Closing the Achievement Gap: School Leaders in the Knowledge Age

Originally published in CenterEd in 2013

What you get by achieving your goals is as important as what you become by achieving your goals. – Henry David Thoreau

“We call it personal leadership.”
  With a background that includes serving as principal of several schools in St. Lucie County, Florida, Scott Neil, Ph.D. knows a great deal about leadership – and about goals. “A principal cannot make change happen with adults or kids unless people believe in the mission and have a clear understanding of their role in the process.”

A complex mixture of ingredients goes into assembling effective turnaround teams, and there’s no specific formula that will work optimally in every school, but Neil has isolated several key strategies that help provide a much-needed, laser-like focus on academic achievement.

DQ1: The “Secret Sauce”
  While a principal in the Florida school system, Neil became familiar with the Marzano Teacher Evaluation Model. When he talks about formative assessment, for example, he hones in on Design Question 1, which focuses on providing clear learning goals, tracking student progress, and celebrating success. “It’s kind of like the ‘secret sauce’ test as a principal,” he says.

Formative assessment, Neil explains, strengthens students’ beliefs in their ability to achieve higher goals because it gives them feedback that isn’t based on a grade or a place in the class. Instead, it measures each student’s individual performance and helps to pinpoint exactly what actions can improve it, making personal learning goals clearer and easier to achieve.

“It’s about getting feedback to kids and providing the structure to teachers, principals, and even students on how that can happen,” he says. “Just having that framework and that common language is a great way to get teachers the actual feedback they need to improve practice right away.”

Neil is adamant about the importance of students receiving truly effective assessment. He believes that in order to promote learning gains, measurement must:

  • Include sharing clear learning goals with students
  • Help students know and recognize the standards they are aiming for
  • Engage students in self-assessment
  • Provide feedback that helps students recognize their next steps and how to take them
  • Be underpinned by confidence that every student can improve
  • Involve both the teachers and students reviewing and reflecting on assessment data

Purposeful Planning and Communication
In his new role as Director of School Leadership Development for the nonprofit New Leaders, Neil continues to use Marzano strategies to raise student achievement rather than just teaching to the test.

Communication is key. Just taking the time to have a conversation about a student’s progress, goals, distractors, and even technical issues can quickly transform a teacher, in the student’s mind, from an adversary into a partner. Building a trusting relationship helps students believe in themselves, making academic success far more attainable, says Neil.

Once relationships have been established and goals have been discussed, teachers find themselves much better positioned to verbally lay out their expectations in a clear, easy-to-follow manner.

For example, when a teacher says something like, “If you come prepared to the small group that I’m teaching during reading, you’ll be more likely to reach your goal,” three things become crystal clear to the students:

  • Why they’re attending the small-group session
  • What they need to do to improve
  • How the teacher can help them

The Principal’s Role in the Knowledge Age
  Times have changed and, Neil explains, so have schools. Throughout the Industrial Age and into the 1950s, the United States remained unrivaled as the world leader in education. A principal’s primary functions were to maintain order and to keep the status quo – and because other countries couldn’t compete with the United States, that sufficed.

However, the global market has become increasingly competitive, and technology serves as the great equalizer, providing new opportunities to skilled, innovative people worldwide, notes Neil. “Principals today need to work as change agents to move our schools from the outdated industrial design into foundations that will prepare students for work within the Knowledge Age that we are currently working in.”

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