The Principals' Office Blog

Avoid Serving Alphabet Soup to Parents

NCLB, AYP, IDEA, IEP—these are but a few of the numerous acronyms and abbreviations that principals and other educators use on a regular basis when discussing education. Throw in the district- or state-specific terms, such as the acronyms used for some state tests, and it’s no surprise that many parents are scratching their heads when they see the alphabet soup all over school letterhead, or even in newspaper articles.

According to a recent Tennessean article, one school system provides a catalog of phrases for parents to learn as a way to help ease the possible confusion. It’s no easy task for us to keep track of all the abbreviations, so make sure to keep that in mind when corresponding with your students’ parents.

Above All Else, It's the People That Make a School Successful

Politicians can legislate benchmarks and teacher qualifications, but they cannot legislate effectiveness. That task is up to principals, according to Todd Whitaker, professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University. Whitaker, who speaks to approximately 250,000 educators every year, believes that regardless of the educational climate, great schools start with great people. Vision 2021 forecasts that principals will need to act as chief learning officers to lead great schools in the future.

Whitaker advises principals on how they can improve the effectiveness of their learning communities. They should aim to hire the best people and work to improve the ones they already have on staff. One of the best ways to do the latter is to create a culture where teachers learn from each other through informal, nonevaluative, peer observations. Educators are often isolated, and even feel threatened by the thought of being observed or being told to observe others. Whitaker believes principals can overcome this hurdle by starting with their best teachers and their new teachers. The best teachers are more confident in their abilities and more willing to work at their craft. The new teachers are the easiest to assimilate into a culture of peer learning. According to Whitaker, “The induction process begins during the interview,” as principals inform candidates that peer observations are part of the school’s culture.

Since principals generally come from the teaching ranks, they also may have an “independent contractor” mindset. Principals need to observe great principals to improve as well. "Unless a principal had great administrators as a mentor and teacher, she or he may have seen few examples of quality leadership," says Whitaker.

Evaluating Technology in the Classroom

Principals recognize that technology will play a much bigger role in the future but according to Yong Zhao, a professor of education at Michigan State University, technology is often used ineffectively and evaluated incorrectly in the classroom. Zhao argues that technology often duplicates the abilities and tasks normally assigned to teachers and that principals, currently charged with putting technology in the classroom, must be leaders in shaping how efficiently and effectively that technology is used.

Zhao points to a recent study involving reading instruction for elementary students, where one group was taught primarily by a classroom teacher and the other by an educational software application. The study showed minimal differences in outcomes, leading many to conclude that the technology was not effective. Zhao provides a counterargument: “Since the difference is minimal, leave the basic instruction to the computer and the advanced comprehension instruction, as well as small group remediation, to the teacher,” he says. The result would be a gain in efficiency due to a differentiation in the tasks. Zhao also believes that there needs to be a push at the system level to harvest the power of connectivity across the globe. For example, England is currently mandating that all of its schools each have a global partner school within the next few years. Schools need to emphasize digital citizenship; that is, the ability to cultivate skills on how to correctly use the powers of information, economics, and interaction available on the Internet.

Setting Expectations for Teaching Technology Literacy

One of the ideas that has emerged from the Vision 2021 initiative is the concept of principals as “chief learning officers” of their schools, championing the learning of skills essential for participating in a global society. Annette Smith, an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Services at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, believes that principals need to be advocates in promoting the teaching of information, communication, and technology literacy. “The ‘digital natives’ we are educating have quite a handle on using technology and often teach us how the technology works,” she says.

According to Smith, using technology appropriately and being able to critically decipher and analyze information are skills that transcend the ability to operate the technology and therefore can be taught regardless of skill level. It is still not a simple process, however. Smith stresses that teaching literacy requires principals to ask several tough questions and challenge some commonly accepted practices. For example, should educators block every imaginable site with a firewall, or should schools take the lead in educating students and the community on how to make those decisions on their own?  Should schools block popular social networking and user-generated content sites, such as MySpace and YouTube, or should principals look for ways to utilize them to enhance the child’s educational experience?  Smith says that while children’s safety is an important concern, only allowing students to visit a short list of teacher-approved sites may inhibit their critical-thinking skills.

