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Ask the Expert: Mariana Haynes

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January 18, 2011 10:52 pm

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District policies play a considerable role in determining principals’ instructional behaviors and successes in transforming high school culture, according to a new brief released today from the Alliance for Excellent Education. “Meeting the Challenge: The Role of School Leaders in Turning Around the Lowest-Performing High Schools” recommends policies that focus on a schoolwide, systematic approach to improving professional learning and collaborative practices. Mariana Haynes wrote the brief and we recently interviewed her to learn more about the importance of school leadership. Do you have a question for Mariana? Simply, type it in the comments section below and she will do her best to respond. 

What do we know about the impact of school leaders on teaching and student achievement?

Of all school-related factors that impact student achievement, school leadership is second in importance only to classroom instruction. A major report from the Wallace Foundation looks at the way leadership influences student learning by creating the conditions and the expectations in high schools that there will be excellent instruction and a culture of ongoing learning for educators and students in the school. Leader effects are largely indirect and are strengthened by professional communities and the collective influence of all participants in adopting practices that enhance student learning. The 2009 conference report of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University shows similar findings on how leadership raises achievement and narrows gaps. Leadership strategies common across exemplary high schools include relentlessly focusing on improving the quality of instruction, organizing learning experiences for teachers, clearly defining the criteria for high-quality teaching and student work, and designing plans and incentives for broadly inclusive adult learning.

What does this look like on the ground? What is an example of a school that has provided systemwide support for their teachers and deeply involved them in the process?

A powerful example of the importance of leadership—both district and at the school level—is evident in Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS). During the 1980s and 1990s, the district—the 16th largest in the nation—experienced enormous increases in the percentage of students of color, English learners, and low-income students. Under the leadership of Superintendent Dr. Jerry Weast, MCPS worked closely with the local union, the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) to build the collective capacity of its 11,000 teaching professionals toward the goal of producing a world-class system. To achieve these ambitious goals, the district-union partnership established its Professional Growth System (PGS) anchored in teacher performance standards and based upon the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPRS) Core Propositions for accomplished teaching.  The PGS uses a qualitative approach to teacher evaluation and professional growth and focuses on continuous improvement through feedback, analysis of student learning, and refinement of teaching practice.

To ensure consistency and coherence in setting student expectations, MCPS conducted internal studies to identify the “Seven Keys to College Readiness”—such as completing Algebra I by eighth grade and scoring at least 1650 on the SAT. To develop a highly-skilled professional staff capable of delivering high-level content to all students, the district established a common language and shared conception of teaching quality in alignment with the NBPTS core propositions. Since then, MCPS has achieved exemplary results, outperformed all other Maryland districts, boasted the highest graduation rate in the nation, and significantly reduced achievement gaps. In 2010, the district received the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award for Excellence and was a finalist for the Broad Prize in Urban Education.

Why is teacher training and professional development not producing the educator workforce we need in other schools? 

This is a complex issue and points to the lack of coherent, performance-based systems in the United States to provide teachers with quality training and support to deepen their knowledge and extend their skills to help all students. Lessons from high-performing nations that have succeeded in accelerating the pace of improvements in students’ achievement share a commitment to professionalized teaching and recognize that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. They move training closer to the classroom, enable teachers to share their knowledge and spread innovation, and emphasize teachers’ abilities to diagnose learning gaps and to carefully select strategies to address them. In order to achieve large-scale improvement in teaching quality in high schools, a systems approach, anchored in a shared conception of quality teaching, is needed to continually assess and inform educator development throughout their career.

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