Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Adult Conversation to Improve Teaching and Learning

I've been doing a lot of work in Oregon where I work with the principals involved in the Oregon GEAR UP Program. The project includes twenty middle and high schools, primarily in rural communities. I've really enjoyed the opportunity to work in these schools and am impressed by the commitment of teachers and principals to the success of their students.

One of the things every principal is looking for is a tool that can be used to promote professional conversation among the staff and positively impact student learning. At La Pine Middle School in La Pine, OR principal Jim Boen and his staff have adapted lesson study, first used in Japanese schools. A multi-disciplinary group of teachers work together to design a lesson, teach it while other members observe, critique the lesson and make modifications based on the critique. This process has raised the level of professional discourse at the school.

There are other structural ways to promote similar conversation. They include organizing learning walks, working together to look at student work, and organizing a book study or lesson study group. Information about each of these options is available at my website (

I'd enjoy hearing from you about your experience with these options or about other ways you use to promote conversation about improving teaching and learning.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Collaborative Tools

Recently in my principalship class I asked students to prepare a statement of their personal vision for their school. They shared the vision with a small work group and then had to present the vision during a simulation in class. One of the requirements was that they use one collaborative tool to gather feedback from the "faculty" in their simulated school.

We talked about the importance of this type of collaboration and how it signals the principal's investment in building shared ownership and vision.

Building a repertoire of collaborative tools that principals can use to work with teachers, staff, families and community is an important skill. I've put together a set of collaborative tools that are available on my website (

I'd enjoy hearing from you about other collaborative tools that you've used in your school.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Addressing College Readiness

In a recent study from ACT more than 80% of students said they planned on attending college or some form of post-secondary education. But many students and their families don't do the planning necessary to realize that goal.

Several studies have identified the components of a comprehensive college readiness program. They agree on four major activities:
  • Take the Right Courses - Assure that students are taking the right courses to gain college admission. This includes taking high-level courses in middle school so that they have access to advanced courses in high school.
  • Develop Cognitive and Metacognitive Skills - While taking rigorous courses is important, students also need to develop the cognitive and metacognitive skills that will be needed to succeed in college. These include things like intellectual openness, inquisitiveness, reasoning, argumentation and proof, precision and accuracy and problem solving (Conley, 2007). Such skills are embedded in nearly all college courses.
  • Surround Students with Support for College Attendance - Assure that every student is expected to develop a postsecondary plan. Surround them with caring adults who provide the mentoring and support necessary to achieve the plan and build support for their college aspirations.
  • Plan for College Costs - While most families believe college education is important many are uncertain about the costs or how to manage the costs. Developing a plan to pay for college is a critical part of planning.
There are three helpful resources that provide greater detail on this issues. I hope you find them useful.

Transition from High School to College

College Readiness Begins in Middle School (2005)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Shared Accountability for Students

I believe that students share accountability for their own learning. They must be actively involved in their own learning, have an opportunity to make decisions about their learning, and be responsible for asking questions, being clear about their work and completing assignments.

But they have a right to know the expectations for their work and to know how their work will be assessed. In Rigorous Schools and Classrooms: Leading the Way (, Barbara Blackburn and I identified some ways to support student accountability.
  • Provide exemplars for all work and rubrics that students can use to assess their success in completing assignments.
  • Adopt a grading policy of A, B, and Not Yet.
  • Provide opportunities for students to revise and resubmit work.
  • Include support and scaffolding in classroom instruction.
  • Include engaging instructional activities connected to real life.
  • Act consistently on the belief that each student can learn, will learn, and you power to help them do so.
  • Provide quality and timely feedback on student work.
I'd enjoy hearing from you about other ways that you build student accountability into your school or classroom.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Conducting Successful Meetings

If you're like most principals you spend more time than you would like in meetings. Many are very productive and others are far less successful. There are several things you can do to immediately improve the meetings you lead.

First, it is critical to spend some time planning the meeting. Be clear about the purpose of the meeting. Be equally clear about what is being decided and who will make the decision. Also identify any meeting standards or norms. For example, a set of operational norms about how the group will work together can make a meeting more successful.

Second, develop an agenda that includes the following items: a clearly stated purpose or goal for the meeting, time to review agreed-upon operational norms and norms of collaboration, a clear statement for each agenda item about the action to be taken (e.g., discussion, decision), the allocation of time for each item, time for reflection and processing of information, and time at the end of the meeting to clarify what information should be shared and by whom.

