Tuesday, January 24, 2012

SES of the School & Student Matters....a lot!

I just completed reading a very interesting and freely available article in Teachers College Record by Laura B. Perry and Andrew McConney. I urge all educators to give it a read to learn more about the strong influence that socioeconomic status (SES) continues to have on student achievement.

These scholars examined 2003 PISA scores from 15 year old students in Australia. The evidence from their study led them to report two main findings. First, regardless of individual student SES, all students have higher PISA scores when they attend schools that have higher levels of SES. Unfortunately, they also found that independent of individual student SES, students do not perform as well when they attend schools that have lower levels of SES. Second, Perry and McConney reported that gains in academic achievement that occur when students move from low to medium level SES schools are not as great as when students from middle SES schools move to high SES schools. Although this was a well done study that was published in a top tier journal, the findings continue to cause me trouble as a public school leader.

We cannot control the level of SES of the students who attend our schools, therefore, we have no control over our school level measures of SES. Yet, this study by Perry and McConney continues to suggest that SES accounts for much of the variance in student achievement. In a study I conducted in New Jersey high schools, school SES explained approximately 80% of the variance in language arts/literacy scores. So, it seems that unless we're able to recruit the rich kids who live on the right side of the tracks to attend our schools, we'll never meet that dreaded 100% student proficiency benchmark in 2014 to comply with NCLB. Right? Well...
Let me stop the negativity right here.

Thankfully, there are several administratively mutable variables that scholars have identified as moderators of SES, which includes academic optimism, collectively efficacy, trust, and academic emphasis, among others. The work of Hoy, Goddard, Bandura, and Leithwood, to name a few giants in this area of research, continues to give me hope as an administrator. It is important for practitioners to be familiar with some of this work, given the mountain of evidence that researchers continue to accumulate to demonstrate how influential SES is regarding student achievement. We must do our best to continue to increase our knowledge of the evidence regarding those school level variables that can overcome the strong influence of SES on achievement.

As educators, we owe it to our students and to each other to find a way to mitigate the influence of SES on student achievement, but I remind you to look to the evidence. I believe it is important to practice evidence based education for all of our students to succeed. The evidence sheds light on ways to overcome the reality, and if we don't engage in evidence based education, we won't be able to tell our superiors that reality is not an excuse.

Please share your thoughts.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

NJ School Board Elections

This past Tuesday (1/17/12), Gov. Christie signed legislation, S-3148, which provides local boards of education with the option to hold their annual elections with the November general election. Traditionally, school board elections have been held every April in NJ. In addition to electing board of education members, the traditional April election provided community members with the opportunity to vote Yes or No with regard to the local school budget. In recent years, many communities have rejected budgets given our current economic situation even when BOE's have presented budgets at or under the 2% tax levy cap. This has become extremely problematic for many school districts, given the rising costs associated with personnel and operations. Each year there is simply less money that actually gets to the students.

The beauty of S-3148 is that it eliminates the requirement of presenting school budgets to the public for approval when they are presented at or below the 2% tax levy cap, if the local school district opts to hold elections in November. If local BOE's decide to keep the elections in April, however, the school budget must be presented to the public for approval even if at or below the 2% tax levy cap.

I can't think of one reason why local school districts would decide to hold school board elections in April. I urge all NJ BOE's to do what is best for our students and move your elections to November. Keep partisan politics at bay so our students can continue to excel.

If I'm missing something, please let me know.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Educational Discourse in 2012

If the first 18 days of January 2012 are an accurate indicator, 2012 will certainly be a year full of educational discourse throughout the country, especially in the Northeast. Gov. Cuomo in NY and Gov. Christie in NJ have engaged in some tough talk these first few weeks of the new year. They promise education reform is coming in the form of teacher and administrator evaluations, modifications to the tenure process, increased teacher salaries, and more charter schools to name a few. We can only hope that some of these touted reforms ultimately improve student learning.

Another topic that is sure to engage educators is technology integration in the classroom, but I have some trouble with this one. For the most part, public school educators seem to be stuck in a rut. Simply having a computer, digital projector, and an interactive whiteboard in a classroom is not an effective use of technology in 2012, especially if that projector is mounted to a wall or the classroom ceiling. Yet, some believe that simply getting students to utilize these technological devices is providing them with the skills they need to be college or work ready. I beg to differ.

Educational technology discourse in 2012 must take the next step. Public schools must get their students to utilize technology to network with others, to collaborate with their peers throughout the country and world, and to begin to create products and solve problems in ways that were unthinkable less than a decade ago. Educators need to realize that available technologies are simply the vehicles to give their students the skills they need to be successful citizens in the current and future decades. Having students use these technologies as word processors, projectors, or to make visually pleasing graphics and presentations is not enough. We need to get our students focused on networking, collaborating, creating, and problem solving, and to appreciate how to utilize the current technologies to get these things done.

