By Ellie Ashford
02/07/06 -- To really make inroads in changing the educational culture at all levels to improve student achievement, the behavior of school leaders and the conditions under which they operate must be changed in a systemic way. This is the basic idea around the Wallace Foundation’s multiyear, multimillion dollar commitment to improving school leadership.
The foundation’s latest effort in this initiative is the creation of six “Leadership Issue Group Forums,” which bring together practitioners, policymakers, and researchers from across the country to develop recommendations, identify best practices, and formulate questions for more research on various aspects of education leadership. Several school board members are representing NSBA on these groups.
The Wallace Foundation’s objective with this initiative is “making connections in improving leadership to drive dramatic increases in student achievement,” says Richard Laine, the foundation’s director of education programs.
The idea was to commission research and learn as much as possible about how to get good principals and other leaders into schools, how to give them the kind of support they need, how good leaders can create a strong “learning culture” in a school, and what kind of policies and incentives are needed at the state level to promote good leaders.
The six issue group forums are exploring these topics:
• using data effectively to make better decisions that improve leadership policies and practices that enhance the quality of teaching and learning.
• developing methods of allocating resources and changing incentives to eliminate counterproductive policies and practices and to encourage effective leadership and teaching behavior that result in improved student learning.
• redefining the roles and responsibilities of school leaders and ensuring they have the authority to get the job done.
• identifying and fostering the particular skills and strategies needed to transform high school leadership and results.
• developing ways to assess leadership behavior and improve results.
• redefining the roles and responsibilities of school boards and investigating ways to improve district governance structures.
Laine says the aim of the groups is to bring together school leaders from the communities already working with the Wallace Foundation with other experts “to solve common problems, implement their grant-supported work, and capture and share the lessons being learned.”
The issue groups will advance the foundation’s leadership initiative by providing the Wallace-funded sites with “the means to work together and with top experts -- rather than in isolation -- in tackling critical leadership issues,” Laine says.
Each group will meet two or three times a year and communicate more frequently online. So far, four of the issue groups had an initial meeting and two will meet in March.
At the end of the three-year initiative, each group will receive results from empirical research on what’s effective in educational leadership.
Wallace hopes the groups will help determine the types of conditions and behavior that promote good leadership to improve teaching and learning. This means school leaders need to have the right kind of data, a clear job description, and the authority to make decisions on student achievement, Laine says.
“The whole premise of what we’re saying is that we can connect leadership with achievement.” Laine says. “We’re not trying to do this one school at a time, but across districts and across states.”
“We talk about behavior -- the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of leaders” -- not just training, Laine says. “Behavior is made up of what you know and the incentives and conditions in which you operate.” It has to do with the “strategic use of data.”
By conditions, Laine means “timely data, good data, and time for the teachers to analyze what the data tells us.” If students are tested in the spring and the principal doesn’t get the data until the fall, for example, that is not the optimum condition.
Paul Schlichtman, a member of the Arlington, Mass., school committee and past president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, is representing NSBA on the issue group dealing with data-driven decision making.
At the group’s first meeting in Chicago in December, participants worked on “untangling the various issues” involved with data, says Schlichtman, who is also the coordinator of research, testing, and assessment for the Lowell, Mass., school district. “We’re really struggling with this,” he acknowledges. “There are technical issues as well as policy issues. You can get lost.”
Group members discussed how to set up data systems, what questions to ask, who should make the key decisions, how school boards should be involved, and how to build a statewide infrastructure.
The discussions centered around how to produce diagnostic data, not just accountability data based on state test results, Schlichtman says. In addition to student test scores, relevant data can include attendance, teacher qualifications, class size, and other measures.
All this data can help school boards make policy and budget decisions, he says. “With a limited budget, do you put money into tutoring, professional development, or reducing class size? Which area has the most impact on improving student achievement?”
The Arlington school committee already is using data to leverage high-performing leadership in a novel way. When Superintendent Nathan Levenson was hired last July, the committee approved a contract that not only increases his base salary for meeting certain agreed-upon performance goals and objectives, but calls for a pay cut if the goals are not met.
Schlichtman says the performance contract will serve as a “leverage tool” to increase performance across the district. “You don’t want to be the department head who cost the superintendent a pay raise.”
Other school board members representing NSBA on the issue groups are Oklahoma City school board member Terri Silver, who also is director of board development at the Oklahoma State School Boards Association; John Bamberg, president-elect of the South Carolina School Boards Association and vice chair of Bamberg School District One; and Diane Sandifer, president-elect of the Georgia School Boards Association and chair of the Harris County school board.
Sandifer, serving on the group addressing the roles and responsibilities of school leaders, says the discussion at the group’s first meeting, in Alexandria, Va., in December, covered such issues as site-based management, the use of technology to support innovative leadership, and the principal as instructional leader.
“Most people say the principal’s role is to be an instructional leader,” Laine says. “But if you ask a lot of principals, you’ll find they’re jacks of all trades -- they have to be responsible for everything and don’t have enough time to focus on instruction. That lowers the priority of instruction.”
To solve the problem, the Louisville, Ky., school system created a new position -- school administrative manager -- so principals could spend more time on instruction, he says. Although the experiment was limited to just three schools, “there were pretty dramatic increases in student achievement.”
The Wallace Foundation, based in New York City, started getting involved in education leadership, because, at the end of the 1990s, “we had funded a lot of initiatives in various areas of education, but we found few of them had staying power, and few had an impact on student achievement,” Laine says.
“We needed to figure out what are the key levers to really bring about change in student achievement,” he says. “In 2000, the board agreed that leadership was the missing piece in education reform and had a huge potential for really sustaining these changes over the long run.”
The Wallace Foundation’s leadership initiative has received $150 million since its inception in 2000, a large majority from the foundation, but other organizations and state agencies also have contributed. It has funded projects in 15 school districts and 22 states.
Originally, the initiative consisted of two interrelated projects -- the State Action Education Leadership Project (SAELP) and Project LEAD (Leadership for Educational Achievement in Districts).
One example of a SAELP project is the creation of a leadership academy in Georgia, which provided salary incentives for high-performing principals to serve in high-need schools. An example of a Project LEAD effort is the Aspiring Principals Program in St. Louis, which leveraged funding from the business community to help pay the salaries and provide mentors for interns preparing to become principals.
“School boards are important in this effort because the policies they set establish the criteria for whom they’re going to hire,” Laine says. “They establish labor contracts and budgets and hire the superintendent and all that drives the direction of what the board and superintendent do. That’s why it’s important to improve quality of leadership across the district.”
Laine says the issue group dealing with governance will address such issues as “how do you sustain the reform effort so the direction of leadership doesn’t change when the superintendent changes.” Leadership is about getting results -- it’s not about the knight in shining armor who rides in and saves the day and leaves and everything collapses.”
“Good leadership is about engaging those in the building and in the larger community toward a new direction,” he says.
“School boards are essential in leading the charge,” he says. “It is the board, superintendent, and principals who must challenge the comfort level to get people to buy into a different way of educating students to get better results.”
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