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February 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 5

Double Take

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Research Alert

Barriers to School Improvement: What's Real?

Principals may have more freedom than theythink. In a report from the Center on ReinventingPublic Education, researchers interviewed schoolprincipals from three U.S. states, asking themabout the barriers that stood in the way of schoolimprovement for them. The principals noted128 barriers, which the authors of thereport compared with actual state andfederal laws and collective bargainingagreements.
The researchers found that onlyone-third of the barriers were "real"—that is, were statutes, policies, ordirectives that had real consequencesif not adhered to. Two-thirds of thebarriers were "imagined," meaningthat the principals simply wereunaware there were ways to workaround them.
Perceived barriers fell into threecategories: those that preventedinstructional innovation, those thatrestricted resource allocation, andthose that impeded efforts to improveteacher quality. Interestingly, the mostoften cited barriers were those associatedwith instructional innovation.However, according to the researchers,this was the area in which the fewestreal barriers existed. For example,many of the principals wanted tomove to a competency-based learningsystem but felt constrained by stateand district policies. The researcherspointed out that several new policiesallow students to earn credit through work andinternships, and many updated policies reflect anincreasing interest in mastery-based progression.
In terms of resource allocation, real barriersincluded those tied to grants, class sizes, salarycost averaging, and central office spending onbehalf of schools. Although principals citedseveral barriers relating to the budgeting process,the researchers noted how several districts havecreatively resolved such issues, such as by reallocatingfunds from one activity to anotherwhen the need arose.
In the area of improving teacher quality, nearlyone-half of the constraints that principals ran upagainst were real, such as prohibitions againsthiring outside the district. Although principals indicated that lack of time to work directly withteachers was a substantial constraint, the authorsshowed how some districts have found a wayaround this issue, such as by implementing late-startWednesdays as a way of providing professionaldevelopment.
Principals across the United States are findingways to work around the barriers, whether realor imagined. The authors suggest that principalscan become more savvy if districts
  • Encourage networking among principals sothey can share experiences.
  • Help principals understand teacher contractsinside and out.
  • Train principals in the budgeting process.
  • Use budgeting simulations to get betterresults from current resources.
Written by Lawrence J. Miller and Jane S. Lee,Policy Barriers to School Improvement: What'sReal and What's Imagined? is available at www.crpe.org/publications/policy-barriers-school-improvement-whats-real-and-whats-imagined.

Relevant Reads

Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek (Portfolio/Penguin, 2014)
In the days of the cavemen, humansmay have been threatened bysaber-tooth tigers. For modernorganizations, the threats to survivalcome from new competitors, theups and downs of the stock market,and innovative technologies thatrender the current business modelobsolete. According to SimonSinek, the best leaders know theycan't control these threats, but theycan create a Circle of Safety thatseparates the security inside theorganization from the challengeswithout. Leaders of high-performingorganizations "eat last"—they'rewilling to sacrifice their own comfortfor the good of those they lead.In such organizations, informationis shared, not hoarded, and evenemployees at the bottom becomedecision makers. Using examplesfrom various fields, Sinek showshow organizations can enhanceperformance by creating feelingsof belonging, mutual empathy, andshared values.

Numbers of Note

U.S. Urban DistrictsImproving in Reading
On the National Assessment of EducationalProgress (NAEP) reading assessment …
47: The percentage of4th graders in urbandistricts that scored at orabove basic in 2003.
57: The percentage of4th graders in urbandistricts that scored at orabove basic in 2013.
58: The percentage of8th graders in urbandistricts that scored at orabove basic in 2003.
68: The percentage of8th graders in urbandistricts that scored at orabove basic in 2013.
Source: Institute of Education Sciences. (2014). A first look: 2014 Mathematics andReading Trial Urban District Assessment. Washington, DC: Author. NAEP's TrialUrban District Assessment measures and monitors educational progress in 21 U.S.urban school districts, administrating the same assessments as in the national NAEP.

ScreenGrabs

Check out the following Ted Talks on school improvement:
  • In "Our Failing Schools: Enough is Enough," education advocateGeoffrey Canada dares schools to make systematic shifts to help greaternumbers of students excel: <LINK URL="http://www.ted.com/talks/geoffrey_canada_our_failing_schools_enough_is_enough">www.ted.com/talks/geoffrey_canada_our_failing_schools_enough_is_enough</LINK>
  • In "Use Data to Build Better Schools," education expert AndreasSchleicher discusses how the strategies of high-performing schools canbe used to help other schools improve: <LINK URL="http://www.ted.com/talks/andreas_schleicher_use_data_to_build_better_schools">www.ted.com/talks/andreas_schleicher_use_data_to_build_better_schools</LINK>

PageTurner

"High-impact instructional leaders believe that success and failure in studentlearning is about what they, as teachers or leaders, did or didn't do."
<ATTRIB> —John Hattie </ATTRIB>

This article was published anonymously, or the author name was removed in the process of digital storage.

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