Then again, if the politicians' proposed modifications to teacher and administrator evaluations continue to prioritize accountability test scores, can we blame schools for using technology as expensive overhead projectors? I'm interested in your thoughts, so please leave a comment.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Professionally Oriented Educators

Megan Tschannen-Moran has published about the influence that professionally oriented principals can have on the success of teachers, students, and schools (Google Scholar her name for several sources). She writes that principals who lead from this professional orientation value the work and effort that teachers do and put forth on a daily basis to get their students to learn. In turn, this professional orientation improves levels of trust within schools, improves teachers' sense of efficacy regarding their teaching and their students' learning, and creates or improves upon a school culture that is focused on academics. I find it interesting that simply leading a school from this perspective is related with many school organizational level variables that researchers have found to improve student achievement. Yet, this work suggests that there are principals who don't treat their people in such a professional manner. I can't help but ask, "why not?"

No matter an educators role, I believe it is imperative that we behave as professionals and establish this expectation among our students, colleagues, superiors, and subordinates. Whether you're an assistant superintendent, principal, or teacher, I challenge you to think about your professional orientation with mindful reflection on the following questions.

  1. Are you open to collaborative problem solving, or do you prefer to mandate and direct?
  2. Does your leadership cultivate open discussion, or are you quick to silence those who ask questions or offer an alternative approach?
  3. Is your district, school, or classroom truly a democratic one, or do you simply talk the talk about U.S. public education being a democratic institution?

I'm interested in your thoughts about each of the above questions, so please post a comment to join the discussion.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Principal-Student Discussions Improve Reading Scores

Recently published research is challenging the notion that principals exert their greatest influence over school outcomes variables through indirect means. Historically, the school leadership literature has pointed to several school level variables, including establishing school mission and goals, collective efficacy, trust, and academic emphasis, that principals might choose to target as they work towards improved student achievement. Some more recent work, however, is indicating that principals can offer a direct influence on student achievement and other school outcomes. In some of my work, protecting instructional time has emerged as a specific instructional leadership function that has a direct influence on student achievement (Fancera & Bliss, 2011), while others have found that principal-student conversations can improve student reading scores (Silva, White, & Yoshida, 2011).

In the study conducted by Silva, White, and Yoshida (2011), conversations between principals and students resulted in a 2.6 percentile point net gain in reading achievement scores. The authors conducted this experimental study with eighth grade students in an eastern Pennsylvania suburban school district who failed to achieve proficiency on their seventh grade reading assessment. These researchers designed the study to examine the effect of two principal-student conversations, the first within one month and the second within one week of the state assessment, on student reading achievement. The authors concluded that these principal-student conversations, which focused on prior student achievement and current expectations, can improve the level of students' effort and achievement through improved perceptions of their principal. They wrote, "our experimental treatment basically helped low­ achieving students set goals for performance and provided them with encouragement from an authority figure" (Silva, White, & Yoshida, 2011, p. 787).

How do you think principals can utilize such conversations with their students to improve accountability test scores in your school? Does your answer differ if overall student learning, as opposed to improved accountability test scores, is the dependent variable? Please join the discussion.

Fancera, S. F. and Bliss, J. R. (2011). Instructional leadership influence on collective teacher efficacy to improve school achievement. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 10, 349-370.

Silva, J. P., White, G. P., and Yoshida, R. K. (2011). The Direct Effects of Principal–Student Discussions on Eighth Grade Students’ Gains in Reading Achievement: An Experimental Study. Educational Administration Quarterly, 47, 772-793.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Start of 2012

While we might wish everyone a “Happy New Year” this week, for educators the new year typically starts on the first day of school upon completion of summer vacation. Rather than thinking about new beginnings, this time of year typically causes me to think about how we can finish the school year to optimize student learning. Nevertheless, a new year is upon us, and I think it is a good time to discuss my plan for completing the 2011-2012 school year.

As for most public school educators, a new calendar year ramps up my focus on our state’s accountability test. We continue to prepare our students to perform well on this assessment throughout the school year, but the conversations among faculty, staff, and colleagues certainly increase every January. As do the supplemental instructional activities that occur before, during, and after regular school hours for our students. Although I do believe that accountability testing has a useful role in public education, I do not think it is a meaningful measure of student learning. So, as in years past, I continue to struggle with how to best prepare our students for this year’s school accountability test, while optimizing each student’s learning.

At the beginning of this school year, I challenged our faculty to increase their levels of collaboration, networking, and creating for their own professional learning. Many have responded by creating blogs and utilizing social media to develop their own PLN. Technology has given us the means to connect with educators from around the globe to improve our professional learning, which has resulted in many of our teachers encouraging their students to engage in collaborating, networking, and creating of their own.

So, my plan for completing the 2011-2012 school year includes a continued emphasis on collaboration, networking, and creating for myself and our teachers and students. It is with this continued approach to learning that I think we can best finish out the 2011-2012 school year to perform well on our state’s accountability test and to optimize student learning. Please share your thoughts.