School improvement – a ‘counter-narrative’

granityschool I spent last week on the West Coast with my two youngest children, introducing them to the joys of the outdoors and a bit of tramping in a part of the world that I once lived and taught. On the way in to Karamea we stopped off at the last school at which I was principal – Granity School, located right on the beach front about 30km north of Westport.

When I took on the principal role at this school it was in serious need of attention. Due to a combination of unfortunate circumstances that included a significant change in the social infrastructure of the district and having had four principals in the year before I took over, the school was in poor shape. In addition to the evidence of student under-achievement, the buildings were also in a grave state of disrepair. It was quite a challenge, but together with the staff I had in the school and the support of the community, we did manage to make a significant difference for the youngsters attending that school. We did this through a range of strategies, including raising the level of community participation, strengthening channels of communication with parents, investing in property development to create a more inspiring learning environment, and by committing to a school-wide process of professional development to address specific areas of need.

My reason for reflecting on this is that I read this morning about new book based on 15 years of data on public elementary schools in Chicago. While many of the current approaches to school improvement focus on things like ‘quality outcomes’, ‘standards’ and ‘effectiveness’, the researchers in this report identify five tried-and-true ingredients that work, in combination with one another, to spur success in urban schools. Based on a series of studies drawn from the database that the consortium has built up over the years, the five ingredients they identified are:

  • Strong leadership, in the sense that principals are “strategic, focused on instruction, and inclusive of others in their work”;
  • A welcoming attitude toward parents, and formation of connections with the community;
  • Development of professional capacity, which refers to the quality of the teaching staff, teachers’ belief that schools can change, and participation in good professional development and collaborative work;
  • A learning climate that is safe, welcoming, stimulating, and nurturing to all students; and
  • Strong instructional guidance and materials.

It’s worth reading the review of the book, as it identifies the context within which these schools were studied as having similarities with what we’ve experienced in NZ over the past 20 years where move decision-making power was moved to schools. The key point the authors appear to be making is that success comes through attending to the combination of factors listed above – and that the inter-connectedness of these things at a system level means that improvement cannot be achieved through a single issue focus.

For me it’s a very useful list, and one that we’d do well to read and reflect on, and seek to incorporate its messages into policy development for the next 20 years of schooling in NZ! Perhaps in that way we can take a more holistic look at what our schools are about, working from the bottom up where appropriate, intervening with some ‘top-down’ support where required, and promoting greater, purposeful and strategically organised, collaboration among and between schools.

Now, back to my week on the Coast – here’s a snap of me with my two children enjoying the scenery at the Heaphy Hut before we ventured off on another day of walking. 🙂


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