New Challenges for School Leadership

Windows crashes and man is upset

Windows crashes and man is upsetI have been told that Bill Gates has a lot of money. To his credit, he has sought to use his wealth to better the world. No, I don’t mean a new version of Windows (which, trust me Bill, the world does not really need, or better yet, really does not need) but rather his efforts to improve the educational system in the United States. Mr. Gates, as well as almost everyone else (or so it seems), has turned his attention to the teaching profession. He has correctly concluded that improving teachers is the key to improving education.

What everyone now wants to know is how do we assess whether the teachers are improving? The simple answer: Create a standard for core achievement, test the students, add up the numbers and, voila, you have your assessment.

But, it’s never that simple. Much has been written lately detailing the immense complexity of such endeavors and why they have met with such resistance. The question which has not garnered sufficient interest is how this all affects school leadership. How do school principals, whether in the public schools or private academies, feel about the current debate? Will the newfound demands for school accountability, especially as regards student achievement and teacher success, change the focus of school administration, and is that a good thing?

I think it is. The plain truth is that there is no one in the school building better placed than the principal to accurately assess the students and the teachers. One thing that working with schools across the globe has taught me is that while much of education is similar from city to city or even country to country, many issues are distinctly site specific. These issues cannot be addressed without an understanding of the individual schools, their unique communities and particular organizational cultures. Only the educational leadership of each school can fully grasp the full picture, only they are aware of the multiple variables that affect student achievement, and only they can accurately evaluate teacher performance.

However, this calls for change. Unfortunately, while school principals realize their unique position in the school culture and role they could play in educational assessment, they rarely do so. Last week I quoted from Harvard professor Richard Elmore, who spoke of the role many principals do play, which amounts to acting as a buffer between the public and the teacher. “The administrative superstructure of the organization —principals, board members, and administrators—exists to “buffer” the weak technical core of teaching from outside inspection, interference, or disruption

He adds that in fact, “direct involvement in instruction is among the least frequent activities performed by administrators of any kind at any level.”

If we are to win back the trust of our public, the central role of school leadership must change. Principals must step back into the classroom and be intimately involved in the ‘ technical core’ of teaching. Principals must be held accountable to formulate site specific standards of achievement, which include reportable assessment for desired goals. The school community has a right to know what levels of achievement are expected, when and why goals are not being met and what you, the school leader, are doing about it!

Now if we could only get Bill Gates to explain why Windows always crashes…

17 Responses to New Challenges for School Leadership

  1. belinda baardsen says:

    Dear Sir,

    It is true that teachers need to grow, and to improve, but there is a fine line between the roles of teachers and what they are actually responsible for-and that of the student, parents, taxpayers, government, and community. Today, we see the increasing failure of students/parents to take accountability for the failure of students to to study, do the work that goes with learning, because no teacher, no matter how good they are, can make a student study, remember, and prepare for their exams and learning if they don’t want to do the work.

    I think what we have forgotten during this great discussion is that teachers may be catalysts for learning-but, students must join the revolution. Furthermore, unlike Private schools, public school teachers are not given the choice of which/what student who will attend. Public schools have been rightfully forced to accept one and all since they accept public funding, but private schools cherry pick their students, and do not deal with the challenges that public school teachers address daily: lack of books, school materials, good buildings, students who want to attend and learn (that’s what I call perfect). etc, while public school teachers deal with the impact of poverty, violence, domestic violence, and all of the pains of poverty, and parents who are struggling, but care about their kids, and more.

    So, to lay everything at the doorstep of a teacher is wrong in my opinion. Some say that we do not need more funding to help improve education, but that belies the fact that private schools who pour billions into their schools to attract those driven to achieve great grades, and better opportunities through education. Hence, the irony, because there is money out there – and it’s going where it’s least needed, and wanted, all the while saying “we don’t need more money — we just need better teachers.”

    So, where does the problem lie? It lies on the shoulders of every single person involved in education: students, parents, teachers, tax payers, government – to invest in our schools, students — as if they were children of the wealthy with a future – and not treat them as if they are the “has beens” of a worn out and failed program – limping along with left overs and expected to produce the same – as those who have access to EVERYTHING! So, let’s be fair, honest and stop attacking teachers as (the) problem, and accept our very role real as participants in the overall problem, because as Benjamin Franklin once said, “if we do not hang together–we will surely hang separately.”