Third, always be clear about operational norms. This includes seating arrangements, processes for group memory (recording discussion and decisions), guidelines for discussion (use of a parking lot), adequate time for discussion, clarity about when the group moves from discussion to decision-making, and methods for disseminating information. Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman provide a useful set of norms at

Finally, be clear about how decisions will be made and by whom. If the group is deciding identify the process before it is time to make a decision. Consensus is often the preferred model but can be cumbersome. Many groups use some alternate like requiring agreement by 75% of the group, or using the "Fist to Five" model discussed in a blog entry on January 28, 2010.

Meetings can be a challenge. Because principals are involved in so many of them it is important that they be as successful as possible. I hope you find these ideas helpful and would enjoy hearing from you about your strategies for leading successful meetings.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The First Day is Always Special

Last week my wife and I were in Seattle when one of my granddaughters began her first day of kindergarten. Such excitement and enthusiasm for learning! Her excitement was contagious and I found myself thinking about the more than 40 first days of school that I've experienced. They were always special.

At her school both students and parents were welcomed in many different ways. The day before people could visit the school, meet the teacher and become comfortable with the classroom. The morning of the first day the staff was very visible with lots of help for parents and students. The PTO provided coffee (it's Seattle!) and donuts. Teachers were available to talk with parents and greet students. And, of course, there were lots of opportunities for pictures.

But, once school began it was all business. Students were supported but the focus was clearly on learning while respecting the varied backgrounds and experiences of each student

Most importantly, our granddaughter came home excited about returning to school the next day. For me, that's the bottom line. I want my grandchildren to enjoy school and feel respected and supported by their teachers.

I hope all of you have a wonderful and productive school year. Remember the importance of making schools inviting and welcoming places whether you work in kindergarten or with seniors. Have a great year.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Activities for the New School Year Reflect School Culture

The beginning of the school year is an ideal time to shape and reinforce the culture of your school. Every school year is full of the promise of a new beginning as well as a measure of nervous anticipation. The principal is responsible for helping everyone feel safe and secure as they begin and setting the tone for the year.

In one Michigan school the year begins with the teachers and older students lining the hallways and clapping as the new students arrive. Another school posted the name and picture of every new student in the lobby.

Activities like this reflect the underlying culture of the school, the underlying values, beliefs and norms about how you "do business." It reflects the "unwritten rules" and assumptions that shape school routines. The culture is often transmitted from generation to generation as informal leaders and opinion makers talk with others and go about their work.

Successful principals recognize the power of culture to shape their school. They are skilled at linking everyday practices, like the way new students are welcomed, in ways that reinforce core values and the schools mission. Principals impact their school's culture in several ways:
  • What you pay attention to, measure and control becomes important;
  • Your reaction to critical incidents and events;
  • The way you model behavior and coach others;
  • The criteria you use to acknowledge others and allocate rewards;
  • How you go about recruiting, selecting and promoting staff.
The beginning of the school year is a unique time to reinforce your school's values and culture. I encourage you to think about the ways that your work can be used to promote a positive and healthy school culture. I'd enjoy hearing from you about how you work to strength the culture of your school.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Economy's Impact on Schools

Families are dealing with the impact of job loss, increased poverty and hunger, reduced access to health care and other social services and greater instability in the family unit. The long-term impact on schools is uncertain but it is clear that schools play a vital role in supporting students and their families during these challenging times.

One of my graduate students recently shared a link that tells an absolutely compelling story about the impact of the the recession---

As you prepare for the coming school year I encourage each of you to work with your staff to develop a plan for supporting your students and their families. The evidence is clear about the link between regular meals and schooling, between access to health and dental care and school success.

In North Carolina I met an elementary principal who worked with her food service staff to provide larger portions of food on Fridays and Mondays knowing that many of her students had little to eat on week-ends. A Michigan principal made a list of free medical and dental clinics available for parents. In Oregon a community organized its churches so that a free meal was available every night of the week. Another North Carolina principal got towels and small bars of soap from local hotels so that students could take showers. A third principal kept a supply of t-shirts donated by local businesses available for student use.

