Category Archives: Leadership Insights

The Reading Now Network: Growing a moral purpose

Four years ago, a group of district superintendents in West Michigan gathered for their quarterly regional meeting. As they trudged into the room, they picked up a familiar agenda, one they’d seen in countless prior meetings—facility updates, regional events, and teacher negotiations—really, nothing new. Outside, nearly 5,000 third-graders in public schools across the region … their students in their region … were demonstrating below-proficiency achievement in reading.

After the first few announcements, a bold voice spoke up:

Why don’t we use this time together to do something meaningful? Why don’t we solve a real problem? We are the leaders of the schools. Less than half of the kids in our schools are not learning to read and write like they should. If we are not talking about that every moment of our time together, what are we talking about? What could be more important?

What could have been a snooze-fest instead brought an entire region together around solving a problem. An inside-out approach to improvement began.

In the years that followed, a network of learners, known today as the Reading Now Network, grew up devoted to collective action. Among its accomplishments, the network has written formal commitments among superintendents and resolutions to be adopted by boards of education; undertaken inquiry-based action research field studies within member schools; and provided myriad professional learning opportunities emphasizing early literacy research.

In addition, the network supports literacy coaching opportunities for principals and teachers; a classroom library initiative; and a customized instructional rounds practice providing contextualized assistance, one school at a time.

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Informal classroom observations – not just for principals anymore

Over the past 10 years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of principals and central office administrators about their successes and challenges with conducting informal classroom walkthroughs—observations that are done for professional development coaching and monitoring rather than for formal evaluation purposes. While many of these school and district leaders say that there are benefits to doing these walkthroughs—such as improving PD effectiveness, increasing collaborative staff dialogue, and building a purposeful school community—they often struggle to find time to conduct the walkthroughs because of how much else is on their plate during busy school days.

A solution I’ve seen many successful principals employ over the last few years is to bring other observers into the fold, engaging instructional coaches, peer coaches, and other teacher leaders in the process. What these principals found is that sharing walkthrough responsibilities with these additional staff not only saved time, but it instilled higher levels of trust and transparency throughout their building and helped more of their instructional team members understand and rally around common goals and initiatives.

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Are great school leaders born or made?

When we think of great leaders, we often think of those who seem as if they were “born to lead.” But is leadership really a fixed trait, or is it an acquired skill? In the May issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein explore the research on how school leaders become great leaders.

Recent studies support the idea that leaders’ performance does indeed change over time—though not always for the better. One study of 197 elementary schools found that significant changes in principals’ performance were linked to better school improvement capacity and higher student growth rates (Heck & Hallinger, 2010). However, a similar study of 39 elementary principals found that leaders changed how they spent their time over a three-year period—but that schools where principals focused more on managerial tasks had higher achievement, while those where principals focused more on instructional leadership had lower achievement.

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Today’s “high tech” students need “high touch” learning environments

We’ve all seen it: A group of teenagers sitting together, perhaps at a restaurant or the mall, but all of them glued to their phones, barely interacting with the friends right next to them. As common as this sight has become, it still gives us pause. What, you may wonder, is this doing to our kids?

In September’s Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin takes a look at the effects of our “plugged in” culture on students and their teachers. One clear effect, he finds, is how students relate to others: One analysis of more than 70 student surveys, for example, found that empathy among college students is at its lowest level since 1979—a whopping 40 percent lower.

Not surprisingly, researchers and educators alike have noted a loss in the ability of students to have deep, empathic conversations. In an article for The Atlantic, one such teacher in Kentucky described how, in a classroom interview activity, most of his high school students were unable to move beyond the scripted questions and engage in more spontaneous, authentic dialogue. His solution? He asked his students to record their conversations on their smartphones, watch them later, and self-assess their conversation skills.

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Four fallacies that keep us from finishing what we start

One of the major pitfalls of systemic education improvement is this: Too many schools and districts begin a promising new initiative only to toss it aside before it has a chance to become part of the organizational culture and make a difference. Within this graveyard of discarded initiatives are thousands upon thousands of dollars spent on professional development, curriculum programs, innovative processes, and unfulfilled hopes for better student achievement.

In our never-ending quest to locate the next “shiny object” cure for our challenges, we sometimes overlook an important facet of school and student improvement that is fully within our control: the power to finish what we started.

Why do we so often fail to bring our many important initiatives to fruition? Part of the answer lies in addressing the fallacies that often form our belief system.

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The key to using data effectively? Start with mindsets

Collecting and sharing data is critical for schools and districts to pinpoint problems and craft solutions, but data alone doesn’t guarantee improvement. A number of factors affect data use—including getting data in time to make necessary changes, the skills of those analyzing the data, and, perhaps most importantly, the mindsets of those expected to act on the data.

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Are your school improvement efforts stuck? Try an inside-out approach

At one point or another, most educators find themselves in a school improvement effort that gets “stuck.” Frustratingly, this often happens after some initial success—and then, improvements reach a plateau or even slide backwards. In an article in the June online edition of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin looks at why this happens and what schools can do to get back on track.

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Emotional intelligence: The leader’s key to great communication

When it comes to communication, teachers are like everyone else: When they listen to or interact with their leader, they want to feel inspired. Many school leaders are good at inspiring an audience with articulate, rousing speeches, but research shows that what’s more important are the small, everyday interactions that are driven less by rhetorical talent and more by emotional intelligence.

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Empowering teachers with collective efficacy

In 1999, I embarked on my first year of teaching, eagerly anticipating leading my own classroom and filled with much hope, promise, and possibility. However, as my initial year unfolded, it turned out to be a no good, terrible, very bad year (so disappointing that I even wrote an editorial about it for the Denver Post). I consider myself a very positive person—a team player—so this experience was as much a surprise to me as anyone else. What changed my hope to despair and, eventually, my profession from teacher to education consultant?

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