College isn’t for Everyone

Over the past decade or more, policy makers and educators have focused intensely on college readiness programs at the high school level.  A well-educated student is one who has mastered the skills necessary to be successful at the college level, the argument goes.  I agree that we must increase rigor at all levels, but shouldn’t the rigor be accompanied by corresponding relevance for the student?  Not all students will be successful at the college level, nor should they be.  Common sense tells us that many people do not have the academic ability, motivation, or learning style that is necessary to succeed at the four-year college level.

A growing chorus of education experts are calling for schools to better prepare students for futures that might not include four-year degrees.  A recent Harvard University report summarized some of the concerns that practicing educators have been expressing regarding the notion of pushing students into a four-year college path.  The “Pathways to Prosperity” study, released in February, argued that job-market and college-completion realities demand that schools pay more attention to the large group of students who graduate from high school but might not earn four-year college degrees.

Two thirds of the jobs created in the United States by 2018 will require some postsecondary education, but of those, nearly half will go to people with occupational certificates or associate degrees.  In addition, many of those jobs have very good wages: one-quarter of them pay more than the average job requiring a bachelor’s degree.  The study also questioned whether the focus on college preparation is justified, noting that only 56 percent of students who enroll in four-year colleges earn a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s.  What happens to the other half?  And what about the huge debt they have incurred without receiving a degree?

Fortunately, many high schools, vocational institutions, and community colleges are forging partnerships that cross traditional boundaries to expose students to career options.  Partnerships of this type focus on training for higher-skilled jobs that will continue to be in demand, especially in the technical and medical fields.  A recent article outlined some of these successful programs: “College for All Campaign Getting a Second Look.”

I see some key areas for educators:

  • Educate parents and students about career opportunities outside of the typical four-year college track.
  • Remove the elitist view that some in education have.  Trade school isn’t “just” trade school.  Our world functions because of very skilled people who can manufacture and repair our cars, homes, roads, ….  You get the idea.  Additionally, our world functions because of trained service people who might have “only” a high school degree.
  • Partner with those in vocational/career education and industry.  They are not “dumping grounds” for anyone today.  Learn those skills that students are required to have to be successful in their industry. It might not be a bad idea to spend a half-day professional development opportunity by loading high school teachers on a bus and letting them tour a career education facility!
  • Provide more curricular options for students in grades 9-12.  Make the learning more relevant for those who may not be interested in a four-year college track.  As an example, (I’m going to step on the toes of my English teacher friends now) does the skilled auto mechanic really need to be able to analyze The Scarlett Letter?  He or she needs higher-level reading and writing skills, but maybe we should rethink what form those skills take.

Some related articles:  The “Career” Part of College and Career Readiness; Merging Career Tech with College Prep: Why It’s Succeeding


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Student Achievement: Principals Do Make a Difference

The principal’s role has become increasingly complex and difficult as the nature of society, political expectations, and schools as organizations have changed.  Principals today can no longer simply “run a tight ship” and expect things to sail along nicely.  The modern principal must become an educational leader, operating with all the skill and finesse of a successful CEO of a large corporation – but with a much smaller salary!  To be effective, principals must study leadership theory and be knowledgeable of practices and behaviors that impact student achievement.

Do principals affect student achievement?  We would like to think so, and common sense tells us that they do, although it may be through indirect processes.  Attempting to help answer the question, I conducted an extensive study as part of my dissertation.  The study examined the relative impact that principal managerial, instructional, and transformational leadership had on student achievement.  The study has been published in the March 2011 NASSP Bulletin, 95:1 (pp. 5-30).  The full article can be accessed online for those with a subscription to the Bulletin. Additionally, you can find a shorter discussion of the study through the “Publications” tab at the top of the page, or simply click here.  I would be happy to send anyone a full copy of the dissertation if you wish.