Click on the link and watch the impact of the recession on our country. Then work with your school community to provide help in whatever way you can. I'd enjoy hearing from you about the ways your school supports your students and their families.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Solving Tough Scheduling Dilemmas

Last year I completed a project at Royal Oak Middle School in Royal Oak, Michigan. Faced with declining resources a group of teachers, administrators and parents were asked to resolve a perennial middle school problem---how to reduce the total number of minutes of planning time so that distinct individual and team plan times did not exist, and at the same time, continue their exemplary interdisciplinary teaming model.

It was a tough problem with serious implications for both teacher workload and the student day. However, people of good will find a way to persevere and meet the challenge.

I worked with the group to agree upon norms of collaboration, to review the research, to identify priorities, and to develop several alternatives. Balancing competing priorities proved to be the most difficult task.

Over time agreement emerged on a strategy. The length of the school day remained the same but the day consisted of six rather than seven classes. Each class was approximately 75 minutes long. Longer classes provided teachers with additional instructional time, particularly important in language arts and math. Teams continued to be part of the program at each grade level.

Teachers have one daily planning period of 75 minutes (375 minutes weekly). That provides 250 minutes for individual planning and an additional 125 minutes for team planning.

A unique feature of the schedule was addition of a seminar period at the beginning of the day. This period will include several interest-based electives, time for remediation, and allow scheduling of some cross-grade elective classes.

Most importantly, the group reached consensus on the model. Striving for consensus was a powerful indicator of the goodwill everyone brought to the discussion. Consensus almost always assures a successful implementation of any recommendation.

Royal Oak continues to struggle with declining resources and they continue to search for a way to balance their collective commitment to a high quality education with the financial reality faced by the district.

My book Scheduling to Improve Student Learning offers other tips on dealing with complex and contentious scheduling issues. It is available from the National Middle School Association.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

School Improvement in Small Schools

Small schools, particularly in rural communities, face real challenges to provide their students with the educational opportunities available in larger settings. For more than eight years the Union Pacific Foundation has funded a program focused on improving leadership in high schools in its service area. The railroad serves the vast western part of the country generally from the Mississippi River west.

While many schools are in urban areas like Chicago, St. Louis, Oakland, Portland, Houston or San Antonio, many others are located in small rural communities along UP rail lines.

West Desert High School is one of those schools. Located in Trout Creek, UT, in the middle of the Great Salt desert several hours from Salt Lake City, West Desert has fewer than thirty students in grades 7-12. Principal Ed Adler described the school as about an hour after the end of the blacktop. Despite its remote location and small size, the staff at West Desert is committed to being the best. It was recently recognized as the highest performing public high school in Utah.

The curriculum is unique in design but meets all of Utah’s curricular requirements. The daily math class includes every student and everyone studies the same subject. One year it may be Algebra, the next Algebra II or Geometry. At West Desert they’ve discovered the power of students working together, regardless of age, to master the content. Similarly, the science program includes only one subject each year. They’ve set aside the age and grade parameters that are taken for granted in many schools.

West Desert is a wonderful example of the power of a principal and teachers working creatively to assure that their students have a quality program. If you ever want to visit Great Salt Desert, you’d be very welcome to visit the high school.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Affirming the Importance of Vision

I’ve been traveling in and out of Portland, OR while working on an Oregon GEAR UP project. Whenever I can I like to wander into Powell’s bookstore. If you ever visit Portland you must find time to go to Powell’s. It’s an incredibly complete store carved out a series of inter-connected buildings in the Pearl district of Portland. If you like bookstores you are sure to like Powell’s. I could wander around for hours!

As I often do, I recently spent some time in the leadership section and found myself looking at several books about one’s personal vision. The start of the new school year is a natural time to stop and reflect on your personal vision for your own life and for your school.

The North Central Regional Lab identified a “clear, strong and collectively held vision” as one of the critical components of an effective school. It all starts with your ability to describe your own personal vision. In The Principalship from A to Z we devote an entire chapter to vision because of its importance (Chapter V).

There are lots of good books that describe one’s personal vision. The following examples reflect clear values and beliefs about life and work. They provide interesting insights into how other leaders articulate and actualize their personal vision.

Behar, Howard, (2007). It’s Not About the Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks. New York: Penguin Group.

Kidder, Rushworth (2003). How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living. New York: Harper.

