Understanding the link between a school leader's responsibilities and student achievement will accelerate the drive towards school improvement, write SANDRA DUGGAN and STEVE STRETTON.
Book: School Leadership that Works: From Research to Results by Robert Marzano, Timothy Waters and Brian A McNulty
School Leadership that Works is a classic book for school improvement – one of the first to establish a research base for specific improvement practices that school leaders undertake linked to student outcomes. A principal would think they had wisely invested their valuable professional reading time if they built a coherent leadership team using the practical and action-orientated advice in this book. The comprehensive technical notes towards the back of the book provide academic weight to the research measuring the relationship between effectiveness in a school and student achievement.
A principal would think they had wisely invested their valuable professional reading time if they built a coherent leadership team using the practical and action-orientated advice in this book.
How is the book relevant to school improvement?
The two strengths of School Leadership that Works are that firstly, it establishes a research base for the connection between school leadership responsibilities and student achievement using a meta-analytical methodology; and secondly, that it provides practical frameworks for understanding and enacting these responsibilities.
How could the book be used to support school improvement initiatives?
A School Leader's Responsibilities
The 21 Responsibilities of School Leaders are practical, clearly illustrated with recognisable school-based examples and elaborated with specific behaviours. School leaders, especially those in their first few years in the role, could use this list as:
- a reflective checklist against their own practice
- a reference for focused coaching and mentoring conversations
- a target for goal setting with members of the school’s leadership team.
What to know about curriculum, instruction and assessment
One particular strength of this list of responsibilities is the distinction between ‘Involvement in Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment’ and ‘Knowledge of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment’. A school principal could use this refinement to:
- articulate their own role as an instructional leader in their school
- clarify the role descriptions of staff involved in school improvement initiatives
- work with colleagues to elaborate on their professional learning needs.
Key to school improvement is knowing what work will make a difference to students and their learning.
What to do that makes a difference
Key to school improvement is knowing what work will make a difference to students and their learning. The book provides a five-step action plan, and a comprehensive list of 13 factors that could be topics for interventions, grouped into school-level, teacher-level and student-level categories. These 13 factors are then detailed into 39 specific actions. While Australian readers may find that some of the suggestions reflect the systemic practices of education in the United States, most have some grounded correlation in recognisable school realities. Ways this action plan and the list of improvements could be used include:
- mapping the school’s proposed action plan against that suggested in the book to check that the preconditions for successful change are in place
- identifying the level of the intervention to then adjust the resourcing and leadership approaches it requires
- applying the three levels of actions (school-level, teacher-level and student-level) as a tool for an investigation of the pedagogical effectiveness of the school.
Building a School Leadership Team
A strong leadership team is fundamental to effective school improvement because a principal might struggle to encompass the breadth of work involved while still juggling the compliance components of their role. The book talks about selecting people to be involved in school leadership. By implication, involvement in the process is not restricted to staff with formal leadership responsibilities. There is a chapter dedicated to effective school leadership and this could be used to:
- establish common understandings and expectations for a leadership team as a focused reading
- reflect critically on the leadership team’s current practices
- articulate the leadership team’s operating principles or norms.
Different orders of change
Another merit of the book is its distinction between first-order and second-order change, where the former is incremental refinement of effective management practices while the latter is dramatic, systemic and fundamental change. The value of this distinction is that the type of change alters the practices and priorities of the principal and the leadership team. This part of the book could be used to:
- articulate and acknowledge the order of change actually involved in the improvement initiative
- name and scope out the order of change with staff
- create a checklist of practices and allocate the responsibilities across the leadership team.
Knowing how to respond to pushback
Wisely the authors of this book know that second-order change will create pushback and they specifically identify the leadership responsibilities and actions that will require attention when leading significant systemic change. These include the areas of Culture, Communication, Order and Input. It is important for a principal leading significant second-order changes to know that there are actions they and their leadership team can proactively undertake to address the uncertainty, perception of a diminished team spirit and feeling of disenfranchisement that some staff can feel during the change process. Principals leading second-order change can:
- use this book to diagnose the symptoms of pushback they see
- proactively target aspects of the pushback with specific actions
- allocate members of the leadership team to undertake specific mitigating actions.
It is important for a principal leading significant second-order changes to know that there are actions they and their leadership team can proactively undertake to address the uncertainty, perception of a diminished team spirit and feeling of disenfranchisement that some staff can feel during the change process.
What could be some limitations of the book for school improvement processes?
In the years since the book’s publication, new areas for school improvement have emerged including student-centred pedagogy, learning neuroscience and the increasingly integrated role of technology in learning. To counter this, principals considering improvement initiatives are recommended to consider recent research on the effect size of specific interventions.
Another element that a principal is recommended to consider when applying a reading of this book to school improvement is analysis and evaluation of their own school data. The book recommends that a questionnaire be used by principals and teachers to help identify a potential initiative as either a first-order or second-order change. While there is merit in this approach, as it can shape the practices of the leadership team, the selection of the intervention itself needs to be grounded in the school’s data sets. Other books, and working with a School Improvement consultant, can assist in this crucial process.
School Leadership that Works: From Research to Results by Robert Marzano, Timothy Waters and Brian A. McNulty (2005). ASCD Alexandria, Virginia USA and Mid-continental Research for Education and Learning, Denver, Colorado USA.
Image courtesy: Penrith Anglican College.
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