Smith also cites a need for quality media programs and staff. They are the “highly qualified” professionals best suited to teaching information, communication, and technology literacy.  She also recognizes the need for finding methods to quickly and easily collect, disseminate, and distribute research and best practices for teaching literacy and promoting it within schools and the district. Principals can learn from their students on this and use social networking sites to collaborate on this task or knowledge exchanges like NAESP’s new E-Knowledge Portal for Principals.

Restoring Humanity Through Lifelong Learning

One of the strategic issues for the Vision 2021 initiative is advocating for early childhood education and networks of support. Research has repeatedly shown that the first three years of a child’s life are crucial to brain development. Dee Dickinson, former CLO of New Horizons for Learning, is a proponent of early childhood education. But she also thinks that this evidence should not prompt us to start piling on the academics as soon as a child’s first steps are taken. Dickinson believes that an active and engaged environment—one that encourages interaction and questioning about anything and everything—fosters more brain development than passive absorption of material from television and direct instruction.

To promote this ideal, Dickinson believes that elementary schools should become community centers for learning. Parents can learn how to provide an enriching environment in the home that focuses on engagement and play—especially as the focus on play has been pushed aside in the atmosphere of high-stakes testing. Because many parents have their own anxieties about school based on their childhood experiences, providing informal opportunities such as pot-luck dinners can help to get parents engaged in discussions about early childhood education and lifelong family learning, as well. This can be especially true in low-income areas.

Dickinson realizes that this concept is not easily executed due to time and budget constraints. But nevertheless, she believes that visionary leaders should work toward involving the whole community—parents, teachers, and students—in a grass-roots effort to promote the joy of lifelong learning and to restore “humanity” to education.

Can U.S. Schools Create Global Citizens?

American schools may have a difficult time teaching students that they must become citizens in a global society where the U.S. will no longer be the dominant power, according to Jim Dator, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

"In the United States, we often don’t like to admit that there is anyone else but us,” says Dator  This, he says, is compounded by the belief that the U.S. will always be the center of power on the planet and that the rest of the world will always follow in its footsteps. 

Dator stresses that educators already understand that the curriculum needs to become more sensitive to cultural differences, more focused on global issues, and less narrowly focused on America. Many attempts have been made in the past to change the curriculum, but these attempts failed because policymakers repeatedly refused to allow a culturally-sensitive, globally-focused curriculum to be taught, instead insisting on what Dator calls a “narrow, triumphal version of American history.”

Finding time in the current curriculum to teach culturally-sensitive, global subjects is also a concern. Dator goes on to say that the current No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandates are pushing American public education into the wrong direction.  “While the rest of the world is waking up to the necessity of a curriculum that encourages creativity, aesthetics, imagination and the like, the U.S. keeps harping on the three R’s plus discipline,” says Dator. He is confident that the NCLB mandates will be radically different, if not completely thrown out and started anew, when reauthorization occurs. 

Changing the worldview and culture of an entire country is not an easy task. What can U.S. schools do differently to teach cultural competency in a global context in spite of these obstacles?

What Can We Learn from Schools in Other Countries?

One of the nine provocative forecasts for the Vision 2021 initiative is that “schools will become the learning portals to a global workforce.” This forecast explores what schools in the U.S. must do to align with the new requirements of a global society. According to Yong Zhao, an education professor at Michigan State University, principals can get a fresh perspective by comparing how educators in other countries get results.

Zhao dedicates much of his research to comparative education in China and other Asian countries. In China, teachers “compose” lessons, having been trained to focus on the movement of the lesson and the timing of instruction and use of materials. Chinese teachers move well beyond team teaching to co-planning and co-execution of lessons, in part due to the fact that elementary teachers in China have more subject-matter specialization. This style of collaboration is also set up to help newer teachers. Zhao says that one of the revelations of the TIMMS study was the performance of U.S. students who had teachers with less than five years experience, a difference not present in some Asian countries such as Singapore.