Pausch, Randy (2008). The Last Lecture. New York: Hyperion Press.

As always I would enjoy hearing from you about your vision for your school and how you nurture and sustain in especially during challenging times. I look forward to hearing from you.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Conversation About "Our" School

Principals always want to hear from their teachers and other employees about how things are going. Earlier in the week I participated in a session at Royal Oak High School outside of Detroit. Principal Michael Greening holds two or three informal "conversations" every summer with his staff. The sessions provide an opportunity for people to talk about successes as well as challenges and since Michael's arrival these conversations have become an important part of the school's culture. Michael and the other administrators listen, comment occasionally, but strive to hear from teachers about the school's program. Several major school improvement initiatives were originally discussed during these meetings and the conversation helped to create a shared agenda for addressing each issue. Three questions guided the conversation:
  • What do we do well?
  • What are our biggest challenges in the coming school year?
  • What will our school look like in 2013?
These meetings are a great way to open communication, seek informal consensus, and get an agenda for continuing school improvement.

I'm always looking for good ideas that principals can use and would enjoy learning about ways you work with teachers and other staff to improve your school.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Evidence Linking Small Schools and Student Achievement

For the past decade there's been a growing movement to create small learning communities and small schools with the belief that they will positively impact student achievement and school climate. Now there is evidence connecting small schools and student achievement! You will be interested in the findings of an Oregon initiative funded by The Gates Foundation and the Meyer Memorial Trust.

The Oregon Small Schools Initiative (OSSI) reported in their initial evaluation that small schools have a positive impact on student success and that "despite high rates of poverty and other barriers to success, . . . small school students generally perform as well as or better than non [small school] students." The report also said that "students enrolled at a small school for multiple grades will, on average, have better outcomes" than those there for fewer years. The complete report is available at

The Oregon Small Schools Initiative provides many resources to support improvement and work with your community to improve student learning. Check our the things that they offer. I'd like to hear from you about your experience with small schools.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Student Use of Technology

Students are far more familiar with how to use technology than most adults. I was reminded of how creative students can be a few days ago when I met with four principals from the L'Anse Creuse Public Schools (MI). They shared three incidents that illustrate how technology continues to impact principals' work. Each of the incidents involved texting.
  • A middle school student failed a math test and sent a text to their mother about the results. Within minutes the child's teacher received an e-mail from the mother demanding extra help for their son and the opportunity to take the test again.
  • The other incidents also involved texting. In one two students were accused of some infraction. Once confronted and while briefly left alone before meeting with the assistant principal, they exchanged texts about the alibi they would use. It's a creative way to "get your story straight."
  • The third incident also involved a parent. In this case a student broke his thumb while participating in a physical education class. He sent a text about the accident to his mother and she arrived in the school office before her son arrived from the locker room.
I'm fascinated by the ways that technology has changed all of our lives and enjoy learning about the ways that schools are using technology to improve their instructional program. It's clear that students and their families are also skilled at using technology to stay in constant communication. These are three great examples. I'd enjoy hearing about your experience with the growing use of technology.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Strategies for Expanding Leadership Capacity

A principal can't do everything so it is important to nurture the leadership skills among teachers and other staff in your school. You can ask them to assume leadership roles as part of the leadership team or a school committee, invited them to shadow you for a day and then talk with them about the experience or you might ask them to work with you, and others, to solve a "real-life" problem in your school.

The following ideas are adapted from a NASSP publication, Practical Suggestions for Developing Leadership Capacity in Others (

1. Expand Their Skills and Knowledge Base
  • Invite them to work on a project outside of their area of expertise;
  • Ask they to work with you in dealing with a challenging parent;
  • Ask then to help screen and interview potential employees.
2. Invite Them to Work on School Improvement Projects
  • Ask them to serve on the leadership team;
  • Ask them to lead a book study group;
  • Invite them to chair a curriculum planning committee.
3. Provide Opportunity to Observe and Reflect
  • Encourage them to maintain a journal and reflect don the "good," "bad," or "flawed" leaders they know and observe;
  • Talk with them about how and why you handled a situation as you did.
4. Support Participation in Professional Development
  • Ask them to serve as a mentor of a new teacher;
  • Ask them to present information to the staff after attending a conference or other PD activity.
Expanding the leadership capacity of your school is important. Working together to improve the rigor of your school requires everyone's energy and committee to improve curriculum and instruction. I'd enjoy hearing from you about ways you use to nurture leadership among your staff.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Dealing with Social Media in Schools

A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 73% of teens use social-networking sites. Most of us are aware of the explosive growth of popular sites like MySpace and Facebook. Social media provide a way for students to socialize and meet new people. But there are also problems associated with social networking. The anonymity of the Internet combined with the impulsivity of youth leads to making poor choices about what is said and what is shared. The growing problem of using technology to bully (cyberbullying) others has led to serious consequences for some students.