Without using too much “researchy” language, I want to discuss the various important findings from the study over the next few weeks.  First, I can say that the study very definitely answered in the affirmative.  Principals DO make a difference in student achievement! Here is a quick outline of the study: 131 high schools in Missouri participated in the study.  443 teachers from those schools gave survey responses measuring their perception of the principal’s leadership skills.  Those responses were then compared to the schools’ performance on the MAP, Missouri’s high-stakes annual test. Briefly, here are the highlights of the findings:

  • Factors from all three leadership types – managerial, instructional, and transformational – had an impact on student achievement, leading us to believe that all three are important in developing a model of principal leadership.
  • The only principal demographic variable that was linked to student achievement was education level.  Even when controlling for all other factors, the education level of the principal impacted student achievement.
  • While all leadership behaviors were linked to student achievement, five were significant statistically: Instructional Improvement; Curricular Improvement; Providing a Model; Identifying a Vision; and Fostering Group Goals.

 I will discuss the results in more detail in future blogs, especially focusing on several areas of competence that can inform principals who wish to become more effective.  But suffice it to say for now that the answer is clear. YES! Principals very definitely make a difference in their buildings.  It is clear that principals who are perceived to be more competent influence student achievement in spite of school and community contexts in which they operate.



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Developing Better Teacher Evaluation Systems

With many states passing merit-pay laws, it is imperative that we find a good method to evaluate educators effectively. A new report from The Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., says a way to accurately judge student progress, or a teacher’s “value added,” needs to be developed. The report also calls for uniformity among school districts. I’m going to wade into the debate with the following points.

1.  Do not eliminate teacher tenure. Some reformers point out the inordinately low number of teachers who are fired or do not have their contracts renewed. The problem, they say, is teacher tenure. Simply remove the legal protection that teachers have and administrators will have the freedom to get rid of bad teachers. Regardless of how we feel about those reformers’ political views, we have to face truth of the matter. In schools across the country, too many mediocre (and in some cases downright bad) teachers are given new contracts and shuffled from one school to another. The students ultimately lose under the current practice.

The answer is not be found in weakening teacher tenure laws. My stance might surprise some who know me as a principal and superintendent who placed high expectations on teacher quality. But teachers must have the protection and security found in tenure, not only to preserve academic freedom, but to protect them from capricious decisions made by administrators and school boards. The answer is found by unions and other teacher groups working collaboratively with policy makers to develop honest and effective methods of teacher evaluation that results in teacher improvement. Yes, in some cases those methods must include parameters to remove ineffective teachers. We must reject the notion that we will defend teachers at all cost.

2.  Develop an effective teacher evaluation system based on various measures.  I’m troubled by the notion that teacher quality should be determined by student performance on a single high-stakes test. Some districts use student progress as a measure, but even that fails to address many contextual issues such as socio-economic status, student motivation, and class size.

Just what constitutes good teaching? Student performance must be the starting point to measure quality teaching, but unfortunately the task isn’t as easy as examining test scores. I’ve pointed out in a previous blog, How do Principals Model Good Instruction?  that teaching and learning are very tacit occurrences. At the same time, we all know what constitutes good teaching, and we all know the best teachers. Ask any principal and he or she will quickly give you the names of the best teachers in the building. Ask the students, ask the parents, ask the community. You can even ask the staff, and you will get the names of the best teachers in the school and those who are not as effective. The task facing us education professionals is to develop both qualitative and quantitative measures of teacher quality.

3.  Invest in frameworks that support quality teaching in every school. Teacher pay and benefits, smaller class sizes, appropriate technology, and clean, well-maintained buildings are only the beginning of supporting good teaching and learning. One component of effective schools is teacher collaboration. If we put teachers in competition with one another to receive a certain amount of bonus funding, teacher trust and collaboration will fall by the wayside. Most teachers get into the field because they care about children and really want them to learn. Give them the tools to do this by providing appropriate student data and the time to plan together. Place expectations on teachers, but treat them like professionals.

