Sunday, March 25, 2012

Defining A Marginal Teacher

Who and what is a marginal teacher? I've been thinking about this topic quite a bit lately for two reasons. One, I'm sitting on Jessica Howland's dissertation committee at Rutgers University. Jessica has designed a study to examine the decision making process of principals who recommend marginal teachers for tenure. I am fortunate to be on her committee and look forward to reading about the findings from this important study. Two, here in NJ all school districts are required to rethink and revise their certified staff evaluation processes no later than September 2013. We've begun this process in the district in which I work. I think this change will improve the professional growth of all educators in our district. Together, though, these two reasons have me thinking more about who marginal teachers actually are and what they do.

What is the definition of a marginal teacher? In my mind, teachers can be deemed "marginal" for a variety of reasons. Questionable classroom management, content knowledge, instructional approach, willingness to learn, or fit within the organization might put a teacher into the marginal category. I think this just scratches the surface, because recommending marginal teachers for tenure is probably a result of several other factors. The decision making process likely differs between elementary and secondary principals, as well as for principals who are hiring teachers in content areas that are in relatively limited supply (i.e. physics/chemistry). This is an important area, especially here in NJ because our NCLB waiver is tied to changes to certified staff evaluation processes.

Please share your thoughts on marginal teachers and answer the following questions:
What is your definition of a marginal teacher?
Is there a marginal teacher who you would consider recommending for tenure?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Struggling with the Principalship

I am currently in my fourth year as the principal of a K-5 school with great students, an outstanding faculty and staff, and academically involved parents. A great situation, no doubt. As we continue to work hard to improve our school's performance on our district's primary (and, unfortunately, only) measure of achievement for K-5 students, the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK), I continue to struggle with how to lead our school as an organization to continue to improve on this accountability assessment.

As I've discussed with my superiors when our 2011 NJ ASK scores indicated that we did not make adequate yearly progress (AYP), if our sub-par performance was due to lack of effort by faculty and staff, then that would be an easy fix. We would get the under-performers off the bus in classic Jim Collins fashion, and we would seek out those teachers and support staff members who are dedicated to improving NJ ASK scores. This, dare I say fortunately, is not the case in our school, though. So, you might be asking yourself at this point, "Well, why didn't you make AYP?" My response is simply - reality.

In keeping with the intent of this blog, there is a solid research base that indicates schools with higher concentrations of poverty and English language learners, larger class sizes, and heterogeneity with regard to ethnicity typically do not perform as well as those schools with lower concentrations of students in these categories. More specifically for our school, we did not make AYP due to under-performance in the language arts/literacy (LAL) content area, and in New Jersey at certain grade levels, as much as 80% of the variance in student socio-economic status and LAL scores is accounted for by the other variable. So, the evidence (i.e. reality) suggests that our school should not have performed as well as some of the other schools in our district and state-wide district factor group. This is not an excuse. It does, however, cause me to struggle with how to lead our school to improve on the upcoming 2012 NJ ASK. Well, the only option I have is to look to the evidence, otherwise, some of my colleagues might start referring to me as a "huckster."

It is clear in the literature that leading a school with a focus on improving school culture and climate, trust, efficacy, and emphasizing academics is related with improved student outcomes. I continue to lead with these variables in mind and am mindful of the influence of my every decision on each of these. Obviously, this hasn't been enough due to our failure to make AYP in 2011, which contributes to my struggles.

Luckily, I've learned of yet another school-level variable that researchers have found to help previously low-achieving students perform at higher levels. These scholars, Silva, White, and Yoshida (2011), from Lehigh University discussed how principal-student conversations can help students set goals for performance and help to motivate them to realize improved results. So, our school counselor and I plan to implement this approach in the upcoming weeks to, hopefully, take the next step in terms of improving student performance on the NJ ASK.

As I continue to struggle with the principalship as it relates to improving our school's accountability test performance, I will always turn to the evidence. Some of my colleagues and superiors have other perceptions of the utility of this approach, but I would rather struggle as I practice evidence based school leadership than to become a data-proof principal.

Please share your thoughts.

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, March 5, 2012

School Culture and .....well, everything!

Most school leaders regularly use data to guide their practice, and I am a strong proponent of this type of leadership. This blog is especially envious of those practitioners who are able to separate meaningful, useful evidence from what we like to call the "snake oil" know, the next best educational reforms supported by little research evidence but have some anecdotal support. Leaders who latch on to programs, strategies, or ideas that are not supported with research evidence run the risk of wasting too much time for the students who currently attend their schools to improve. Nevertheless, using data and research evidence as a guide to improve your school and/or district's primary measure of school achievement is a prudent approach to leading positive change. What if your data use, however, uncovers a toxic school and/or district culture as a major obstacle to improved student achievement? Well for starters, that was one extremely valuable analysis! Now comes the challenge of improving school and/or district culture, though.

Improving school culture is not an easy task, but neither is any worthwhile endeavor. In schools, it is much easier to point to a deficient teacher, an ineffective school or district leader, the bureaucracy as a machine to stifle innovation, or a program in need of revision as the cause of under performance. In our attempts to develop action plans to address deficiencies, we often try to reduce the potential cause to one or just a few variables. Although not always easy tasks, schools and districts can remove deficient teachers and ineffective leaders, restructure the bureaucracy, or modify programs. This reductionist approach, though, might prove fruitless, which might lead you to identify your school or district's toxic culture as the primary cause of this under performance.

Cultivating a culture of trust, professionalism, and autonomy is not a quick fix that can be accomplished with a short term action plan, but there is evidence that a culture based on these concepts is related with and predicts school outcomes and student achievement. Please join the discussion and share your thoughts for improving school and district culture, because as the evidence suggests, school culture influences everything.