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Strengthening the HeartbeatLeading and Learning Together in Schools
By Thomas J. Sergiovanni
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7879-6544-8
Chapter OneA Teacher-Centered Approach
A teacher-centered approach? Wait a minute. I thought that schools should be student centered. It's "all about the kids." Isn't that what we are supposed to say? A safe guess is that schools should be about both, but with an important corollary: All of the learning and all of the support we want students to experience depends in large measure on the support that teachers receive. This support not only includes the nitty-gritty working conditions of teachers (for example, salary, access to a telephone, adequate materials, time for lunch, a clean and comfortable work environment, respectful students, and discipline policies that work) but the opportunities that teachers have to work together with colleagues, to learn more about their craft, to make important decisions about teaching, learning, and other professional matters. All of these conditions and opportunities count. They count so much that unless we look after them schools will not work as effectively as they can for students. An important truism is that as the principal goes, so goes the school. But the corollary to that statement is also true. As the teacher goes, so goes the student.
Roland Barth's now-famous homily reminding us to heed the advice routinely given by airline cabin attendants at takeoff makessense: "In the unlikely event that an oxygen mask is needed and you are accompanied by a child, first put the mask on yourself and then on the child." Teachers are best able to serve students when they themselves have been adequately served. But let me back up for a moment and examine the larger picture linking the effects of school-level variables, teacher-level variables, and student-level variables on student achievement.
As a result of his research and his analysis of the research of others, Marzano (2000) concludes that school leadership ranks seventh in a field of eight school-level factors that contribute to student achievement. The first six factors, in order, are opportunities for students to learn, amount of time students spend learning, monitoring of student progress, providing a reasonable amount of pressure for students to achieve, parental involvement, and a supportive school climate. Only cooperation was rated lower than leadership. But things may not be as they seem. Leadership plays by different rules. It has, for example, many lives. One of its lives is to stand alone as a factor that contributes directly to student achievement. Its other lives, however, serve to fuel and enhance school-level and teacher-level variables in ways that help these variables influence student achievement.
Marzano (2000) notes, for example, that as a group the school-level variables account for only about 7 percent of the variance influencing student achievement. Teacher-level variables such as instructional strategies, curriculum design, and classroom management accounted for about 13 percent of the variance. Student-level variables-home atmosphere, prior knowledge, and motivation, aptitude, and interest-account for 80 percent of the variance with home atmosphere having the most powerful effect on student achievement.
Compared to student-level variables the effects of school-level and teacher-level variables seem not to count very much. But they do. Marzano notes, for example, that "The finding that schools account for only 10 percent of the differences in student achievement translates into a percentile gain of about 23 points. That is, the average student who attends a 'good' school will have a score that is 23 percentile points higher than the average student who attends a poor school. From this perspective, schools definitely can make a difference in student achievement" (cited in Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2003, p. 1). Still, in a comparative sense, if we assume that leadership has to have direct effects on student achievement to count, then probably it doesn't count much. But if we take the indirect effects leadership has on teachers, students, and school-level variables into account, then we get a different picture. Leadership emerges as a powerful force that provides the conditions and support schools need to succeed and teachers need to be effective. With the right kind of leadership, teacher effects on student achievement are likely to be higher.
In a recent meta-analysis, for example, McREL researchers Waters, Marzano, and McNulty found that "for an average school, having an effective leader can mean the difference between scoring at the 50th percentile on a given achievement test and achieving a score 10 percentile points higher" (Viadero, 2003). The variable making the most difference on a school's test scores was the extent to which the leader understood the details and the undercurrents of running a school and used this knowledge successfully. This effect is indirect. The McREL study is described in more detail in Chapter Eight.
These assertions are supported by a series of authoritative papers written by Hallinger and Heck (1996a, 1996b, 1999). These papers document the importance of principals' indirect leadership in improving student achievement. In short, Hallinger and Heck find that principal leadership does not provide a measurable direct effect but does provide a measurable indirect effect.
In sum, Marzano's work and that of others strongly suggest that leadership is often less visible in practice and thus less likely to show its impact statistically. Nonetheless, leadership is an important precursor to success (Marzano, 2003). Virtually every variable that affects student achievement in schools is itself likely to be affected by leadership. As leadership grows in quality and quantity, school effects and teacher effects grow in robustness, becoming better able to influence student learning and school achievement in positive ways. For this reason, any effort designed to improve teacher quality as a means to increasing student learning must include leadership in its equation. This view is echoed by Kent Peterson, a distinguished researcher at the University of Wisconsin, who has spent twenty years studying the principalship. He concludes "for schools to be effective centers of learning strong principals are critical for shaping the culture and climate" (Peterson, 2002, p. 6).
A Two-Bridge Approach
One of the reasons for the success of Stevenson High School and Gompers Elementary School (see Chapters Four and Six) and for the success of many other schools is their ability to organize around and to successfully use collaborative cultures. These cultures are the backbone of dynamic learning communities that bring leadership and learning together. This joining of the two is the strategy successful schools use for working together day by day, for launching change initiatives, and for continuous improvement.
Scratching the surface of this strategy reveals that schools and districts that have the most success in enhancing student achievement take a two-bridge rather than a one-bridge approach. To understand the difference, it's necessary to think in terms of initiating, mediating, and results variables. Gains in student achievement, for example, are results variables. What teachers, administrators, and others actually do in trying to get results are initiating variables. In between are the mediating variables. These mediating variables respond or react to the initiating variables in ways that enhance results, have no effect on results, or have negative effects on results. In the jargon of research, mediating variables exhibit indirect causation.
