Principals who have clearly defined goals for their staff and tackle problems rather than symptoms in their schools are more likely than caretaker-styled principals to help their schools move off the federal No Child Left Behind Act's 'in need of improvement list," according to a team of professors from the University of Nevada, Reno.
After finding that more than 50 percent of students failed to pass proficiencies in the 2003-04 school year in some school districts, the team visited 16 schools in need of improvement to look for predictors for removal from the 'in need of improvement' status as requested by the Legislative Committee on Education. The team drew no correlation between the number of students failing proficiencies and lack of leadership at the schools, but did conclude the schools likely to make adequate yearly progress in the future were the ones where principals exhibited strong leadership styles.
"The real question that was part of the charge that we had was, are these schools going to be able to pull out of 'in need of improvement?'" said Bill Thornton, a UNR professor on the team. "What kinds of things are needed in the state to help make the schools make AYP (adequate yearly progress)? And we looked at things like school improvement plans and strong instructional leadership."
Some of the group's recommendation to the Legislative Committee on Education last week that principals continue to receive ongoing education and training came from research ideas found in materials like the 2003 research report "Balanced Leadership: What 30 years of Research Tells Us About the Effect of Leadership on Student Achievement," by Waters, Marzano and McNulty.
The group, which included Thornton, and UNR professors Gus Hill and Janet Usinger among others, found that schools with strong leadership had principals that attempted to solve root problems instead of treat symptoms.
Treating a symptom, for example, was described as making sure all students were present on a state test day instead of working to improve attendance year-round. Another example was working to make sure that the few kids who kept schools from making AYP made it over the hump, versus working to improve the larger subgroup as a whole.
The group visited Empire Elementary School and Carson Middle School in the Carson City School District and Dayton Intermediate and Silver Stage Middle schools in the Lyon County School District.
When visiting, they met with the principal of the school, as well as two to four teachers with roles in math or English-language arts. The teams also walked around the school and observed the general feeling. They declined to talk about what they saw at specific schools, but gave an overall summarization of their visit to all 16 schools.
"What we observed was there were some very, very effective principals working very hard to turn around their schools and there were some principals, on the other hand, that were judged to be caretakers and some of these just appeared to be overwhelmed," Thornton said.
Schools with strong instructional leaders were likely to have alignment between curriculum assessment and school improvement plans - essentially, the principals had created an atmosphere where everyone worked toward a concise goal or goals.
The 2003-04 proficiency data the group shared with the Committee on Education last week shows that the Eureka School District had some of the highest number of students passing the English-language arts and the math proficiencies. Eureka, for example, had 84 percent of its students in fifth grade pass the English-language arts proficiency - compared with 44 percent in the Carson City School District, 45 percent in Lyon and 64 percent in Storey.
Numbers for the 2004-05 tests, available online at nevadareportcard.com, show that Carson City went up to 47 percent, Lyon to 49 percent, Storey to 65 percent, while Eureka dropped to 77 percent.
"Eureka is a very small school district so they have a very limited number of students," said Thornton explaining his opinion for the success there. "As a result, they know their students very well. They track their students very carefully over the years and they can individualize to the needs of the student."
Other variables that should be considered for success on the proficiencies include the number of English-as-a-second-language students, the number of English-language learners, and past success, among others.
"These variables are important and need to be considered," Hill said. "Nevada is one of the fastest growing states in terms of total population."
Their full report is 227 pages long and includes data on teacher retention rates, teachers who are highly qualified and more. One point Hill made was that even though the number of students testing proficient over the years may increase, it doesn't necessarily mean schools will meet adequate yearly progress. The percentage required to pass on the proficiency tests increases over the years, until 100 percent is required by 2013-14.
"If the literature is correct, we think that the schools with the strong instructional leaders will make the best progress, but whether they will be making AYP or not is a real dilemma," Hill said. "We're shooting for a target that is always moving up."
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