Learning Matters

Friday, February 25, 2005

Page 123

Suggested by Polski3 and it will be interesting to see what different folks post up.

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.
5. Don’t search around and look for the “coolest” book you can find. Do what’s actually next to you.

"We have no option but to try to help him."

From The Committed Life, by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The Carnival of Education Continues

The third installment of the Carnival of Education is set to debut Wednesday. Props to the Education Wonks for organizing this EduSphere sampler.

School Leaders and Working Conditions

Posts expressing disappointment in one’s administrator or noting outright leadership failures are a staple of the EduSphere. In recent examples, girlonthescape has chafed under the supervision of her petty AP, Polski3 has written about double standards and a lack of disciplinary support in her school, TeachWonk has described the intrusive ways of “administrator with attitude” Counselor Clueless, and Ms. Frizzle has wondered, “How do you get smarter administrators? In response to Jenny D.’s post on NYC funding, teacher Bea denounced nepotism, corruption, and a complete breakdown of discipline in her old school. And then there was extensive coverage of the Colton Walkout, which was eventually attributed to changes imposed by an arbitrary principal.

A few days ago, I posted on Hanushek, Kain, and Rivkin’s Revolving Door essay, where they suggested that monetary incentives take a back seat to working conditions in explaining teacher turnover and migration from high need/low capacity districts to lower needed/higher capacity districts. Due to the limitations of their data set, Hanushek et al could only describe working conditions in terms of student achievement and demographics. The authors acknowledged that the data did not permit an examination of factors like support, discipline, and bureaucratic environment.

Does school leadership make a genuine difference in the quality of working conditions and school effectiveness, or is the ideal of the super supe or the principal as instructional leader an idyllic Great Man (or Woman) pipe dream that defies realization? And is leadership still centered in the main office, or can teacher leaders like mentors and department chairs exercise distributed influence in the classroom?

My conviction is that good school leaders contribute substantially to good schools. To me, effective school leaders are characterized by technical competence, or expertise, professional ethics, and political skill.

The technically competent administrator is expert in subjects like assessment, intervention, differentiation, budgeting, and personnel. When coupled with actual teaching experience, they own a balance of theory and practice that teachers respect and supports instruction. The ethical administrator develops trust, maintains a positive learning environment by being a consistent disciplinarian and fostering an invitational tone, supports teachers and students, and doesn’t flinch from presenting bad news to parents of staff. I’d contend that ethical administrators worked to nurture professional learning communities even before DuFour popularized the concept. They are also into selfless service, although maybe at some personal cost. The politically skillful administrator is a communicator who engages parents, Boards, and the community at large in celebrating successes and identifying needs. They mobilize support to obtain resources for their school. These are the attributes I look for in myself and in my colleagues. But as a practicing administrator, I may be biased. Please share what qualities matter to you.

In sum, my questions are these. What do you look for in a good administrator? What qualities are the most destructive? And what is a good administrator worth to you vs. a big salary bump, or a new, larger classroom with adequate furniture, equipment, and supplies? How do we develop smarter, more effective leaders for America’s schools?

Teacher Responsibility for Student Learning

Jenny D. has posted a very important question. "Are teachers responsible for student learning?" The simple answer is, of course. If your students don't learn, how can you claim to have taught them anything? But sole responsibility doesn't rest with the teacher. Students must take responsibility for their own learning and so should their parents, particularly in the K-8 years.

Jenny's medical analogy is well taken. A doctor is responsible for their patients' health, but if a patient doesn't give up a two-pack a day habit the doctor is not accountable.

Jenny also is probing the extent of responsibility. It is an important topic and I hope you check her post and offer your comments there.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Dahlia Lithwick on Staunton

While catching up on Slate this morning, I see that Dahlia Lithwick posted her take on the Staunton controversy earlier this week. Her Jurisprudence column is one of my favorite features on Slate. I don't have the benefit of a legal background and admire her ability to address legal questions of the day with writing that is sharp, accessible, and sometimes entertaining.

The issue in Staunton centers on the school district's accommodation of off-campus weekday religious education programs. Once a week, elementary students whose parents have signed them up for the program leave school grounds to receive religious instruction at various nearby churches. As Dahlia points out, this is constitutional under current precedent. It's not uncommon in some parts of the United States either. In a community like Staunton, where news reports indicate that most families participate, it's an example of local control in action.

In the end, the Staunton School Board decided to continue the release program. The long term challenge to this practice is probably not from different applications of the Establishment Clause. Instead, academic needs will compete more strongly with voluntary religious education for instructional time as the various state accountability systems ratchet up toward NCLB's 100% proficiency requirement. By all accounts, and I will vouch for this based on childhood experience, instruction is pretty much halted for the non-participating students left behind in school, so instructional time is reduced for all students. I suspect the need for more instructional time to meet state academic requirements will curtail many release programs in the next decade.

For a good summary of the legal issues, check out Dahlia Lithwick's article.