the impact of the quality of instruction on student achievement in a succinct phrase: “Good teaching matters . . . a lot.” She goes on to conclude, “In the hands of our best teachers, the effects of poverty and institutional racism melt away” (p. 11). She is not alone in concluding that the instruction students receive from their classroom teacher is one of the most important variables in determining how much they will achieve. Researchers have repeatedly cited the quality of teaching as the most important factor affecting student learning (Buddin & Zamarro, 2009; Hattie, 2009; Marzano, 2003; Rivkin, Hanushek, & Kain, 2005; Shulman, 1983; Wright, Horn, & Sanders, 1997).

 

Chapter 5: Developing a Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum

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Schools that function as professional learning communities are characterized by academic focus that brings clarity, coherence, and precision to every classroom. These schools have a compact list of clear learning expectations for each grade and subject or course and tangible exemplars of student proficiency for each learning expectation.

—Jonathon Saphier

In What Works in Schools (2003), Bob identifies a guaranteed and viable curriculum as the variable most strongly related to student achievement at the school level. That is, one of the most powerful things a school can do to help enhance student achievement is to guarantee that specific content is taught in specific courses and grade levels. This might seem obvious, but in actual practice, few districts and schools can make this guarantee.

The fact that a district creates a curriculum guide and distributes it to teachers does little to guarantee students have access to the same knowledge and skills. Teachers can and do interpret documents differently, assign different levels of priority to recommended content, or simply ignore the documents. In short, it is not unusual to see a huge gap between the intended curriculum established by the state or district and the implemented curriculum taught when teachers close their classroom doors (Marzano, 2003). As E. D. Hirsch (1996) wrote in The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them:

 

Chapter 6: Ongoing Monitoring of Student Learning

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The impact of monitoring on student learning is nearly linear. More monitoring, more achievement. And effective monitoring will focus not just on test scores but on the adult practices that led to the test scores.

—Douglas Reeves

With a guaranteed and viable curriculum like the one described in chapter 5 in place, collaborative teams in PLCs are in a perfect position to monitor student learning in a systematic fashion. Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam (1998a) brought the importance of the ongoing monitoring of student learning to the forefront in the United States. After analyzing findings from over 250 studies on formative assessment, they concluded, “The research reported here shows conclusively that formative assessment does improve learning” (p. 61).

If the potential of formative assessment is to be realized, students, teachers, and administers must undergo a conceptual shift in their approach to assessment. Instead of viewing assessment as an absolute measure of students’ proficiency, individual assessments must be considered snapshots taken at a point in time of students’ progress toward a specific goal. At the beginning of a unit of instruction, a student might not be close to the desired goal. By the end of the unit, the student might have surpassed the original goal.

 

Chapter 7: Ensuring Effective Instruction

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What distinguishes professional learning communities from support groups where teachers mainly share ideas and offer encouragement is their critical stance and commitment to inquiry. . . . Teachers ask probing questions, invite colleagues to observe and review their teaching and their students’ learning, and hold out ideas for discussion and debate.

—Jonathon Saphier

Effective classroom assessment as described in chapter 6 is a powerful tool for enhancing student achievement. With clear objectives embedded in scales that form a guaranteed and viable curriculum, and with specific details regarding what constitutes the different levels of performance for an objective, students will have the benefit of knowing what they are expected to learn and what they must do to demonstrate their learning. When effective instruction is added to this mix, the effect on student achievement increases even more. In this chapter, we consider how to design and deliver lessons that maximize the probability that all students will acquire the intended knowledge and skills.

 

Chapter 8: Responding When Kids Don’t Learn

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[Highly effective schools] succeed where other schools fail because they ruthlessly organize themselves around one thing: helping students learn a great deal. This seems too simple an explanation, really. But, by focusing on student learning and then creating structures that support learning, these schools have drastically departed from the traditional organizational patterns of American schools.

—Karin Chenoweth

If there are certainties in education, one is that despite the best efforts of well-intentioned individual classroom teachers, some students will struggle to acquire the knowledge, skills, and dispositions those teachers work so hard to convey. A team of teachers can work conscientiously to create a guaranteed and viable curriculum, plan wonderful lessons, use varied instructional strategies, monitor learning in their classrooms on an ongoing basis, and develop valid and reliable assessments, only to find at the conclusion of the unit that some students did not learn. To say this is a perennial problem understates the issue. It does not merely happen over the course of a year or two but typically will occur at the conclusion of each unit, if not each lesson. How does a collaborative team of teachers respond when, at the end of a carefully designed and executed unit, some students have mastered the objective and others have not? In this chapter we examine how a professional learning community addresses this challenge in a systematic way.

 

Chapter 9: Leadership Is an Affair of the Heart

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Rational clarity does not always create the emotional commitment that motivates a desired behavior. And when emotional factors are not taken into account, organizations fall short of their intended goals. . . . Emotional influences shape attitudes and drive behaviors as much as logical arguments and rational influences.

—John R. Katzenbach and Zia Kahn

Throughout this book we have attempted to provide an explanation of how effective educational leaders—superintendents, principals, and teachers—implement powerful concepts and processes in order to improve student learning. We have cited research, referenced correlations, and shared data. We have described these leaders as results oriented, tight, and intensely focused on nondiscretionary goals. Any book on effective leadership, however, must acknowledge that these same bottom-line leaders who hold themselves and others accountable for providing tangible evidence of improved student learning also appeal directly to the emotions of those they lead.

 



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