Monday, September 30, 2013

College Readiness Resources

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.

Pathways to College: What High Schools Can Do to Prepare Students for College Admission and Success in Higher Education

College Readiness Begins in Middle School (2005)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Vision Letters - Setting the Course for the School Year

A friend and colleague, Barbara Blackburn, works with lots of teachers on ways to strengthen their instruction and assure that each student has a rigorous academic experience. One of her favorite tools is the Vision Letter. A Vision Letter is a way for a teacher, or principal, to think about the outcomes they want to achieve that school year. Barbara asks teachers to imagine it is the last day of school and that the year turned out to be their best ever. She then asks participants to draft an e-mail addressed to a colleague described everything that students accomplished, and ways the teacher supported student learning. Finally, she encourages people to share their letters with a colleague and to identify ways they can support one another so that this vision becomes a reality. At one school she had teachers put their letters into an envelope to be opened at the end of the school year.

You can learn more about Vision Letters in two books that Barbara and I wrote - Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders and Rigorous Schools and Classrooms: Leading the WayBoth books have a whole collection of tools that principals can use with to build shared vision and promote collaboration.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Use a Data Night to Set Priorities for School Improvement

Recently I was working with a school near Chicago on their school improvement plan. A task force of parents, teachers and administrators revised the school's vision and then selected twenty different types of data that could be used to help identify action steps. Every member received a notebook full of data and a wiki was created so that members could share their observations and thoughts about the data.

The group held several "data nights" where they met, worked together to examine the data, discuss its implications, and assess the school's current success on each indicator. Small work groups met to continue the analysis and suggest next steps.

The data nights were helpful because they assured that everyone had the same data, had an opportunity to talk about its meaning, and to contribute to the analysis. These "data nights" helped the group move forward to develop a plan for their school's continued improvement.

A protocol for planning and conducting a data night are included in my recent book, Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders available from Routledge/Eye on Education (

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Elevator Talk - An Advocacy Tool

There are times when you only have a brief opportunity to make a personal contact with someone, perhaps a key decision maker in your community or school district. There's an old adage that says "you only have one chance to make a good first impression." In those cases, you want to be prepared to share a personal story about your school or about an issue you care about.

These short, often no more than 30 seconds, stories are called "elevator talks" because they occur quickly, on the spur of the moment and don't last long. People tire quickly of tedious talk but they can be motivated to action by a short, engaging story about some event, some success, some person at your school. When I was a principal I quickly learned the importance of having a whole set of "elevator talks" that I could use when casually meeting parents or community members. The encounters were often in the aisles of a grocery store, in the parking lot after church, on the sidelines of a soccer game, in the stands at a basketball game or many other places. And it often started with a questions such as "how  are things going?" Each encounter provided a unique opportunity to share about my school.

Advocating for their school, for their students and staff, and for assuring that every child has an engaging academic experience is one of a principal's most important roles. And one of the most compelling ways to advocate is through the use of stories or short "elevator talks." I'd encourage you to develop your repertoire of stories and would enjoy hearing from you about your success advocating for your school.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Force Field Analysis

I'm always looking for tools that can help teachers and principals think more deeply about an issue. My favorite tools are those that provide for solid analysis and provide an opportunity for people to work together during the analysis.

A Force Field Analysis is just such a tool and it allows a group to identify the factors working for an issue as well as those working again the issue (opposing forces). One of the benefits of the discussion is that it can help you plan for, or reduce, the impact of the opposing forces, and strengthen or reinforce the supporting forces.

Conducting a Force Field Analysis is pretty straightforward.

  • First, state the problem or the desired state in clear, concrete terms. 
  • Discuss and list the factors working for, and those working against, the desired state. 
  • Review and clarify the items to make sure there isn't repetition and overlap. 
  • Once there is agreement on the factors assign a score to each force from 1 (weak) to 5 (strong) or high, medium and low. 
  • Finally, discuss the factors and their scores. This helps to identify next steps. 

The factors working against a plan often become the focus of a plan of action. This level of analysis can  help you, as a leader, set priorities and goals. Additional information about a Force Field Analysis is available here.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Principal's Blog - Brag About Your School

One of a principal's most important roles is to advocate for their school. That includes sharing information with staff, students, families and community. Communication occurs in many ways but increasingly various forms of social media technology are used to spread the "good news" about your school.  One tool is a blog, basically a website that functions as an online journal. What's good about a blog is that you can control the content and make it what you want.

Partrick Larkin, 2012 NASSP Digital Principal, identified reasons for beginning a blog. Principals are generally pretty proud of their school. They want to share newsworthy things about students and co-curricular activities. They have great teachers who are doing great things in their classroom. And they want to improve communication with both families and community.  Once you begin your blog you can add a link from your school's website and you can share it with teachers and other staff. Here's a link to Larkin's article about how to get started. And here are some other examples of blogs maintained by school leaders.
I'd enjoy learning from you about how you communicate with families and community and what you think about starting a principal's blog.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Importance of Shared Vision

As another school year gets underway I'm reminded of how important the principal's vision is in setting the direction for their school. Often a vision is thought of as just words on paper, but a vision is a dynamic roadmap for strengthening a school. I often refer to it as a compass. A compass provides direction but can also help you to get back on track when events pull you away from your vision. A compass is always on target, pointing toward "true" north.

Here are four of my favorite resources on the importance of the principal's vision and how a principal can work with their faculty and community to create a shared vision.
  • Southwest Educational Development Lab (SEDL) on the importance of vision
  • Maryland Department of Education’s website on the importance of vision.  Read the material on the “Principal’s Role in Creating a Vision.” You may find the two exercises on identifying core beliefs and creating a shared vision useful as you develop your vision for your school. 
  • Marzano Center - Setting the Direction for a School-Wide Vision 
  • Association for Middle Level Education - Read an article that discusses Peter Senge's discussion of learning communities and building shared vision.
I'd enjoy learning about your personal vision for your school and how you work with your community to nurture and sustain that vision.