EducationWorld is pleased to feature a variety of book excerpts in collaboration with Stenhouse Publishers. The following excerpt comes from The Principal Difference: Key Issues in School Leadership and How to Deal with Them Successfully, by Susan Church (Pembroke Publishers, 2005; distributed in the U.S. by Stenhouse Publishers). The book retails for $21 and is available on the Stenhouse Web site. See the book for a full list of works cited in this article.
Genuine and lasting school improvement requires schools to engage in ongoing self-evaluation. This article discusses the benefits of taking the reins of school assessment. For two additional excerpts from The Principal Difference, see Strengthening Literacy Learning for Boys and Garnering Community Involvement.
When schools seize the initiative by interpreting and communicating the results of external assessments, they engage in a process of what in school improvement parlance is called “telling your own story” (MacBeath; MacBeath & McGlynn). Schools must develop the capacity to set criteria and goals, collect evidence, and communicate what they have learned to multiple publics in order to speak for themselves, instead of allowing those outside the school to speak for them.
For example, one principal wanted to find ways to demonstrate why and how students’ participation in school assemblies and concerts contributes to the achievement of learning outcomes. Through discussions with staff and parents, the level and quality of such participation could become one of the indicators of student achievement, valued not only because it reflects one of the school’s priorities but also because it contributes to meeting external curricular expectations. She knew that she needed to make the learning potential of such experiences visible in order to sustain teacher and parent support for their inclusion in the program. As well, students themselves needed to become more aware of how experiences both within and beyond the classroom contributed to their learning.
Schools that are serious about self-evaluation take a learning stance in relation to their performance, engaging in ongoing critical reflection. Principals have key roles to play in creating and sustaining a climate of inquiry in their schools. When principals regularly seek input on their own performances, they not only gather useful information, but also demonstrate what it means to be critically reflective about professional practices.
Thomas Hoerr, a principal in the United States, seeks feedback from staff through a simple survey that he distributes each spring. He asks,
Several times a year he invites staff to have breakfast with him and to discuss anything that is on their minds. He also distributes short surveys to parents once a year, in which he asks parents to offer comments on the school’s strengths and weaknesses, to discuss how well the school is meeting their individual child’s needs, to offer opinions about the school’s efforts to communicate, and to provide feedback on whether the principal has been supportive. From time to time, in his weekly letter to parents, he asks them to indicate a single adjective that expresses how things are going.
School self-evaluation initiatives can involve the development of multiple criteria of success (indicators) and the collection of different types of qualitative and quantitative evidence. For example, MacBeath describes a study in which he and colleagues worked with schools over several years. Drawing on the research on school improvement, they identified indicators within ten themes: school climate; relationships; classroom climate; support for learning; support for teaching; time and resources; organization and communication; equity; recognition of achievement; and home-school links. For each indicator, they described the kinds of evidence, both qualitative and quantitative, that schools might use to show how they were doing in relation to the indicator. Further, they listed the types of methods that might be used to gather the evidence: observations, surveys, review of documents, analysis of assessment results, records of attendance and participation, monitoring of discipline incidents, and many others.
MacBeath emphasizes that the framework developed for the study is just an example of what was done in one context. While schools can build on the work of others, most of the learning occurs through the struggle to describe what is important and to determine ways of demonstrating progress towards accomplishing what is important. As those involved in the MacBeath study worked towards consensus on themes and indicators, they debated important questions that generated crucial discussions about values and purposes. Principals might find these questions similarly generative as they work with staff and community in school self-evaluation.
Through giving a focus to such complex and sometimes contentious questions, principals and their schools can become part of larger conversations about meaning and purpose in public education. When schools take responsibility for evaluation processes that enable them to speak for themselves, they can claim a stronger voice in the discussions that have implications for the policies and institutional practices that shape their work. They become active participants in effecting change, rather than simply recipients of externally mandated school improvement directives.
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