Because Counting Our Blessings Just Isn't Enough

Archive for April, 2013

Why We Need Principals

There are questions that resonate, holding our imaginations and keeping us wondering. There are questions that activate our learning, causing us to reflect and helping us to grow.

Do We Need Principals? asked  Josh Stumpenhorst in a blog post last May.

Do We Need (Great) Principals? responded George Couros replying to a question with a question in a blog post published shortly thereafter.

Recently Josh Stumpenhorst may have answered his own question with another post, this time an affirmation rather than a question:  We Need Leaders #cpchat.

Once overcoming my initial defensiveness at the very thought that principals might not be needed, I began to ponder a number of related questions. Do we need principals? Do we need great principals? What makes a principal great? Do we need leaders? Do we need great leaders? What makes a leader great? As a principal and soon to be Head of School, I don’t ask these questions to be provocative, but instead to honestly assess how to design my role in order to make a meaningful impact.

In search of insight, I turned to the research of John Hattie, whose investigation of more than 900 meta-analyses represents the largest collection of evidence based research into what actually works in schools. Citing a meta-analysis conducted in 2008 by Robinson, Lloyd, and Rowe of 22 studies including 2,833 principals, Hattie defines three distinct types of school leadership: transformational leadership, instructional leadership, and learning leadership.

Transformational Leadership, according to Hattie is “inspiring teachers to new levels of energy and commitment towards a common mission, which develops the school’s capacity to work together to overcome challenges and reach ambitious goals, and then to ensure that teachers have time to conduct their teaching.” To me, this sounds quite good: inspiration, new levels of energy and commitment, a common mission, collaboration to reach ambitious goals, and respect for teaching time. And yet, Hattie reports that the impact of transformational leadership on student achievement is a mere 0.11, less than anticipated with no intervention at all.

Instructional Leadership, according to Hattie, occurs among school leaders who “attend to the quality and impact of all in the school on student learning, ensure that disruption to learning is minimized, have high expectations of teachers for their students, visit classrooms, and are concerned with interpreting evidence about the quality and nature of learning in the school.” To me, this also sounds quite good: a focus on student learning, high expectations, presence in classrooms, and attention to evidence about the quality of learning. And yet, Hattie found that the impact of instructional leadership was 0.42, barely above the 0.4 mark one could expect without any intervention.

Learning Leadership, according to Hattie, is leadership that emphasizes student and adult learning and occurs when leaders promote and participate in teacher learning through such approaches as providing coaching over an extended time, data teams, a focus on how students learn subject matter content, and enabling teachers to work collaboratively to plan and monitor lessons based on evidence about how students learn. (see Bausmith & Barry, 2011) In distinction to the minimal impact of transformational and instructional leadership, Hattie found the impact of learning leadership to be an impressive .84, placing learning leadership as among the most significant positive impacts on quality of student learning in schools. (Hattie, John (2012-03-15). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (Kindle Locations 3889-3892). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.)

Interestingly, Hattie’s insights are not only for principals, our building leaders, but also for teachers, our classroom leaders. Just as John Hattie found a dramatic .84 impact when principals serve as learning leaders, he found the very same dramatic .84 impact when teachers serve as activators of student learning through offering feedback, accessing thinking, supporting challenging goals, and monitoring learning. Alternatively, he found a mere .17 effect size on student learning, less than anticipated with no intervention, when teachers act as facilitators of learning through problem based learning, simulations and gaming, and individualized instruction. (Michael Fullan, Presentation at the 2012 ISTE conference)

Perhaps the roles of principals and teachers, or at least the roles of great principals and great teachers, are not so different after all.

Trained as a transformational leader in the 1990’s, and serving in the mission-driven independent school world in which leaders are expected to inspire teachers toward a common mission, I have undergone a transformation myself in the past several years now striving to be a true learning leader. Hattie’s research, combined with my own experience, has led me to embrace two key ingredients necessary for greatness in principals, teachers, and students alike: coaching and collaboration.

Do we need principals? Of course we do. But, not the principals we may have imagined; not the disciplinarians and schedulers, not the visionaries, and not even the instructional leaders. We need principals who coach and are coached, who support teachers to look at student work together, and who humbly join mind and heart with teachers and students in the sacred task of learning.

Will Blended Learning Cost Less? And Should That Be The Question?

cc licensed image shared by flickr user Spree2010

cc licensed image shared by flickr user Spree2010

Among the many challenges faced by schools today are rising costs and shrinking budgets.

Within many independent schools requests for tuition assistance continue to increase, while enrollment may be less robust than in the past. Charter and public schools are also struggling with making the most of limited budgets during financially trying times. Some are turning to blended learning as the central feature of a cost cutting business model.

But will blended learning really cost less? And should that be the question?

I’ve been privileged this year to participate in a blended learning experience as a student, having enrolled in the course Charting a Direction for Online Learning offered by  Online School for Girls. The course skillfully conveyed information while at the same time modeling the experience of blended learning, combining a year of interactive online units with two in-person seminars.

Since sharing my reflections from the first Online School for Girls Seminar in  Learning On-Line, I have come to embrace for my school the potential of utilizing variations of what is known as the station rotation model in which students rotate through various activities in a continuous loop: individualized online instruction and assessments, teacher guided instruction, and collaborative activities and stations. I’ve learned much more in the past several months about online learning resources and I am energized by the potential to personalize and differentiate learning. And, yet, focus on affordability has turned me into a skeptic, at least a financial skeptic, not compelled by the suggestion that blending learning may solve our affordability and budgetary challenges.

As an educator in a Jewish day school, I look with interest at The Bold (Blended and Online Learning in Day Schools) Project. The generous grant program seeks to fund  up to 8 Jewish Day schools to implement blended learning school-wide, documenting the process and measuring effectiveness along the way in order to provide guidance to other schools. The program hopes to “foster cost reduction and lower tuition while personalizing learning and energizing teaching.” Schools accepted into the program are required to fully implement blended learning within three years, committing both to having every child participate in a minimum of two blended class periods per day and to restructuring the school’s educational/financial model to lower costs and reduce tuition.

The primary route to cost savings as far as I can glean is by increasing the school’s student-teacher ratio in one of three primary ways:

  • Increasing class size (nonetheless maintaining personalized learning by having students rotate between independent online learning and teacher guided learning experiences in small groups within which students receive much individualized attention)
  • Increasing the amount of sections a teacher teaches (by combining in class and on-line learning so a teacher might teach 6 sections instead of 4, but still have the same amount of time with students)
  • Offering on-line electives in lieu of electives taught by teachers in the school

Some suggest there might be savings in textbooks and other curricular resources although I wonder how that is possible given the technological costs involved in blended learning, even in schools where students bring their own devices. Others argue there will be an increase in revenue as blended learning will be so engaging that more students will enroll. The Bold Schools Project cites potential overall operating cost reductions of 25% and per pupil cost savings of $1,000.

As a result of financial pressures, we may well need to grapple with the value of small student-teacher ratios, even within independent schools that have long prided themselves on a small student-teacher ratio. Yet for me student-teacher ratio and blended learning are two separate conversations. I will persevere with blended learning, but without any anticipation that we will glean cost savings as a result of our blended model. I will not commit to full school implementation in which each student must participate in at least two blended class periods per day. A large part of the potency of blended learning is the ability to think in new, creative ways about the use of time, space, and technology to support learning. Perhaps schedules will look dramatically different. Perhaps students will be able to learn in different locations in addition to school. Perhaps we won’t even think in terms of class periods anymore. The possibilities are endless. We are embarking on a learning journey without knowing the final destination. And that is ok with me.

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