Zhao is quick to point out that these differences can have some drawbacks. The Chinese methodology of instruction may stifle creativity and produce homogeneity. However, American educators get relatively few opportunities to discover for themselves what might work well in the U.S.  Yet, European and Asian countries spend significant funds to send their principals to other countries, including the U.S. And when China revised their educational standards around the turn of the century, they sent delegates to many countries to learn about their standards and benchmarks.

What opportunities should principals have to learn about how other nations educate their students and what might that mean for the future of U.S. students? 

Education Needs More Street Fighters

One of the five strategic issues identified by NAESP through its Vision 2021 project is that “NAESP should work to realize equity in public schools by championing the opportunity for all children to have learning experiences that help them achieve their full potential.” One way to achieve this goal, according to Jim Grant, founder and executive director of Staff Development for Educators and author of the upcoming book The Death of Common Sense in our Schools: And What You Can Do About It, is to recruit more “street fighters” in education.

The skyrocketing special education population is an example of the growing challenge of achieving equity in public schools. Grant believes that there has been an overall inability to “connect the dots” between this trend and socioeconomic trends such as increases in low birth weight, premature infants, childhood obesity, environmental pollutants and air quality, and fractured home lives. These trends have been correlated with decreased cognitive function, higher absenteeism, increases in autism and autism spectrum disorders, and increased emotional and psychological problems, respectively. Thus, Grant recommends that principals become more politically savvy about socioeconomic trends that deeply affect schools.

Educators also need to hold politicians more accountable for funding not only education but social services as well. Grant firmly believes that educators have to be street fighters willing to “push back” on politicians who act as “punishers” of education rather than “advocates.”

If educators want to champion equity, they will need to be more vigilant in vetting statistics from groups who are against public education, Grant says. Principals must “research the research and follow the money trail,” when campaigning for public education to expose the myths perpetrated in a media world that thrives on the negative.

Join the Conversation on the Future of Pre-K-8 schools

NAESP’s Vision 2021 initiative is creating some terrific conversations about the future of pre-K-8 schools and we encourage you to join these conversations. The Principals’ Office will have a special two-week Vision 2021 chat series that will feature interviews with educators and authors about the future of schools. Weigh in on what you envision schools will look like in 15 years and what needs to be done today to prepare schools for tomorrow.

The series kicks off today with some insights from author and speaker Gary Marx who often looks at how societal trends affect young children:

Keeping an Eye on Change

It goes without saying that the role of principals and their schools is to prepare students for a fast-changing world. In order to do this, Gary Marx, president of the Center for Public Outreach and author of several books on the future of education, believes that all educators need to find time to look at trends affecting the whole of society and consider their implications for schools and students.   

However, principals often find it difficult to look ahead when they are constantly bombarded with issues that need immediate attention. By keeping an eye on trends and issues, Marx says, principals will be in a better position to focus on constant improvement and lead their schools to adapt to the changing needs of society. Vision 2021 provides an additional resource to help principals jumpstart discussions about the future of schools.

Although expectations for 21st century job skills are evolving, Marx says principals can see the larger patterns in trends he has identified that indicate what students may need to know and be able to do. A globalized society increases interdependency and requires communication skills, cultural competency, and diplomacy. Today’s high-stakes testing does not adequately assess these skills or other important education outcomes such as civic responsibility, employability, and the ability to lead an interesting life.

High-stakes testing and future job skills are just two of the many issues principals must monitor as they prepare their students for the future. What other issues should principals consider as they look ahead at what their students and schools will need? 

Are Your Students Insured?

There are more than eight million children in the U.S. that do not have health insurance. Uninsured children are less likely to receive treatment for an illness or injury, which affects their attendance and overall performance in school. As schools nationwide gear up for the return of their students, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Covering Kids and Families Back-to-School campaign promotes the importance of children's health coverage and aims to get the word out to parents that low-cost or free health care coverage may be available for their children.

Visit http://coveringkidsandfamilies.org/materials/ to order materials and downloads, or contact the communications team at coveringkidsandfamilies@gmmb.com for assistance with planning activities and conducting outreach to promote the availability of low-cost and free health care coverage.

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