I recently wrote a Research Brief on "Social Media" that discusses the issue and provides links to resources that principals can use to reduce the negative effects of social networking. You may want to take a look at the strategies recommended for schools.

As with most technology, there is a positive side and many schools have begun to use social media to improve communication with families and community, to improve instruction, and to access curricular resources. Many of these ideas are also included in the brief.

I would enjoy hearing from you about the challenges, as well as the benefits, you face in using social media.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Teaming with Families and Community

As a principal you spend a significant portion of your time working with the families of your students. Too often, the emphasis is negative as you resolve a difficult discipline problem. I'd like to suggest that an equally important role is to lead a coordinated school-wide effort to interact with families in ways that support students, families, the school and the larger community.

Intuitively we know that involving parents and family members in a partnership has a positive impact on students. When parents are involved both at home and at school, students do better in school and stay in school longer. When a parent and a teacher work together to help a student in a specific subject area, such as reading, students typically improve in that area. Students do best when their parents are comfortable with the school and the people who work at the school.

I've learned from principals that there are four strategies you can use to create a positive relationship with families and engage them in school life.
  • First, use a variety of communication strategies, some in print, some in person, and some electronic. Technology can be a wonderful tool for communicating but not all families will be as comfortable with technology or have access to technology. Publish a family-friendly school newsletter written in everyday language, avoiding educational jargon. Involve families in a variety of activities throughout the year.
  • Second, create and support authentic, meaningful roles for family members. Rather than just holding a meeting provide activities that include training and support. Ask families to participate in meaningful decision-making roles. Create volunteer options for family and community.
  • Third, provide support and resources for families. The specific type of support will vary with your population but one possibility is to create a family and community learning center. Identify a physical space with adult-sized furnishings; then add basic refreshments and helpful information. You may want to include information in a language other than English. Or you could create family support groups that deal with topics identified by families and their advocates.
  • Finally, support the larger community. Seek ways to move beyond the confines of your school. Identify opportunities for students to participate in community service activities. Celebrate the cultures of your community with specific activities. Collaborate with other agencies or groups in the area to deliver services such as immunization clinics, free health screening, or dental clinics. One school in Mississippi partnered with local doctors to provide a free health screening with only one requirement, that they bring their school-age children with them. Parents got hundreds of dollars of free services, students participated in fun activities and the bonds between school, families, and community were strengthened.
I'd love to learn about the ways that you've partnered with families in your school and community to improve the education of your students.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Creating An Advocacy Plan For Your School

Principals are advocates, always advocating for their school and ways to improve the educational experience of their students. It's one of your more important roles.

Advocacy is a way to effectively press for change. It is the foundation of our democracy and a process that allows ordinary people to shape and influence policy at all levels.

So, how do you get started on creating an advocacy plan. In our new book, Rigorous Schools and Classrooms: Leading the Way, Barbara Blackburn and I suggest an seven-step process.
  • First, analyze your environment: Scan the environment in which your school exists---district, community, state, nation, world. Then identify the issues that affect your school and those that affect your community more broadly.
  • Monitor changes in your environment. Read voraciously, talk with a wide selection of people in your community and stay current with trends at the state and national level.
  • Identify the factors needed for success: Look beyond traditional factors (good teachers, money) and consider emerging issues such as the acquisition of technology, the ability to respond to changing conditions. Identify groups in your community with which you can partner.
  • Think about your assumptions: Identify the assumptions you hold about your school and community. Test them by assessing the degree of certainly (high, medium, low) and the level of impact (high, medium, low). Assumptions play an important role in constructing the future.
  • Develop a vision of an alternative future: Consider the issue of rigor and identify the factors you identified that are critical for success. Develop a vision of the future different than the current circumstances. Creating several alternatives is better.
  • Consider allies and opponents: Identify individuals or groups that may support your efforts as well as those who may resist. Be sure to include those you know and those who may emerge. Develop a plan for building alliances with your allies and understand the opposition.
  • Develop a plan for advocating for your desired future: Identify specific steps that can be taken to achieve the anticipated future. Develop both "hedging strategies" that can cope with undesirable futures and "shaping strategies" that help create the desired future.
I'd enjoy hearing from you about the ways you advocate for your school and its students.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Trends That Principals Should Anticipate

