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School Leadership Key to College and Career Readiness

The bar is being raised on high school graduates. If they are to meet new college- and career-readiness standards, experts say it will take teachers who are prepared and administrators who create an environment for success for every student.

"School principals are the leaders and pilots in the nation's journey to college and career readiness," said Bob Wise, the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education at a briefing on Capitol Hill Thursday. "To make sure students are supported, it is the principal who largely determines the culture and leads comprehensive reform."

As more jobs require a college education, Wise said all students need to leave high school having taken enough challenging courses that they are ready to do some postsecondary training. "High school becomes the launch pad, not the finish line," he said. If education determines how well a state does, then principals and teachers are the main economic development forces in states, said Wise, a former governor of West Virginia.

To talk about efforts to raise student achievement and meet the new expectations of the Common Core Standards, the event Thursday featured leaders from three secondary schools honored as "Breakthrough Schools" by the National Association of Secondary School Principals: Daniel Wiebers of Trenton High School in Trenton, Mo.; Robbie Hooker with Clarke Central High School in Athens, Ga.; and Mitchell Curry, the principal of Scott Johnson Middle School in McKinney, Tex.

In Trenton, the economic downturn hit many families in rural northern Missouri, but the community recently passed a bond issue to extend support for the school and student achievement is soaring, said Principal Wiebers. Part of its success comes from partnerships with local colleges.

Dual-enrollment programs are increasingly popular and connections are being formed to improve student skills prior to high school. For instance, when teachers were concerned about 8th graders not reading at grade level, they reached out to those teaching developmental reading courses at the local community college. Now all 8th graders are tested on their reading skills and those who don't pass enroll in an online reading program to get up to speed and an English teacher works with those students to provide extra support.

At Clarke High, Principal Hooker says teachers are asking for more professional development to adapt to the paradigm shift in the classroom that comes with the expectations of the Common Core. The school has brought in instructional coaches and partnered with the University of Georgia to help students not only learn in math and reading but also explain what they are doing.

"Kids are working in pairs, using technology...it's a different mindset," said Hooker. "For some teachers, it will be a difficult transition, but they need to make that transition if they are going to survive and if students are going to work globally."

Although Texas is one of the few states not following the Common Core, Curry says schools are working to improve student learning and the effort requires teacher training. In his middle school, there is more teaching to the high school standards so students will be ready for the next level.

Lack of time and resources mean Curry often asks master teachers to share their expertise. "Faculty meetings don't exist like they used to," he said. "Professional development is internalized. It's a team effort."

To make sure all students succeed, Curry has reallocated resources in certain areas at Johnson Middle School. For instance, when kids need more time to grasp concepts, they are given additional instruction in targeted classes with reading, math, or science specialists. This is especially helpful for English-language learners, he added.

In Athens, teachers offer free after-school tutoring, often in math, along with free transportation home. When Hooker offered a 9 a.m.- noon program on Saturday, he didn't think students would show up—but they did.

To better match the demands of Common Core and give students more classroom time, Clarke has also switched from block scheduling to seven classes per day. The move was the result of a committee of teachers who researched the options, developed a new schedule, and then sold the concept to the public, said Hooker.

All principals talked about the importance of keeping an eye on instruction, in the midst of the other demands that school leaders face. "Don't micromanage. Develop teacher leaders," advised Hooker. Added Curry: "Hire the best and get out of the way."

The briefing was sponsored by the Alliance and NASSP.

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