New Leaders for New Schools
Building a Culture of High Aspirations
In a series of columns in ASCD Express, the cofounder of New Leaders for New Schools, a nonprofit for education reform, shares promising practices in principal leadership for improving some of the nation's most challenged urban schools.
We've all seen in our work with individual students that they are most likely to achieve academically when they are motivated by their own goals. Teachers everywhere strive to help students make this crucial connection between their long-term aspirations and day-to-day schoolwork. In high-poverty schools, making this connection is particularly vital to student success—and the principal has an important role to play as leader.
Through visits to schools making significant gains in student achievement, New Leaders for New Schools has learned a great deal about the specific actions a principal can take to build a culture where adults demand that students have high aspirations for themselves and support them in realizing those aspirations. In these schools, highly effective principals take the lead: every message they send to students, parents, or teachers connects their high expectations for student academic achievement to success in college and beyond. These messages always include some variant of "You [or "our kids"] can do this," "I believe in you," and "We will support you in reaching your goals."
Modeling Consistent Messages
Beyond modeling this behavior, highly effective principals set expectations and help teachers consistently send these same messages to students and families. Principals lead teachers through explicit conversations about their own beliefs and expectations for students. They provide teachers with the professional development they might need to support students and families in setting academic goals.
For example, teachers use student learning data to help students get very specific about goals they might set and how to track progress toward them. Teachers develop benchmarks for each student's performance on in-classroom tasks, as well as targets for performance on interim assessments. As students receive their grades or scores against these targets, teachers help them understand that the data are not about a student's success or failure as a person; rather, they are feedback about the student's progress toward personal goals. When the progress is not what the teacher and student targeted, they work together on strategies to improve and identify the different ways the entire school community will support them along the way.
Over time, students not only understand their learning data but also take meaningful ownership of them by building and frequently adjusting their own plans for improvement. Kenwood Academy High School in Chicago is a New Leaders–led school that creates a culture of high expectations and student ownership.
Showing a Vision Beyond College
Principals can also take a variety of other actions to directly address student aspirations. Many schools across the country are already doing things like creating advisory structures or partnering with local colleges to provide additional resources and access to college-level coursework. In our study of schools making achievement gains, we've seen a few additional practices that seem to be very effective, especially for secondary schools.
First, principals and teachers in these schools focus students on going to college, but they don't hold up college as students' only goal. They spend considerable time developing students' sense of possibility about the career and life options available to them beyond college. They also create opportunities for meaningful, frequent connections with leaders from a variety of careers, seeking in particular those who are alumni of their school or one like it. Always, the principal and teachers make explicit connections between career options, their educational requirements, and the preparation students are currently embarking on.
Second, such schools often require that high school students complete career plans based on their personal interests. Plans include year-by-year steps to prepare for college that students are held accountable for fulfilling while in high school.
Finally, in a few secondary schools where principals can secure the necessary resources, students are followed and supported as they persevere through college. These schools focus on providing support for navigating tuition issues and obtaining financial aid, and in return, they are able to gather valuable feedback on the preparation students received in their schools.
All of this work to reinforce student aspirations and support them in reaching their goals is deeply connected to other efforts to improve classroom learning and school culture. In our next column, we will share our findings about school codes of conduct that create effective learning environments for all students.
Ben Fenton is a cofounder and chief strategy and knowledge officer for New Leaders for New Schools.