I'm frequently asked about trends that schools need to plan for and be ready to address. When recently asked by a Chicago area Board of Education member, I identified these five:
  • Increased demands at the state and national level for greater accountability for improved student learning mean that educators will be pressed to be more successful with all students.
  • Greater access to information about how students learn and research-based strategies for improving student learning will add additional expectations about meeting the individual needs of every students including those with the greatest needs and those most talented.
  • There will be continued change in the demographics of students in public schools. Schools will be expected to provide a high quality educational program for groups that have often been underserved.
  • Stable or declining ressources will characterize the educational environment. Schools will be expected to be more efficient as well as more effective.
  • An ever-accelerating pace of change in knowledge, research about teaching and learning, and technology will change the way schools are organized and the way teaching and learning occurs. Traditional schools may become obsolete and new learning structures will emerge. Learning will be more integrated rather than separated by content, and multi-age learning environments will become the norm.
You can learn more about dealing with these and other trends in The Principalship from A to Z (From Eye on Education). I'd enjoy hearing from you about what you think about these trends and what others you anticipate.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ten Skills for Successful School Leaders

NASSP recently released an important new book, 10 Skills for Successful School Leaders. It combines the knowledge from NASSP's principal assessment centers with the school improvement framework developed in their Breaking Ranks series. The book describes each skill and provides a set of behavioral indicators. Perhaps most helpful, the book suggests activities that principals can sue to reflect on their own skill and build capacity in each area.

The ten skills are organized into four themes---educational leadership, resolving complex problems, communication and developing self and others. The complete list includes the following:

Educational Leadership
• setting instructional direction;
• teamwork;
• sensitivity;
Resolving Complex Problems
• judgement;
• results orientation;
• organizational ability;
• oral communication;
• written communication;
Developing Self and Others
• developing others;
• understanding your own strengths and weaknesses.

Finally, the book provides a protocol for developing your own personal learning plan. It supports your continued professional growth in a user friendly, non-threatening format. I think you will enjoy 10 Skills for Successful School Leaders.

Friday, March 19, 2010

New Report on Middle Grades Programs

This week a new report was issued on middle grades reforms. Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better, from the EdSource research lab found that middle grades schools that outperformed their peers had an unrelenting focus on preparing students for the future. The staff adopted a "whatever it takes" stance on student learning. The study did not find a connection between grade configuration or organizational structure and student learning.

Some strategies the report identified include:
• an intense focus on student outcomes;
• shifting the school culture to a focus on preparing students for the future;
• adults are held accountable and take responsibility for student outcomes
• early identification and intervention to keep students on track;
• setting measurable goals for improvement;
• regular and effective communication with students and their families;

The report offers helpful guidance about how principals and other school leaders can work to improve their school. You might want to use it as the focus of faculty study groups or as part of a book study. The entire report is available at the link earlier in this blog.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Valuing the Student Voice

When I was a principal I was always interested in how students perceived my school and its program. Too often we rely solely on test scores and other quantitative data to assess our success. There are two strategies that value the student voice and allow principals and teachers to gather insights from students.

First, is a Student Shadow Study. Originally developed by NASSP a shadow study charts the experience of students throughout a school day. Observers follow randomly selected students and record the ebb and flow of activities every five-to-seven minutes. Of course, students quickly figure out that something is going on. I suggest talking with the student you shadow before you begin and explain that you are not evaluating them or their work. It's also a good idea to talk with the student at the end of the day to gain additional insights into their experience.

Shadow studies work best when several observers collect data by shadowing students. The December 2009 issue of Principal Leadership provides more detail about this approach.

