Improving student achievement as measured by standardized assessments is realized when the district and school leadership creates an organizational culture committed to all students learning at a high level. This means that all students—English language learners (ELL), special education students, students of poverty, as well as below grade level and above grade level performers—all are expected to achieve at a high level. The culture is reflected with evidence such as a philosophy of inclusion, rather than exclusion of students in advanced classes to provide expanded opportunities for rigorous learning. Another example would be that ELL students are taught on grade level curriculum and are scaffolded to success with evidence-based instruction instead of being taught on the level of their English acquisition, which may be years behind their grade level and retard their content learning.
Schools and districts show this commitment not only in their words but in their actions. In an interview and data study of 62 leaders of schools and districts in 10 states I found that leaders implemented second order change related to student learning. Second order change is deep, requiring substantial rethinking of problems and their solutions, unlike first order change that is more typical and incremental (Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005). Across all of the leaders there were consistencies regardless of the grade level of students served, geographic location, or student demographics (Taylor, 2010). Leader action themes, which were consistent where student achievement improved, follow.
Make Decisions in the Best Interest of Student Learning
The first step in creating a learning focused culture is for decisions to be aligned with this commitment. There are districts, such as Seminole County Public Schools in Florida, where district budgeting initiates with studying student achievement data and from that data, budget priorities are made. This way, student achievement in each school drives the budget needs, rather than each department submitting budget requests that may or may not support improvements in learning.
At the school level, principals weigh each decision against the question “Is it in the best interest of students’ learning?” When this question guides decision making, it becomes the cultural norm—the way we do things. A non-example of this culture would be that faculty with longevity might have priority in decision making or certain parents are particularly influential. A positive example would be that the school is reorganized to facilitate learning for all students to leverage the expertise of teachers to support each other’s consistency with evidence-based instruction and a curriculum that is aligned horizontally and vertically. Perhaps the most skillful teachers teach the students who are the furthest below grade level in mathematics and reading.
Stimulate Intellectual Growth of Yourself and Others
Stimulating intellectual growth aligned with the target change is consistent with schools and districts where the culture is focused on all students learning at a high level. Leaders develop expertise in the target change—such as literacy, mathematics or data-based decision making—and lead the professional development of others as well as fully participate. They may lead study groups on grading, or book studies, or give mini-lessons on higher levels of thinking. Professional development becomes embedded in the daily work, is collaborative, and expected.
Strategize for Consistency
Strategizing for consistency within the district or school is essential to having a culture where all students learn at a high level. Systems are created so that leaders at both the school and district levels visit classrooms, provide feedback, and coach each other to be more effective. They have authentic conversations with subordinates about performance and are clear about expectations, such as using student data to make instructional decisions. “Show me your data. What instructional decisions you have made based on the data? What will you do now?” is a common query from elementary, middle, and high school leaders. They create systems (like weekly newsletters highlighting and celebrating results) to maintain the focus on what is most important.
Expect and Support Collaboration
Collaboration is a non-negotiable expectation. Structure is developed to support collaboration and time is set aside for professional learning communities (PLC), grade level teams, and departments. A team may be studying an important concept such as grading or the value of zeros, trying out new practices, and determining if improvement in learning is affected. At two high schools in the research, the mathematics departments implemented mastery learning allowing students to retake exams and receive full credit; this change resulted in more highly motivated students learning the mathematics concepts, knowledge, skills, and grades. These leaders hold the collaborative teams accountable for collaboration by attending the meetings, reviewing minutes, and increasing the accountability for collaboration each year until teams are setting goals at the beginning of the year and reporting results at the end of the year.
Expect Data-based Decision Making at the Teacher Level
For data to be used at the teacher level it must be timely, include monitoring data and student work. If teachers do not study student work and monitoring data, then the formal assessment results may be a surprise and certainly will arrive too late to change instruction. Schools and districts that are not making improvements in student achievement rarely have the expectation, support, or system for teachers to understand and use data-based decision making for instruction and differentiation of instruction on a regular basis.
Data meetings, including the administrators and teachers, have the purpose of supporting improvement of classroom instruction and differentiation for individual students. Paula St. Francis states in her data meetings, “Look to the right, look to the left and see if there is a colleague who you want to ask a question of that will help your students’ learning” (Taylor, 2010). Paula’s intention is for teachers whose students are making more improvements than others to provide assistance to those whose students are not quite as successful—based on up to date student data.
To facilitate use of data, schools and districts implemented data management systems that are easily accessible by teachers, administrators, and parents. Quickly, leaders can search for students to view their daily grades and attendance. Furthermore, families have real time access to their student’s performance. Data management systems, like the one described, make data-based decision making easy for all of the stakeholders in students’ learning.
Engage Families and Communities in the Learning Process
No one would disagree that parents who participate in the school have influence on a student’s achievement. Principals of schools improving achievement indicate that by engaging families in the learning process, in contrast to participation in events, changes in student achievement were made. Two of the high schools in challenging demographic settings focused on improving student attendance by personally communicating with families or going to the home to bring students to school if they were absent. Another school creates an achievement plan with the family and contacts them if their student misses a tutoring session so the student will be present the next session.
Engaging the families and community in the learning process goes even further to include curriculum and pedagogy. By teaching families the curriculum and the pedagogy, such as bilingual education, families understand their students’ experiences and can be helpful at home. Teachers often raise the reality that the education level of the family may not be sufficient to assist with homework and that they may not have proficiency in English. To address this issue South Cobb High School families are given questions to ask that relate to the student’s curriculum. They do not have to know the answers — just the questions to ask to maintain the learning beyond the school day. Teachers at Oakshire Elementary School provide English classes for families and community members.
Final Thoughts: Leaders Creating a Culture for All Students to Achieve at a High Level
Leaders who change the culture of the school by implementing the leader action themes have schools and districts with improving student achievement. These leaders implement most of the themes, not just a few. Together these actions create a system for improving learning and supporting the second order change needed to for all students to achieve at a high level.
Marzano, R. J., Waters, T., & McNulty, B. A. (2005). School leadership that works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Taylor, R. T. (2010). Leading learning: Change student achievement today! Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.