The Principal's Role
Fifteen years of research about effective elementary schools reaffirm that only an elementary principal has the position of power to make deep school-wide changes. Clearly, only the principal can make the changes necessary to assure that 90% or more of students read at or above grade level by the end of third grade.
Elementary principals who have worked with the 90% reading goal for some time have identified effective processes and sequence in working toward the goal:
1. Staff Buy In
The staff must buy into a high reading goal and you must lead. Teachers want to know if this reading goal is another educational "flavor of the month." They want to know the level of your commitment. Is this possible? Is it possible for students in our school? Will the school stay focused? Teachers have to be convinced that without major change, scores will not improve. While the goal creates a common purpose, and the assessments create an initial baseline with a clear line of sight to your target, almost all of this work must be done by building teams without waiting for outside help to come. Staff must buy into a long-term, principal-led, team effort.
2. Building Diagnostic Testing and Re-Adjusted Instruction
The district-wide kindergarten, first, second and third grade reading tests will create performance standards and identify which students are falling below the minimum reading standards. In most cases, however, these kinds of tests do not identify the specific skills are deficient in a student. Educators at each school must develop expertise in using specialized diagnostic tests which identify specific reading skills and abilities.
These diagnostic tests are generally one-on-one assessments, are almost never standardized norm-referenced bubble tests, and must occur at each building and within each class. Once a student's specific deficiencies are identified, instruction and intervention must target those specific deficiencies. Re-testing must then occur. Most teachers have never had access to this kind of testing information and diagnostics. Diagnostic testing and response must begin by the second semester of kindergarten.
3. Classroom Time, Curriculum Knowledge, and Instructional Skill Level
Many principals spend up to 80% of their time in classrooms, are current in the research literature, and are the undisputed instructional leader in their school. Other principals who were trained as managers are rarely found outside their office, are lagging in current research and have little personal competence in reading instruction. The principal's classroom contact must be increased to the point that he or she can accurately determine the curriculum and instructional strengths of every teacher and virtually every K-3 student. Third-grade teachers alone can produce a one-year jump in scores, but sustained, incremental improvement requires improvement at each prior grade level starting at kindergarten.
Identifying the reading curriculum knowledge, instructional skills, and personal practices of principals in highly effective schools is a good way to create a baseline for an elementary principal to develop a personal growth plan.
4. Staff Training
Joint K-3 or joint K-5 staff training creates a common vocabulary, a common set of expectations, and a unified method of increasing student achievement. All teachers need to coordinate teaching of the same over-all curriculum and be working towards common goals. In-service is critical and teachers need to take advantage of it. Performance pressure needs to lead to determination, not to blame or excuses. Reputable staff training organizations offering K-5 wide training include the following:
First Steps http://www.first-steps.com/
Success for All http://www.successforall.net/
5. Matching Needs and Successful Programs
Thousands of elementary schools may physically look alike and have similar staffing ratios, but each school's personnel, skills, training, curriculum and ability to work as a team vary immensely. So does the range in students' needs in these schools. Most successful elementary schools have shaped programs that match their adult resources to their students' needs. Care needs to be taken to assure that programs that are being replicated have actually been successful.
6. Parent Involvement
For better or worse, your students' first and most significant teachers are their parents. The best way to confront the erosion in the skills of beginning kindergartners, which has been report by most teachers over the last decade, is to involve parents in providing pre-literacy experiences to their child from birth. Click on the Join Us link to discover a successful, low-cost, effective way to create cultural expectations that proper parenting includes reading with children from birth.
7. Deal with Mobility
Most elementary schools identify mobility as a major problem with uniformly reaching high reading standards. No elementary school has been successful in making up 18 months of reading deficiencies in third graders between January and June. The slippery problem of mobility generally marches with the problems of lack of significant parenting, lack of pre-literacy and literacy experience, and lack of opportunity associated with poverty. Some districts are developing a mobility statistic but a better understanding of the problems' dimensions may not move us further toward solutions. Components of an action plan include an information campaign to inform parents about the negative effects of frequent moves on their children, landlord incentives to discourage mobility, exploring with state agencies the effect of direct pay to landlords where low performing children are involved, and awareness of the Courts of the impact of mobility when creating parenting plans.