    Thank you.

    Belinda, American Ex Pat, Saudi Arabia

    • Karmi Gross says:

      If I came across as placing the blame in the teacher’s lap, that was not my intention. As I wrote recently they deserve our most revered admiration. However, what we have come to realize is that the problems of our public school system, so well described in your comments, will be best addressed by focusing on the things we can improve. State funding is tighter than ever, families are becoming increasingly dysfunctional and students have way too many distractions. The one area in which we can focus is on improving the jobs we do as educators. As I tell my students many times, it’s not your fault but it is your obligation.

  2. A bit of truth goes a long way in this school improvement discussion. In many ways, schools are held hostage to the idea of “passing” exams. Even the word “passing” is now interpreted by the beholder, since most students who “pass” annual tests are minimally capable (not even proficient) at the skills assessed on the tests. If true percentages were released, the country would bow its head in shame.

    Why is this happening? Instead of teaching whole concepts and skills, like reading comprehension, paragraph writing and speech development, we are teaching timed testing, how to answer multiple choice questions and reading for detail to answer questions. We are spending weeks scaffolding the completion of culminating projects.

    We cannot entirely fault administrators, since their jobs now depend on test scores. Teachers are adhering to the request to forego true instruction because their jobs are dependent upon the judgements of the administrators. The parents and students have NO IDEA what’s going on.

    Imagine how surprised you would be if you found out your high-school-graduated daughter could only read on the sixth grade level!

    If there will be any change, we must be honest with ourselves and each other in Education. Most of our students are NOT getting smarter; they are being taught to pander to certain subjects under certain circumstances. Until that changes, millions of dollars won’t make a difference.

    • Karmi Gross says:

      And therein lies the challenge. When those who have very little idea of what is really going on try to assess the achievement of those who do know what’s going on how do we react? The answer, I believe, lies in the hands of our educational leaders, to step and LEAD. Our headmasters, principals or school heads must grab this bull by the horns and guide a confused nation towards the excellence they seek. Many of our leaders have abdicated this role, out of fear, lack of focus, lack of ability, or by being burdened beyond belief by administrative minutia. This has allowed those who should not be making educational decisions to undertake the task.

  3. Cas Olivier says:

    I speak of my experiences in South Africa.
    Finalizing my book: The DNA of Great Teachers. Teachers’ DNA coding does not only echo in their thinking, vocabulary and practices, it also echoes in the profile of their schools which make schools either teaching factories or learning powerhouses.
    Most government and private schools gravitate towards the Tayloristic teaching factory category, for common and slightly different reasons.
    Government schools because they are burocratic institutions driven by burocrats ensuring the curricula are covered. They measure their success on final examination results. Private schools because they are burocratic institutions driven by burocrats ensuring the curricula are covered and shareholders are satisfied with the dividends. They measure their success on final examination results and on return on investment.
    Learning powerhouse schools are learning dynamos knowing their core business is teaching and invest most of their time and money in developing their key assets – their teachers.
    The above occurs because professionalism and continuous professional development are low key issues in teaching factories and high key issues in learning powerhouses.
    The low key focus on development in teaching factories are caused by management’s approach towards the prime responsibility of schools, which is to empower learners to become responsible citizens with a suitable income and contributing towards the community at large. This was and should always be the responsibility of headmasters. This is only possible if school management secures on-going development of their teaching staff instead of building the image of their schools by striving towards high pass rates or any other window-dressing reason .
    Management’s prime responsibility is to ensure learners are learning, and not if teachers are teaching according to their view and personal preferences. They should take lead by getting into the umpire’s chair when the teach staff has a brainstorm session on the effectiveness of their teaching listening to the inclination of DNA coding:
    Are teachers interpreting the curriculum in ways which enable learners to be in learning driving seats, or are they in teaching driving seats?
    Do they offer the curriculum in a strict linear way, layer by layer or do they opt for the quick-win approach?
    How do they use words like cover or discover?
    What is the prominence of prior knowledge the agenda and how?
    Which words are they using when discussing teaching methods and ways to empower learners to learn?
    What determine their speed of progress through the curriculum?
    Is their purpose with formative assessment to determine how well the learners mastered the provided information, or to steer future learning.
    Is one of their concerns that they have to repeat and re-explain?
    Do they use the words ‘rubrics‘ and scaffolds in one sentence?
    The outcomes of this DNA analysis should indicate to headmasters if they are running a teaching factories or managing learning powerhouses.
    It is for headmasters to decide if they have to continue developing great teachers or should they ensure their average teachers are enabled to become great teachers.
    There is a global tendency in society to become more and more involved in day to day activities which affect themselves, their finances and their future. Society wants to know what is happening in schools, why does teaching not lead to meaning preparation for employment. Once this tendency spills over to education and training parents and funders for training will start walking into headmasters’ offices claiming their approach, policies and endeavours to ensure great teaching and great learning.
    I have a dream that all teaching factories turn into learning powerhouses.

