Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Supporting Homeless Students and Families

The number of homeless children in US schools continues to grow. Much of the increase is driven by the uncertain economy. Families are dealing with joblessness, less access to medical care, increased hunger and greater instability in the family unit. The nation's official poverty rate is 15.1% (2010), the highest since 1997.

Often associated with urban areas, homelessness and poverty is prevalent in rural areas as well. Rural families headed by women have a significantly higher poverty rate, generally 10% higher than other families.

Homeless children have legal protection under the McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act (1987). The law requires that state and local educational agencies assure access to school, despite one's housing circumstances. Homeless children can remain in their school of origin, even if they move into housing in another district. Schools must provide transportation to their original school and homeless students can enroll immediately even without the documents normally required of new students.

The National Center for Homeless Education offers some tips on creating a welcoming school for homeless children.
  • Welcome the student like any other new student.
  • Talk with your teachers about how to create welcoming classrooms.
  • Identify the important information that parents/families will need.
  • Maintain a supply of materials at school that are available for students who may not have them.
  • Understand your obligation about accepting the student and providing transportation if needed.
  • Talk with the family about what the student studied at their previous school.
  • Establish a place that students can complete homework either before or after school since they may not have a place where they are living.
  • Be sensitive to word choice when talking about homeless students, and their families, with others in the school and in your community.
  • Model welcoming and respectful behavior.
Additional resources for creating a welcoming environment for homeless students are available from:

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Nurturing Teacher Leadership

One of a principal's most important roles is to nurture leadership skills among school staff by creating a school with a variety of leadership roles, opportunity for inquiry and reflection, and the chance to learn and develop new skills.

There are many ways to help others develop their leadership capacity. They include:
  • Inviting them to work on a project outside their area of expertise;
  • Asking them to help screen and interview new hires;
  • Encouraging them to attend district meetings with you;
  • Asking them to work with you to deal with a challenging parent or instruction issue;
  • Inviting them to lead a book study group;
  • Asking them to serve on the school leadership team;
  • Asking them to serve as a mentor for a new teacher;
  • Encouraging them to become a member of a professional organization;
  • Asking them to present information to the staff after attending a conference or other professional development activity;
  • Inviting them to maintain a journal and reflect on the "good," "bad," or "flawed" leaders they know and observe.
These ideas and others are discussed in Practical Suggestions for Developing Leadership Capacity (NASSP, 2009).

I'd enjoy hearing from you about how you work to expand the leadership capacity in your school. I'm always interested in practical ideas I can share with my students and other leaders with whom I work.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Understanding Decision Fatigue

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about whether the time of day you make a decision impacts the quality of that decision. Well, the evidence is clear that there may be an impact. It is called decision fatigue and it describes a phenomena where the quality of one's decisions made later in the day deteriorates.

The research shows that during the day one's mental energy is depleted, particularly if you focused on complex tasks and decisions. Decision fatigue can cloud a person's judgment and explains undesirable behaviors such as losing focus during meetings, getting angry with colleagues, becoming impulsive or making decisions without consideration of the consequences.

There are things you can do to minimize the effect. They include:
  • recognizing the problem and monitoring your behavior during the day;
  • planning your day so that you schedule important meetings and decisions early in the day;
  • avoiding back-to-back meetings so that you have time to recharge your 'mental energy' between meetings;
  • taking short mental breaks;
  • sleeping on decisions and avoiding making complex decision late in the day; and
  • being clear about your goals so that you minimize the drain of energy associated with sorting through complex issues.
Research Brief that describes this term more fully is available at the Resources page on my website at http://ronwilliamson.com. I would enjoy hearing from you about your experience with decision fatigue and ideas you may have for avoiding the impact.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Effective Teacher Evaluation

In virtually every state changes have occurred in the teacher evaluation system. Some are very directive. Others provide options. But in nearly every case the focus is on improving accountability for student learning and providing more explicit criteria to measure teacher performance. But changes in teacher evaluation are not the only changes. Laws are also being adopted to change the evaluation system for principals and other school leaders.

I'm always looking for helpful resources that can inform the work of principals and recently found an article on eSchoolNews that identifies six steps to effective teacher development and evaluation. Three ideas stand out from the others.
  • include evidence of teaching and student learning from multiple sources
  • use information to provide constructive feedback to teachers, not shame them
  • adjust the system over time based on new evidence and feedback.
While principals legitimately struggle with the mandates around evaluation, it is critical that we recognize one of a principal's most important roles, to hire, nurture and retain high quality teachers. Sound evaluation systems support these efforts and include a way to recognize the incredible contributions that most teachers make to student learning.

I'd enjoy hearing from you about how you're dealing with the changing expectations about teacher evaluation.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Confronting Myths About Rigor

When Barbara Blackburn and I wrote Rigorous Schools and Classrooms we spent a lot of time talking about the challenges principals face as they work to improve the rigor of their schools. We began to talk about the myths that are associated with the concept of rigor and identified four of them that we think impact the way parents, teachers and administrators think about rigor.
  • Myth #1: Lots of Homework is a Sign of Rigor - For many people this is the most prevalent indicator. Many teachers are proud of the amount of homework they expect of their students. It is often built on the idea that "more is better." Unfortunately the evidence is that "more" often means doing more low-level activities, often repetition of things done earlier. Because students learn differently it is important to vary the instruction with the student and to use homework as an opportunity to deepen understanding of what has been learned.
  • Myth #2: Rigor Means Doing More - There is also a belief that students need to do more than they are currently doing. Tony Wagner of Harvard found that classrooms are often characterized by low-level, rote activity. Howard Johnston and I asked parents about rigor and found that they believe rigor is doing less but doing it more in-depth. That is often difficult for principals to reconcile when talking with teachers and other school personnel. True rigor is expecting every student to learn and perform at high levels and requires that students delve deeply into their learning, engage in critical thinking and problem solving, and be curious and imaginative.
  • Myth #3: Rigor is Not For Everyone - There is a belief that if everyone is engaging in rigorous activity, it somehow lowers standards and lessens the value. There is growing recognition that all students must be provided an opportunity for a rigorous educational experience that is more than just a set of courses. It is anchored in the belief that every student can be successful if given adequate time and sufficient support.
  • Myth #4: Providing Support Means Lessening Rigor - Rugged individualism characterizes the fourth myth. There is a belief that if students are provided, and accept support, it is a sign of weakness. We've found that providing support is an essential component of a rigorous school. Students are motivated to do well when they value what they are doing and when they believe they have a chance for success. When Howard and I talked with teachers and parents about their own rigorous experiences they invariably described the support they were provided.
I'd like to hear your reaction to these four myths and about your experience increasing the rigor of your school and classrooms. I look forward to hearing from you.