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Should Algebra II be Required in High School?

Quadratics, logarithms, asymptotes, imaginary numbers… Algebra II concepts can seem like a foreign language that have no relation to real life.  After teaching math classes ranging from 8th grade General Math to College Algebra and Calculus, I can say that Algebra II is one of the most difficult courses that the typical bright, motivated teenager takes in high school.  Should all average to above average students take Algebra II?  Yes, most definitely.  Should all students be required to take Algebra II?  I’m not so sure about that.  Let’s slow down and think about the notion.

In recent years 20 states and the District of Columbia have moved to raise graduation requirements to include Algebra II.  The effort has been led in large party by Achieve, a group organized by governors and business leaders and funded by corporations and their foundations, to improve the skills of the workforce.  But exactly how to raise the education levels of the U.S. workforce is a matter of debate. And why is Algebra II singled out as essential?

Proponents say that of all classes offered in high school, Algebra II is the leading predictor of college and work success.  That claim is due in large part to a study conducted by Anthony Carnevale and Alice Desrochers, then both at the Educational Testing Service (ETS).  They used a data set that followed a group of students from 1988 to 2000, from eighth grade to a time when most were working.  The study showed that of those who held top-tier jobs, 84 percent had taken Algebra II or a higher math class.  Only 50 percent in the bottom tier had taken Algebra II.

The study showed a strong correlation between students taking Algebra II and subsequent career success, but it certainly did not predict success statistically.  Possibly smart, motivated students take Algebra II.  Among the skeptics is Carnevale himself, one of the researchers who reported the link between Algebra II and good jobs.  “The causal relationship is very, very weak,” he said.  “Most people don’t use Algebra II in college, let alone in real life.  The state governments need to be careful with this.”  The danger, he said, is leaving some students behind by “getting locked into a one-size-fits-all curriculum.”

Achieve and other educational groups have viewed Algebra II as a fundamental component of higher academic standards.  Other independent studies seem to back them up.  One conducted by U.S. Department of Education researcher Clifford Adelman found that students who took Algebra II and at least one more math course exhibited “momentum” toward receiving a bachelor’s degree.  “There was a fair amount of judgment that went into this,” said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve and a former assistant secretary of education in the Clinton administration.

Research is clear that setting higher expectations for students results in greater academic achievement.  In other words, if you raise the bar, students will for the most part rise to the occasion and perform better than even they might have expected.  Those of us in the trenches of education know that to be true.  But I have three concerns with the current move to require Algebra II of all students.

1.  Requiring Algebra II on a high school transcript doesn’t mean that all students have mastered Algebra II concepts at the same level.  To meet state requirements, many schools offer Algebra IA and Algebra IIA, or some other creative use of semantics.  They are in effect teaching Algebra I concepts over a period of two years for students who struggle with Algebra II.  I personally take no issue with “jumping through the hoops” to meet state guidelines, as long as the coursework required of all students is rigorous and does not follow a low-level general math track.

2.  Not all students are college bound, nor should they be.  Yes, let’s raise the bar. But at the same time let’s allow common sense to remain in place. Consider Britney, a 16-yr. old Junior in your high school who becomes pregnant.  She is ready to drop out of school, but with intervention from several caring staff members she completes school and attends beautician school on a Pell grant.  She now works at a local shop, making a decent salary and providing for herself and her child.  Does she need Algebra II?  No.  In fact, a state mandated test that requires her to exhibit those skills just might be the stumbling block that leads her to drop out.  Policy-makers, please allow local educators to differentiate and work with students according to their unique needs.

3. We need to ensure that along with increased expectations for young people we have every math classroom filled with the most competent and compassionate teachers.  Support must come in the form of increased compensation to attract the brightest to our profession and quality teacher education programs to prepare them for the increasingly complex task of educating young people.

Workers Seek New Skills at Community Colleges

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Why Should Principals be Effective Managers?

