Last week I had the opportunity to tour a couple of public schools in Detroit with Eric Nadelstern, a professor of Educational Leadership at Teachers College at Columbia University. Previously he was a deputy chancellor in New York City's Department of Education. Eric is an articulate, well-published leader who is not afraid to challenge the status quo.
Below are some of the key questions Eric asked of the principal at each school in order to assess the quality of the leadership and instruction.
Where do the students go when they leave your school? Where do you want them to go?
Faculty need to engage in a conversation about what a graduate from the school should be able to do in order to be successful at the next level. This dialogue should lead to consideration of the implications in the scope and sequence of the curriculum at every level, along with faculty committees (e.g., personnel, curriculum, professional development) given responsibility for implementation. This should produce a comprehensive structure that defines how all of the people, processes, and systems connect and accomplish the mission and objectives of the school.
What is the best thing about your job?
Principals are under tremendous pressure everyday and need to intentionally remind themselves of the joy and rewards from their work.
How would you describe your faculty?
Having the autonomy to hire one's own faculty is important but not sufficient to provide an outstanding education. The principal must also have a well-defined process for building a learning organization that fosters faculty growth. Eric recommends using a simple system where faculty are rated based on the level of student engagement, student product, and student assessment. Teachers need to know where they rank and how to improve.
If you believe that Teaching is Listening and Learning is Talking, how would you adjust your school structure to maximize teaching and learning?
Too many classrooms are dominated by talking teachers who frown on being interrupted by students as they persistently share their knowledge. Given the research, however, we know that the most effective teachers listen far more than they talk and that students learn more when they are creating valuable content.
What is your system for measuring teacher progress? What are you working on with your teachers?
The principal's primary responsibility should be adult learning, providing the instructional leadership required to maximize the quality and growth of each member of the faculty. Assessment should focus on the outputs rather than the inputs. Fluency preceeds accuracy. Teachers need to see the big professional development goals for this year, and the discrete skills that are required to progress through the PD continuum. This responsiblity cannot be diluted by having accountability shared among the administrative team--the buck stops at the principal's office!
"As the principal, the faculty is your class. Principalship is adult education."
How do you minimize teacher isolation?
Common class schedules isolate teachers in their classrooms with minimal time to interact with and learn from the other adults in the building. Teacher schedules need to allow peer observation and feedback. Eric recommended that collaborative teaching teams be considered, where a teacher from each of the four major curriculum disciplines--English Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies--are assigned a group of students and own their results. These teachers would have control over how time is used during the class day, including negotiating with specials teachers regarding those class times. This approach can produce tremendous results regardless of the age or grade-level, and minimizes the conditions that allow students to fall through the cracks.
What's the most spectacular student product you've seen in your school?
Most classrooms and schools are overpopulated with teacher product instead of student product--this is especially true in elementary schools. As the school leader, you must implement what you personally believe are the circumstances under which people best learn. Whether that's in small groups, self-paced, project-based, etc. The professional development program should reflect and model these practices.
"Every student in this building, regardless of learning challenges,
is the highest form of intelligence on this earth."
How would you describe the best teacher lesson you've seen in your school?
Based on the data produced from your classrooms, identify the people and methods that are producing unusually good results. Is this something than can be shared, standardized, and or expanded?
Eric recommended allowing teachers to volunteer to participate in being a "student for a day," where the teacher spends the entire day with a selected student. Ideally this is a student who is underperforming expectations. From the moment of arrival until departure at the end of the day, the teacher sees the school from the viewpoint of the student. Each teacher participant is provided with a substitute for the day, and is expected to report to the entire faculty about the lessons and suggestions learned from this experience.