    • Karmi Gross says:

      “Cover or discover”. I love it. May I use your comments to point to the fact that school leadership itself is often in dire need of becoming part of that ‘learning powerhouse’ you so speak of. Leaders must be cognizant of the fact that they too must continually develop, renew and grow accordingly. “What have you discovered today?” should be the guiding question that powers the learning of which we dream.

  4. Joe D'Amico says:

    One way to see if teachers are improving is to measure their improvement using the same metrics and rubrics used to measure students’ improvement progress. That said, these metrics and rubrics need to be re-examined so it’s not just standardized test scores being measured. Maybe a place to start is to have teacher representatives and administrator representative figure out what besides test scores should be the gauges for both student and teacher improvement.

    • Karmi Gross says:

      Exactly so. This is why setting up school assessment that is truly valuable must be done on a site by site basis. Any other attempts will most surely fail.

      • Scott Smith says:

        If assessment is set up on a site by site basis will it be up to that school to determine if they have truly effective assessment? I agree that a one size fits all assessment is not neccesarily the answer, but how is it determined if the school is effective? Do school personell decide? Do outside sources decide? I like the philosophy of this but those would be my questions.

  5. R. Addleman says:

    Ok. I have heard that improving teachers will improve education. I will say GREAT! Pay me to take courses, give me inservices and workshops and the tools for the latest and greatest in teaching techniques. I will welcome it! There are some great teachers out there, and they seem to be not appreciated for their efforts, nor are they used to pass forward their great teaching techniques. I am a teacher. I don’t always know what/how I knew what to do in a situation. Sometimes, depending on the students, there is a fly by the seat of the pants thing that goes on. You never know what students will have problems with, nor the questions they ask. You must be able to think on your feet at all times.

    I teach third grade. I have NO paid preparation time. I usually work 10-12 hours to get everything I have to do finished. I am preparing for reading, math, writing, science, social studies, PE, art, grammar, etc. I also have to deal with the issues that kids bring into the classroom. I am not saying I’m not up for the challenge, but many teachers get weeded out through burnout.

    We are told we need to teach all these things, with little given to us. I buy a most of the items myself in order to give the kids the experiences I wish them to have. I don’t know any other profession where a person in a job is decided to be great or not great by how OTHERS perform.

    Kids are kids. No matter the age, other factors need to be addressed. Teachers cannot educate alone, nor can they educate kids who are just trying to survive. Address all the issues in education. People will find it costs MUCH more to do this than they are willing to give.

    Teachers can always improve, no matter how great they are. You would find that many teachers are just waiting to be given training opportunities and great things for use in their classrooms. However, usually the trainings come and go, and the items needed to fulfill the needs of doing things that way are either not given, or the teachers need to pay for them themselves. Or you would find that we are given these items and NEVER trained on how to use them. Where in the corporate/business world does that happen?

    Again, Bille Gates, I welcome all the trainings, new technologies, workshops and inservices to give me the tools to be a better teacher. I would also love to have great tools in my classroom to implement these programs. But for what I am given, I am a GREAT teacher, as I have and do tell all my students that it is my job to show them what they need to know, it is their job to learn it.

    Rachel Addleman, Sacramento, CA

    • Karmi Gross says:

      I think that every word of what you wrote is what Mr. Gates now understands to be true. You, the teachers are the key. You have done the incredible job of educating America with precious few resources and without the support you deserve. Now, just imagine what you can do if you had all the above.

      As for you contention that: “I don’t know any other profession where a person in a job is decided to be great or not great by how OTHERS perform”, I must respectfully disagree. There are many who are judged by the success of others; just look at any sports coach, or for that matter at all leaders. Our mission is to embrace that challenge, take advantage of any and every source of support and enrichment, and change the world.