The role of the principal as an effective manager seems to have fallen out of vogue in discussions about leadership. But before we think too disparagingly about the principal as an administrative manager, let’s consider the various roles that the modern principal has to fill effectively in order to impact student achievement. 

 Research in the past three decades or so has asked principals to enhance their behaviors from merely managerial tasks to become instructional leaders.  The past twenty years or so have seen calls for principals to become transformative in their behaviors, inspiring followers to pursue goals beyond their own, a “change for the better,” as Kenneth Leithwood says.

 I submit that the modern principal, operating in the complex societal and political contexts of today’s schools, must be adept at all three types of leadership behavior: managerial, instructional, and transformational.  Future blogs will outline my quantitative study on that very topic, but think now about the importance of effective managerial leadership.

 Day-to-day managerial skills such as effectively organizing tasks and personnel, developing rules and procedures, evaluating employees, and providing appropriate information to staff and students are vital to a successful school operation.  Without maintaining student discipline in the school, for example, few principals are perceived as effective leaders, no matter how much they may know about curriculum.

 In fact, some seemingly mundane tasks can have a huge impact on the culture of the school.  I recall a case study I participated in during my doctoral studies.  While examining the success of a school superintendent, a group of us interviewed several teachers in his district.  We asked if they felt their superintendent was a strong leader, to which they all replied with a strong affirmative.  When asked why, the most consistent reason given was, “he always answers his e-mail.”  They did not mention that he was an expert at curriculum, he was a genius at budgeting, or even that he bought shiny new buses.  No, he answered his e-mail. I’m sure there was some history we were not aware of.  Most likely the previous superintendent did not answer e-mail, giving the appearance that the teachers didn’t matter to him.  But this superintendent cared about them!

 Allow me to relate one more story.  I spend considerable time consulting for schools and other non-profit organizations, especially in the area of organizational improvement.  Recently I completed a study for the extension service of a land-grant university.  In visiting the various extension sites, I detected a common cultural thread: the employees felt valued as part of a team within their own site, but sensed a real disconnect from the main office on campus.   The primary reason seemed to be that simple tasks such as requisitions took an inordinate amount of time to process.

 In presenting my final report to the chief administrator and assistant, I pointed out that their employees were quite vocal in stating that they did not feel valued as part of a team.  The administrators expressed surprise at that notion because they did truly value each of the employees and took care to tell them so.  I pointed out that no amount of nice words can validate an employee who has to wait three months for travel reimbursement or six months for business cards.  A month or so later the assistant administrator, who was the one mostly dropping the ball on the paperwork, called me.  “Dr. Prater,” she said, “I have to tell you that your words were an epiphany for me. I thought about it, and I realized how I was making the people in this organization feel by not being timely in my tasks.  I’m going to do a better job from now on.”

 I know principals have a lot on their plate.  Really I do – I’ve been there.  But consider the effect of those seemingly mundane tasks.  Teachers need textbooks.  They need their computers fixed and their window blinds replaced.  The nurse needs bandaids and the secretary needs training on the newest computer software.  The single mother is waiting for a call back regarding her little girl.  All those “small” things you do add up to create one loud voice that says, “You are important!”

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How Do Principals Model Good Instruction?

In my first year as an assistant principal, I evaluated some 25 non-tenured teachers.  One math instructor in particular was struggling.  I monitored her classroom closely as I  began to hear complaints from students, then other teachers, and finally from parents.  The problem seemed to lie with her methodology.  She typically spent 40 minutes of the 54-minute period lecturing about a new algebraic concept, then assigned homework.  The next day the homework was collected, she lectured again, and assigned more homework.  Clearly, the students had little opportunity to practice the concepts with teacher supervision.