Principals and teachers, for example, might take learning walks together or principals might manipulate schedules to allow teachers more opportunities to visit each other's classrooms and to share lesson plans with each other (initiating variables). If teachers learn more as a result and develop stronger collegial ties with each other (mediating variables), they are more likely to be successful in improving student achievement (results variables). If principals create schedules that encourage teacher isolation, we might get a negative reaction and less effective teaching and learning.
The message for strategy here is that if you want positive results, calibrate your leadership in a fashion that is aimed at changing the mediating variables for the good. If you have been successful, then the mediating variables will do their work in improving student learning. In contrast, trying to directly link what principals, superintendents, and other leaders do to student achievement (going from initiating variables directly to results variables, thus ignoring mediating variables) is like "trying to paint a portrait with a brush a yard long." In sum, we can choose a one-bridge or two-bridge approach as follows:
Direct Leadership = Initiating [right arrow] Results Variables Variables
Indirect Leadership = Initiating [right arrow] Mediating [right arrow] Results Variables Variables Variables
The one-bridge approach seeks to directly influence student achievement results. But the "single span" between the two seems to lack the proper supports for change. Further, the distance between initiating variables and results variables is too long for leaders to accurately read the situational and contextual issues they face and to accurately respond accordingly. And finally, those leaders who are at the initiating variable end often lack the technical knowledge to positively influence results in a direct way. What they know how to do is to enhance the mediating variables. They know how to build strong, focused, and helpful learning cultures, how to provide opportunities for teachers to lead, how to move expertness around the school so that it is in the right place at the right time, how to listen to others, how to help build confidence, how to teach the school's culture to newcomers, how to repeat and repeat what the school is about, how to use the school's idea structure as a source of authority for what is done in the school, how to manipulate schedules so that they are teacher-learning friendly, how to engage in learning walks to ensure that shared ideas are being embodied in classrooms, how to take over a classroom for a couple of hours so that the teacher can help a colleague who is having a problem, and how to share leadership with others when they are entitled to have it.
Thus, the two-bridge approach focuses more deliberately and with more precision on what leaders actually do and what effect their actions have on such things as developing collaborative cultures, enhancing student learning, building a covenantal community, providing in-class and on-the-job professional development experiences, working on ensuring a safe environment characterized by caring and respect, providing the resources and amenities that teachers need not only to work more effectively but to view their jobs more favorably. As these mediating variables and the others described in the preceding paragraph increase, so will student-learning results increase.
What About Students?
How do students fit into this equation? Where are the student concerns within the mediating variables? If a principal's attention is not directly on students, then how can the school be a student-centered place? It probably can't if we looked at things in the same way. But if we can see that student-centeredness is embedded within teacher-centeredness, then not being student centered in a direct way may be a plus. A hyper-student-centered school, one where all that matters is student achievement and all of our efforts are concentrated on this goal, simply will not work over time anyway. Focusing on the mediating variables helps us make the school more of a teacher-centered place first and this may be a better strategy. Once the school achieves this goal then teachers will be better able to serve students and desired results will be achieved.
To be teacher centered first is to place a high priority on helping teachers learn, helping them to be more successful in the classroom, helping them to be more committed to school standards and values, to find their jobs intellectually stimulating, to be able to collaborate with colleagues, to find sense and meaning in their work, to be more committed to self-supervision and self-evaluation, to be more receptive to other forms of accountability, and to help teachers be more effective instructional leaders. Teacher-centeredness also means that teachers need a respectful place to work, decent working conditions, better pay, and more discretion to make better decisions for their students. And finally, a teacher-centered approach acknowledges the link between teacher quality and student learning in both its talk and action (see Table 5.1 at the end of this chapter for a summary of recent studies that link teacher quality with student achievement). As Lieberman and Miller (1999) see it: "The strong connection between students' learning and teachers' workplace conditions cannot be ignored. In schools that do not find the balance, trouble looms ahead. In schools that focus primarily on teachers' workplace conditions, the outside community often responds, 'What does all this have to do with the children?' In schools that focus primarily on students' learning, teachers often feel overwhelmed and under appreciated." (p. 12). And further, "If change is to have meaning, it must be related to students and their success in schools; and it must acknowledge the needs and concerns of teachers as they change the way they work" (p. 11).
Providence as an Example
Since 2000, Providence, Rhode Island, has been involved in a districtwide initiative to improve its schools. Providence provides an example of how inescapable a teacher-centered approach is to any school improvement effort that includes increasing levels of student achievement. Providence's plan, Rekindling the Dream, has three major goals:
Improve student achievement results by focusing on teaching and learning with teachers playing key roles
Build capacity among the faculty for continuous learning
Strengthen parent involvement
To achieve these goals, Anderson and Togneri (2003) note, Providence adopted five core strategies:
1. Create a common focus for improvement.
2. Build school-level leadership capacity.
3. Hold leaders accountable for results.
4. Emphasize professional development over curriculum development.
5. Create a balance between central direction and site-based needs.
Excerpted from Strengthening the Heartbeat by Thomas J. Sergiovanni Excerpted by permission.
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