Turning Average Instruction into Great Instruction: School Leaderships Role in Student Achievement

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Working with the Texas Education Agency TEA , this project has combined different data sources to create matched data sets of students, teachers, and principals over many school years. The data include all Texas publicschool teachers, administrators, staff, and students in each year, permitting accurate descriptions of the schools led by each principal. PEIMS also contains detailed annual information on teacher and administrator experience, salary, education, class size, grade, population served, and subject.

Importantly, this database can be merged with information on student achievement by school, grade, and year. Our analysis therefore focuses on principals in elementary and middle schools, for whom it is possible to develop performance measures. The personnel data combine time as a teacher and as an administrator into total experience, so it is not possible to measure tenure as a principal accurately for those who became a principal prior to the initial year of our data the —91 school year. We therefore concentrate on the years from to Over this period, we are able to observe 7, individual principals and make use of 28, annual principal observations.

The fundamental challenge to measuring the impact of school leaders is separating their contributions from the many other factors that drive student achievement.


For example, a school that serves largely affluent families may create the illusion that it has a great principal, when family backgrounds are the key cause of high achievement. Alternatively, a school that serves disadvantaged students may appear to be doing poorly but in fact have a great principal who is producing better outcomes than any other principal would. Our basic value-added model measures the effectiveness of a principal by examining the extent to which math achievement in a school is higher or lower than would be expected based on the characteristics of students in that school, including their achievement in the prior year.

Put another way, it examines whether some schools have higher achievement than other schools that serve similar students and attributes that achievement difference to the principal. This approach is very similar to that employed in studies that measure teacher quality using databases tracking the performance of individual students over time.

The main concern with this approach is that there may be unmeasured factors that affect school performance. Our data contain only basic information on student background characteristics, such as gender, race or ethnicity, and eligibility for subsidized lunch.

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As a result, we cannot control for more nuanced measures of students and their families, such as motivation or wealth. Moreover, there are also school factors not under the direct control of the school, including the quality of teachers inherited by the principal. Below we describe alternative approaches to isolating the contributions of the current principal.

In estimating principal effectiveness, we want to minimize the influence of specific circumstances and look at the underlying stable differences in impacts. To account for any differences in effectiveness that are related to tenure as a principal in a given school, we begin our analysis by focusing on data from the first three years a principal leads a school.

This first analysis indicates that the standard deviation of principal effectiveness is 0. This is a very large figure, perhaps unbelievably large, implying that a principal at the 75th percentile of this effectiveness measure shows average achievement gains of 0.

Improving Student Outcomes: Why You Shouldn't Overlook the Impact of Principals

These differences are even more pronounced in high-poverty schools, for which the gap between the 25th and 75th percentile principal is more than one-third of a standard deviation. On average across all schools, the impact of having a principal 1 standard deviation more effective than the average principal is as much as seven additional months of learning in a single academic year. As a result, it may overestimate the amount of influence principals actually have.

We begin to address this issue by measuring principal effectiveness based only on comparisons of within-school differences in student achievement growth over time. In simplest terms, we compare average student achievement gains in the same school under different principals. This method eliminates the influence of any student, school, or neighborhood characteristics that do not change over time. Its main drawback is that it ignores all differences in principal effectiveness between schools, potentially underestimating the amount of variation in principal quality.

For example, if each school tends to attract principals who are similar in quality whenever it searches for a new principal, this approach will understate the true extent of variation in principal effectiveness. We conduct this second analysis using all of the principals in our data, not just those in their first three years leading a school, because the numbers of schools with two principals observed in their first three years is quite small.

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  5. Note that re-doing the prior analysis using data on all principals does not significantly alter the results presented above. Restricting the analysis to comparisons within schools, however, cuts our estimate of the variation in principal effectiveness in half. Even this reduced estimate is substantial, however, indicating that a 1-standard-deviation increase in principal effectiveness raises school average achievement by slightly more than 0.

    This impact is roughly comparable to that observed for variations in teacher effectiveness in studies that use the same kinds of within-school comparisons. Our first two methods involved estimating effectiveness measures for individual principals and then calculating the standard deviation of those measures. Although any unmeasured school factors that are unrelated to principal quality would not bias these results, such factors would inflate our estimates of the variation in principal quality based on these approaches. We therefore employ a third approach that gauges the amount of variation in principal effectiveness directly by measuring the additional fluctuation in school average achievement gains when a new principal assumes leadership, as compared to typical fluctuations from year to year.

    Data Mining

    Focusing on the additional variation in school average achievement gains around principal transitions reduces the magnitude of the estimates. Nonetheless, the results remain educationally significant: a 1-standard-deviation increase in principal quality translates into roughly 0. Most reported that they have neither the authority nor the time to visit classrooms, provide real-time coaching, evaluate performance or suggest changes to their colleagues.

    Teachers do share ideas in department or class-level meetings, but there is no mechanism to work more closely with other teachers inside the classroom. Many school systems have turned to professional learning communities as a means to provide a more structured form of deliberation and collaboration. At their best, PLCs can be highly rigorous and well run, creating a valuable forum for discussing core instructional issues and providing teachers much-needed support and counsel.

    Typically, they are also designed around teams doing work together, which can help promote peer-to-peer learning. As valuable as PLCs might be in fostering collaboration, they usually fall short of plugging the leadership gap. They rely on meetings and group discussion rather than empowering the PLC leader to work closely with team members through observation, coaching and feedback.

    Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development

    One urban district we worked with had invested heavily in PLCs. The superintendent reflected that the PLC leaders were skilled at facilitating meetings and communication. Now he thinks that may leave room for improvement. By definition, instructional coaches play a significantly different role than either teacher leaders or PLC leads.

    Teachers report that these one-on-one relationships can be very helpful in terms of skill development and growth. And unlike teacher leaders and PLC leads, instructional coaches do assume many of the instructional development responsibilities that typically fall to principals—from observation and feedback to facilitating professional development sessions see Figure But like teacher leaders, instructional coaches are not plugging the leadership gap at most schools. While our research shows they have more time than a typical teacher leader, they lack the mandate and the authority to truly lead.

    Why such a gap between what their role appears to be on paper and the responsibility they feel for outcomes? My coaching has no teeth. Systems set up instructional coaching roles this way because of a widespread view, unique to education, that responsibility for coaching and evaluation should be separate. Officials at one midsize CMO said that when they first set up an instructional coaching program, teachers asked for a clear line between those who were evaluating principals and APs and those who were coaching instructional coaches. Teachers loved the customized, one-on-one nature of the program but it eventually led to confusion and became distracting as instructional coaches and principals gave teachers conflicting messages.

    This is happening in systems all over the country. It represents a missed opportunity to realize the full benefit of the time and effort schools are investing in coaching and evaluation. The messages teachers receive from the multiple individuals involved are often out of sync, evaluation is seen as disconnected and unsupportive, and coaching loses its relevance and power.

    School systems have increasingly recognized that asking principals to assume direct responsibility for the development and support of approximately 40 teachers is not an effective approach. Teachers are left feeling isolated and unsupported and, over time, have less and less faith in their ability to achieve far better outcomes with their students.

    School systems have been investing to close this gap but all too often those investments have stopped short of creating effective leadership capacity. Additional leadership roles are weakly structured and focused too far from the core activities of teaching and learning inside the classroom.

    Rarely are these roles designed to fit into an integrated model of how the school will be led. The good news is that a number of the systems we have studied are breaking new ground in their efforts to build more effective school leadership models and their results so far are encouraging.

    "How School Leadership Affects Student Achievement", by Blair Mascal

    The key question is this: How can school systems design and implement distributed leadership models that empower leaders with the time and authority to help schools deliver on their most important objectives: better teaching and learning? Such leadership models are rare today. Teacher support is too often fragmented: Some leaders just provide coaching, some focus only on evaluation, some work on professional development and others facilitate collaboration.

    Our research has focused on which factors the most promising models have in common.

    AASA | American Association of School Administrators

    That, coupled with our own extensive experience helping organizations in many other sectors design better leadership models, led to five key principles we believe are critical to designing and implementing the kind of robust distributed leadership model that can help transform a typical school into an extraordinary one see Figure Teachers working in schools with distributed leadership do, however, feel more positive.

    The Net Promoter Score of teachers in pilot schools is 47 points higher than for all teachers we surveyed and significantly higher than for teachers in other Denver schools. At the Sanger Unified School District in California, which has the longest established distributed leadership model of all the systems we studied, the teacher Net Promoter Score was an impressive These differences in teacher advocacy are dramatic and bode well for improvements in teaching and learning. Principle 1: Make a bet on a leadership model.

    An effective distributed leadership model is a comprehensive blueprint for how a school will resource and deploy leadership to deliver on its core mission—improving the quality of teaching and learning. A great design answers three sets of critical questions including:.

    Designing such a model is a major undertaking. It requires deciding on a high-level approach or multiple approaches to test, and then building and refining the supporting systems—all of which takes significant time and effort see Figure Many systems have taken a pass on deciding which leadership model would be best for their schools. They see every school as unique, with its own context and leadership requirements. Others believe the system should identify and share a best practice school leadership model but are daunted by the task and struggling with how to begin.

    Some room for local customization is important, but the intent should be to design a model that the entire system can bet on. The school leadership model is no different—it is a tool that is best designed, with plenty of principal and teacher input, to serve the system as a whole with latitude for school-level customization.

    One of the clearest reasons a common approach makes sense is that it is simply impractical to ask principals to design and put in place a robust leadership model on their own. As we discussed in Chapter 2, we ask for extraordinary effort from our principals and they usually have little time—or the relevant experience—to both design and implement a new leadership model in their schools.

    Improving Student Outcomes: Why You Shouldn't Overlook the Impact of Principals

    Distributing leadership for the first time is an enormous change and, like all big changes, it requires significant time and energy, even when putting in place a proven and well-defined model. Asking our principals to initiate that change and design the model on their own effectively guarantees they will stick with the status quo.

    A common design also takes advantage of the fact that systems are much better positioned to look across all their schools to see what is working and what needs adjustment. As each school implements the model, the central office can codify best practices and share what it learns across the system. Sanger in California, for instance, set out a decade ago to change the leadership model in every one of its schools.

    It chose an approach designed to cultivate multiple leaders in each building who feel truly responsible for developing the teachers they manage and improving the outcomes of their students. Sanger leadership agreed on a common model that centers on Team Leads—teacher leaders who work with teams of teachers in PLCs. But they left the details of how to roll it out to the schools. While every school has its differences, they all share the fundamental mission of improving teaching and learning.