By the end of the first quarter, I was in full intervention mode.  I addressed the issue with her and helped her write plans of action.  As a math teacher myself, I taught her classes one full day as she observed.  A substitute was hired one day so she could observe other math teachers.  Students continued to flounder.  She just didn’t seem to “get it.”  Finally, I had an epiphany moment with her that forever changed the way I viewed my role as an administrator.  In yet another conference with her, I made the comment, “Teachers, especially math teachers, should have a pretty good idea at the end of the period whether students learned the concepts.”  She looked at me with a totally blank expression and replied, “How in the world would I know that?  I don’t know if they’ve learned the concepts until I give the test at the end of the unit.”

How did I respond?  What would you have said to her?  Not long after that I posed the question to the department heads of the high school, “how do you know if students are learning in your classroom?”  There was a long period of silence as they glanced around the room.  Finally one replied, “by the look in their eyes.”  Another said, “by the questions they ask,” and one said, “whether they ask any questions at all.”  One teacher noted, “I can tell by the level of discussion that goes on.”  The math department head said, “I walk around the room as they work the problems, and I can quickly determine if they understand.”

Principals play many roles, but one of the most important is modeling good instruction.  The effective principal continually asks the question, “are the kids learning?”  along with the follow-up questions, “how do we know if they are learning?” and “what are we going to do if they don’t learn?” 

In the rush toward making decisions based on data, I fear that we may define formative assessments as being only tests.  The formative-assessment process can greatly improve student learning if schools clearly understand it, but testing is only one part of the process.  Decisions should be made on how and what to test and whether adjustments to the curriculum should be made based on the findings.  But by misconstruing formative assessments as tests or even a particular type of test, we may diminish the potential impact of the process.

 Borrowing from the world of business, Nonaka and Takeuchi in their ground-breaking book The Knowledge-Creating Company point out that there are two types of knowledge: explicit knowledge contained in manuals and procedures, and tacit knowledge learned only by experience and communicated indirectly.  How many times have you walked into a classroom and thought, “I can feel the learning taking place?”  Great teaching is very much an example of tacit knowledge, and an effective principal transforms that tacit experience into explicit words and actions that model good instruction, especially to those teachers who may have not yet mastered the process.  Understanding that teaching and learning is a tacit experience, effective principals also empower teachers as the true experts to share in making important curriculum, testing, and program decisions.

What happened to the math teacher, you ask?  Unfortunately, in spite of interventions on the part of several people, she did not make sufficient improvement for the school to hire her back for another year.  That is another important role that principals play, one that is left for another blog post.




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Group Opposes Common Curriculum

The debate over a common, national curriculum with corresponding assessments continues.  A group led by critics of the new common academic standards recently issued a manifesto arguing against development of common academic standards.  The document, Closing the Door on Innovation: Why One National Curriculum is Bad for America, was signed by more than 100 leaders in education, business, and politics.  Largely in response to a Call for Common Content issued in March by the Albert Shanker Institute, the paper calls itself a “counter-manifesto” to the push by the U.S. Department of Education’s investment in developing assessments for common standards.

The document is just the latest entry into the controversy about common standards and assessments.  Opponents of the shared curriculum and tests argue that the movement will stifle innovation, threaten local and state control of education decisions, and standardize learning for students with diverse needs.  They say there is no evidence that it would lead to higher student achievement, nor that there is one “best” approach to curriculum for all students. 

Additionally, and possibly more important to many educators, is the plan to develop curricular resources such as model units.  They argue that such supports lead to centralized control of education at the federal level and erode the professional decisions of teachers.

The Shanker Institute and other assessment consortia that advocate for a common curriculum have said that any curricular materials should be voluntary.  They also say that they do not recommend one curriculum for all students, but multiple “curricular guides,” based on the common standards, that would allow teachers the freedom to teach the standards as they wish.

Another post on this blog highlights the debate: How Specific Should the National Curriculum Be?  Some additional articles include:

Critics Post “Manifesto” Opposing Shared Curriculum

Can the Federal Government Fund Curriculum Materials?

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