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Hands on: Leading school improvement

A collaborative approach by principals working closely with teachers in building and implementing programs for school improvement helps to develop a shared commitment and expansion of leadership capacity among all staff.

Research findings to be presented at ACER’s Research Conference 2017 in Melbourne in late August reveal that school leaders with a focus on leadership for learning and involvement in the actual implementation of programs develop strong collaborative support for improvement.

ACER Director of Policy Research and Practice and international expert on literacy, Dr Scott Paris, said school leaders have a crucial leadership role in enabling teachers to meet the different learning needs of all students.

‘The learning pathways of students can be quite different, depending on students’ interests and developing skill trajectories,’ Dr Paris said. ‘Helping teachers to use formative assessments and tailored pedagogies to assist students on those different pathways is a key role of school leaders.

‘When school leaders have a hands-on leadership role, especially regarding literacy and numeracy programs, they build coherence and shared commitment to those programs as well as expanding teachers’ professional learning. In addition, they increase program effectiveness because they help to address the barriers that often arise in implementing a program, and this builds trust among the school staff.’

Speaking ahead of ACER’s Research Conference 2017, Professor Tony Townsend from Griffith University said school leadership programs that focus on specific leadership practices develop the leadership characteristics that provide teachers with the support they need to implement school improvement plans.

‘When school principals take a strong leadership for learning approach, their leadership as the principal is not lessened but the leadership of others is expanded. Research on the Principals as Literacy Leaders (PALL) strategy for improving reading engagement and achievement in Australian schools shows that leadership for school improvement is not a zero sum game,’ Professor Townsend said.

‘The research on the PALL strategy demonstrates that school leaders who have the required knowledge about how to improve student learning in reading, how to develop trust, how to foster teacher-student relationships, and how to share responsibility can have a real impact on student learning.

‘The good news is that the lessons of PALL go beyond reading because the same principles can be applied to improvement in other curriculum areas.’

According to Dr Paris, principals who understand new classroom pedagogies and curriculum changes are able to provide teachers with the resources and support to meet the challenges of implementing innovative practices, whether those innovations are based on 21st-century skills, literacy strategies or technological tools. They have a deep understanding about teachers’ professional learning just as they expect their teachers to understand students’ learning.  

Leadership from principals may be evident in bold visions, high expectations, enthusiastic participation or wise advice, but it is often based on teachers’ respect, trust, and willingness every day to learn and take risks together. Leadership training that builds these characteristics can enhance effectiveness, achievement, and morale in any school.

‘In my experiences working with school improvement teams, every effective innovation had a deeply engaged principal who worked alongside teachers to understand and implement new techniques for teaching and learning,’ Dr Paris said.

‘I remember one principal of a primary school who asked teams of teachers at each grade level to take responsibility, one team per month, for teaching all teachers new techniques for assessing children’s literacy learning. He participated in every workshop, he recruited experts to visit the school to work with teachers, he publicised the program to parents to showcase teachers’ efforts, he did everything that was expected with his teachers, and he bought dinner for teachers at their monthly in-service programs.

‘Teachers worked hard all year because they shared similar goals, understood the power of their team approach, and were recognised for their hard work. Their reward in the end was improved student achievement and community pride in their literacy program.’ ■

Further information:

Professor Tony Townsend will be speaking at Research Conference 2017, which addresses the theme, ‘Leadership for Improving Learning: Insights from research,’ from 27 to 29 August at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.

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