The second technique is to conduct a series of focus group meetings with students. A focus group is a set of people brought together to participate in a guided discussion about an issue---your school. While not a formal focus group, a principal I met in North Carolina invited groups of students to meet with her during lunch. She asked students to tell her about their school and their classes. She listened and looked for patterns among the students' responses.

Students are incredibly insightful and are able to provide useful information that can be used along with other data to improve schools. I recommend both strategies to you.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Rigorous Schools and Classrooms: Leading the Way

Suggesting that schools can become more rigorous often provokes a variety of reactions from defensiveness to outright hostility. But I believe that schools must continually strive to improve their curriculum and the quality of instruction and assessment. In my new book. Rigorous Schools and Classrooms: Leading the Way (, co-authored with Barbara Blackburn we provide a three-part definition for rigor.

Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels.

Together these three elements provide the basis for nurturing and sustaining rigor in schools. Our focus in the book is straightforward: to provide principals and teachers with a practical guide to help make your school more rigorous. We introduce the COMPASS model, a set of 7 tools that leaders can immediately use to transform their school. They include culture, ownership and shared vision, managing data, professional development, advocacy, shared accountability, and organizational structures.

Barbara and I hope that the ideas in the book are helpful to you as you work with your community to improve your schools. Additional resources are available at or at my website ( We'd enjoy hearing from you about the book.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Creating Your Personal Vision

Having a clear sense of vision or purpose for your school is important. Besides having your own personal vision you must work collaboratively with teachers, families, staff and students to develop a clear and compelling vision for your school.

It all begins with your personal vision. That vision consists of the most fundamental beliefs about life, about your work, and about relationships with people. I suggest you use a four-step process to develop your vision statement.

Step 1: Think about your personal and professional life. Describe what you would like to achieve and the contributions you would like to make. Think of it as something already accomplished. Describe what it looks like and feels like. For example, imagine hovering in a hot air balloon over your life. Imagine your life as successful as it might be---what would you see? what would you feel? what would you hear?

Step 2: Consider your self-image, relationships, personal interests, and community based on the things you wrote in step 1. Examine each item in your draft statement to be sure it still fits.

Step 3: Develop a list of values and identify those that are most important in your life. Once this is done, review the list and rank them from most to least important. Remove the least important. Re-rank if appropriate. Check for relevance with your earlier statement. Eliminate any item that is not relevant.

Step 4: Use the items from the first three steps to develop a statement about who you are. Review and edit the statement as often as needed until you believe it accurately reflects your vision.

Final Note: The job of a principal begins with vision. If you don't have a vision, or haven't revisited it recently, you won't have a clear direction when pressures mount. I suggest that you take the time to develop your own vision and to build shared vision for your school community.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Make a Mental Adjustment

The principalship is a complex job requiring a person to juggle an incredible array of responsibilities. Principals often tell me that the weeks during the middle of the school year are particularly difficult. I've found that your attitude toward your work greatly influences your success. When I was a principal I liked to focus on positive things, rather than negative, to build momentum for success.

The following examples illustrate how you can adjust your attitude about some of the things you do every day. If you want to make a change start with the way you think about what you are doing. Focus on the positive progress you make each day, whether it is delegating a task or taking the time to mentor a potential leader. Think about your personal vision on a regular basis. Write it on an index card where you can see it regularly.

Negative Thoughts

Positive Thoughts

I’ll never have an empty inbox.

I’m cleaning out my inbox everyday.

I’ll never get caught up.

Today, I choose to make progress on my task list.

100% of our students can’t meet standards.

I’ll make a positive impact on at least one child today.

It’s impossible to keep everyone happy.

Every interaction I have with people will be sincere regarding their behavior.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Working with Families and Community

I recently completed a project at Hadley Junior High School in Glen Ellyn, IL during which the staff and parents examined their program to find ways to strengthen and enhance their services to students. Several major commitments emerged during the project. First, the planning group worked diligently to keep parents and community informed. They held a series of Town Hall Meetings where they shared information with the community and heard about their concerns. Second, they published a series of newsletters in both paper and electronic format. They are also working to create a series of videos or podcasts of critical school events (6th grade orientation) that will be available for parents. They are also committed to making these resources available to parents and families where English is not the primary language. The commitment of the Hadley community to assure that everyone (families, community, teachers, students) are informed and have an opportunity to share their ideas about their school is significant. The commitment transformed their school.