  6. Interesting ideas for individual school leadership… I agree with a school specific assessment of achievement as opposed to a generic umbrella that cannot possibly know the true needs of the specific students! We must remember that no two school populations are the same – even when they are near each other. I believe that the school leadership sets the school culture based upon their personal beliefs about development and education in conjunction with community-family-faculty-student personalities. Therefore, the leadership must assess whether proper steps are in place to foster growth among the students. When you really think about it, who else is better qualified to make that assessment?!? This isn’t an issue of public vs private schools (both of which have to accept all children even private schools because of the economy!); it isn’t an issue of who failed to do their job! It is the issue of ensuring that structures are in place to foster growth among the students to promote their success in the community once they leave school. The role of administration is to ensure that those structures are utilized appropriately AND individual student success occurs… Administration observation in the classroom being a Key assessment tool – not a canned test that is applied to students in a nation.

    • Karmi Gross says:

      I think you have captured the intent of my words perfectly. It never seems to amaze me how similar two schools might be even if one is in Los Angeles and the other in Johannesburg, while two schools a few blocks apart have almost nothing in common. Site specific assessment is the only appropriate tool.

  7. This isn’t complicated, but we have made it so. Teachers improve by supporting brief, regular cycles of Planning, Teaching, and Revising lessons. Assessing teachers should be based on formative assessments generated during planning.

    But we usually don’t support teachers with the type of planning that prepares classroom-ready materials, which generated formative assessments and evidence of new teaching, so we struggle with how to assess them. Then we end up with these huge cumbersome evaluation systems.

    Give teachers better support in planning quality classroom materials, then assessing teaching and making revisions (ongoing improvement) will fall into place.

    It works! And teachers are engaged.

    • Karmi Gross says:

      Your point is well taken. Rarely do teachers receive on-site paid planning time that would also allow for collaborative efforts which would benefit all. Using that time to plan, create, assess and revise as you suggest would go a long way towards improving teaching. As a principal I made a point of scheduling such efforts and required teachers to report weekly as to the results of these meetings.

  8. Ellen Falsey says:

    Based on my professional experience, I find the original premise of the article rings true. Administrators are not held to their own state standards of having knowledge of what is taught and the format it is to be taught in. They rely, as do teachers, on Literacy Coaches, or other department heads, which train teachers, to inform them. To the credit of the administrators, they often get distracted with more immediate issues and curriculum format often becomes less of an immediate priority. Therefore, in such situations, said administrators potentially observe classes without essential information and apply archaic benchmarks to teaching methods. This is due to the increasing job pressure they are feeling to step back into the classroom. As a result, their feedback is not as constructive as it could be and is often in conflict with how teachers have been trained by the district. When I read about schools that have “turned around”, they usually feature principals who are very involved in the teaching and subject matter and consider it a top priority above all else.

    Having everyone on the same page is difficult in a large school, or even school district, but without a unified mission and viable steps to implement this mission, money is being wasted on current trends or under/misused technology. As also commented, teachers are being scapegoated for not being all things to all people. As, I am sure, administrators feel as well. Teachers are constantly criticized in the media and there is a constant call for better teachers. Research will indicate that teachers are not only highly educated, but are regularly receiving professional development and on-going training, at a rate that exceeds many other professions. Therefore, existing, highly trained and experienced professionals should not be dismissed as the cause of schools not meeting set expectations. Expectations are constantly changing and often conflict. The profession is trending towards its goal of being more technology based sporadically and its method of implementation has not been clarified. Teachers may need to be re-energized in order to reach new expectations. Some may want to contribute to the educational field via other venues, such as writing, changing subject areas, consulting, etc.. But once again, it should be duly noted, that existing teachers are highly qualified and educated. Being criticized nationally is not a motivational tool and it is often provided by those who have no direct experience in the field. If teachers are performing poorly, then why are there so many successful individuals in America?

  9. Heleen says:

    shipwreckNovember 9, 2011Maybe they can ask the child a question like why do you think I don’t want you to do that? Then if the child undnastreds they can respond and if they don’t know you could explain. Like if you have a rule about sticking your tongue out at another person and catch a child ask them why it is wrong. Then if they don’t know explain it is rude because it makes the other child feel bad. The child will probably be upset that they disappointed you and may be open to the notion of apologizing for what they did wrong. Most young kids love their teachers and want to do the right things.

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