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Leadership Insights

Principal turnover is an avoidable crisis

Two years leading a school is not enough time for a principal to create meaningful, lasting effects for students and teachers. Yet 35% of principals serve even less than that, according to new research from the Learning Policy Institute and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. (I read about it at the Education Dive website.) On average, principals are staying at their schools for four years, before leaving for other schools, taking on different jobs within their districts, or simply exiting the profession altogether. This constant leadership turnover in a school is a tragic waste of human capital that has negative consequences for teaching and learning. As Learning Policy Institute chief Linda Darling-Hammond was quoted as saying, “you’ve got to reboot those schools” every time a new principal is hired.

Why do they leave? The study found that departing principals commonly cite reasons such as poor working conditions, lack of resources and support, inadequate professional development, low salaries, high-stakes accountability, lack of decision-making authority, and the overwhelming nature of the job.

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A balanced leader isn’t necessarily a superhero

Principals are super humans, but they’re being asked to perform a superhuman range of responsibilities, and that’s not fair—not to them, not to teachers, and not to students. In the March edition of ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine, McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin asks how school leadership got so overly complex and demanding. He believes the phenomenon dates to the 1970s when researchers first started describing principals as “instructional leaders”—a catchall phrase that had unintended consequences.

As the body of research around effective school leadership traits grew over the decades that followed, so did the understanding that specific leadership traits showed more promise than others in their effects on achievement. Further, the role of collaboration in shared leadership gained new importance and we began to seek “transformational” leaders who might usher in a new era of educational effectiveness.

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Curious minds are inquiring: How does curiosity add to McREL’s body of work?

Have you noticed the word “curiosity” appearing in the titles of more and more McREL publications, resources, and services? We have a good reason for that. We’ve been excited to share our Curiosity Works™ approach to school improvement and innovation with teachers and school leaders, many of whom are already familiar with our other bodies of research-based knowledge, such as Classroom Instruction That Works® and Balanced Leadership®. Some of these educators have asked if Curiosity Works supplants these resources. It doesn’t. To the contrary, Curiosity Works brings a new degree of focus, and perhaps some new vocabulary, to McREL’s existing resources that are still as relevant and effective as ever.

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School culture: Secret sauce or missing ingredient?

Frustratingly for practitioners, research often tell us what a phenomenon is, but not why it came to be that way. And that can strand us without an answer to the most important question: How should we manipulate inputs to achieve the outputs we desire?

So it is with school culture. In his column for the March edition of ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine, McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin recounts how a conversation with a principal caused him to reexamine his long-held stance that school culture is the “secret sauce” of high-performing schools. The problem for that principal, Bryan writes, was the difficulty of teasing apart correlation from causation. Does a strong, healthy school culture cause high performance? Or might it be the other way around?

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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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