New Leaders for New Schools
The Most Valuable Resource Is Strategic and Creative Use of Time
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.
Principals working to dramatically increase student achievement often lament that there's simply not enough time to accomplish all their goals. Many seek to remedy this problem by extending the school day or the school year. Though we have seen a number of schools where this tactic has proven critical to narrowing the achievement gap, New Leaders for New Schools believes that additional learning time is most valuable when it is used purposefully.
Indeed, we have seen a number of schools make dramatic student learning gains without extending the formal school day or year. What's their secret? It's quite simple: highly effective principals and leadership teams invest in very detailed advance planning, and they minimize the extent to which day-to-day challenges take time away from their top priorities.
Typically, school leaders think about time in a variety of different ways:
- They build long-term calendars to plan for the entire school year. Such calendars include start and end dates for the school year, holidays, and major assessments. At their best, they are detailed road maps to clearly communicate the school's top priorities for student and staff learning.
- They create the schedule, generally considered on a weekly basis for the entire school or for large subgroups of students and teachers (e.g., grade levels, students needing remediation, new teachers).
- Effective school leaders consider how to maximize learning time in classrooms. Learning time results from teacher professional development that allows faculty to learn new strategies for classroom management to minimize disruptions, create rigorous lesson plans, and employ instructional strategies that ensure every student is engaged in meaningful learning.
- School leaders must be mindful of their own personal time management, which should make it a priority to observe classroom instruction and plan for teachers' professional development.
For the remainder of this article, we would like to delve deeper into the first two categories: the long-term calendar and weekly scheduling.
The Power of Long-Term Planning
Creating an annual school calendar can be an incredibly powerful opportunity for school leaders to focus their work and ensure adequate time for the school's highest priorities. Rose Ann Armes, director of principal support for New Leaders for New Schools' Baltimore sites, notes that "this work begins the moment the principal is assigned to a school."
Armes guides new principals through a process of collecting all the relevant data to inform their initial planning, which includes everything from facilities and budget information to academic and staff performance indicators. She also helps them collect data about how they use time, both formally (through documented school schedules) and informally (through conversations with teachers about classroom instruction).
"Only then," reflects Armes, "can a new principal really begin to ask these questions: What are my goals for students and teachers? What are my current resources and schoolwide practices? When and with how much time can those things happen?"
Admittedly, time for reflection is short. Armes points out, "We have to get down to the details right away. We pick our top two or three goals for the year, then go right to the calendar and build a detailed road map for getting them done." This road map gets granular, including week-by-week or even day-by-day work plans for accomplishing objectives.
For example, if a principal's major goal is to increase by 10 percent the number of students in all grades who are demonstrating mastery of English language arts standards, then he will map out the quarterly and monthly interim assessment results required to achieve this ambitious target. He will also plan for major instructional milestones, such as the implementation of a new teaching technique and the professional development teachers would need to support the goal.
For the steps that need to happen in the first few weeks or months of school, the principal creates weekly or daily task lists (e.g., to set the Leadership Team meeting calendar, to create the lesson plan for the first professional development session, or to purchase new textbooks). Though these detailed plans may change, they are useful for keeping the principal and the school on the track to success.
The principal transfers major goals and milestones to public calendars that are posted throughout the school and shared with students, teachers, and families. These public calendars are distinct from traditional academic calendars. They include explicit goals related to student and adult learning, which are tied to detailed plans for adult professional development as well as the data-driven cycle of inquiry (i.e., assessment, analysis, and action, including reteaching and re-assessment). The principal updates the public calendars regularly with benchmark data, including evidence of student mastery of academic standards or other metrics, such as attendance. This allows all members of the school community to track progress toward goals, building a sense of public accountability and urgency around the effective use of time.
Armes notes, "On any given day, when a million other things are happening around the school, the principal can point to the calendar and say, 'I understand that these other things are important, but here are the ambitious goals we've set for ourselves and the time we have to accomplish them. Let's focus'."
Leveraging the Schedule to Increase Learning Time
A careful examination of all the relevant data, including progress toward annual goals, is also a crucial step for principals when planning the schoolwide schedule.
"Principals sometimes forget this step," Armes says. "They think of schedules as quick, technical fixes that are fairly universal. But schedules need to be based on what the groups of students and teachers in your school really need to be spending their time on, and only the data can tell you that."
It's often at this step that effective principals consider lengthening the school day, but whether they choose to pursue that path or not, every moment of time is planned with great care and often surprising creativity.
For example, many of our highest-gaining principals are very thoughtful about transitions between classes and add 1–3 minutes of instructional time by creating more orderly, supervised spaces. Others use breakfast or lunchtime for fun and joyful—but still educational—learning games to reinforce lessons. Others redirect resources to pay for after-school time for students who need more targeted interventions. Some trade off small amounts of student learning time for adult professional development and teacher team meetings, wagering that more effective teaching can make up for that lost hour each week. Many effective principals extend the learning periods for literacy and numeracy and broaden them to include other content-area teachers.
Leadership related to the use of time is at heart a matter of careful, advanced planning and the flexibility to match the use of time to student and teacher learning needs identified by data gathering. The principal must also exhibit resilience and relationship-building with key stakeholders to stick to those plans, despite the many other directions in which educators are constantly pulled. These elements of personal leadership will be the subject of our final column for this series, which will detail how one principal has exercised them throughout her work to dramatically improve outcomes for students.
Ben Fenton is a cofounder and chief strategy and knowledge officer for New Leaders for New Schools.