At a time when schools are held accountable to the highest level of standards, strong school leadership is critical for success.
Fortunately, researchers have been exploring the school leadership factors that enable schools to successfully provide interventions to struggling readers, even in the face of complicating factors (e.g., a high percentage of the student population qualifying for free and reduced lunch).
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My review of that research and my own research has pinpointed four key factors that prove instrumental in helping struggling students become proficient readers.
1. Organizational knowledge
Developing a data-driven understanding and knowledge of students enables principals and other school leaders to make informed decisions pertaining to:
• Resource allocation – Do we have enough teachers and enough time to meet the needs of our at-risk students?
• Scheduling – Have we scheduled the reading blocks in such a way that our teachers and paraprofessionals have sufficient time to deliver instruction and provide intervention for students in need?
• Professional development – Have patterns in student skill gaps revealed a gap in teachers’ instructional abilities, requiring additional professional development?
• Funding and procurement – How do the characteristics of our student population affect the available sources of funding or the ways in which we can allocate our budget?
Effective leaders also have a strong knowledge of the range of instructional tools available to address students’ needs. Because of the huge number of programs available, many school leaders rely partly on their school leadership teams to continuously research and share information about new tools and methodologies. Information sources such as the What Works Clearinghouse and the National Center on Intensive Intervention provide a list of instructional programs, some of which have extensive efficacy research.
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Once an instructional program has been selected, school leaders must develop an in-depth understanding of the program in order to ensure proper implementation and use levels. They should also ensure that teachers use training and professional development resources provided.
2. Data use
Organizational knowledge is based, in large part, on the understanding of student data: summative data—analyzing outcome data in the spring to allocate resources and plan for the upcoming school year—as well as real-time formative data. There are a number of assessment products that can provide real-time performance data; some online instructional programs even gather student data without administering a test.
However, the most important aspect of a data-driven culture is an ongoing focus on data analysis. Frequent (e.g., weekly, bi-weekly, etc.) data meetings help schools to effectively inform instruction, accurately identify and monitor students needing intervention, and provide school leaders with the opportunity to modify children’s instructional programs and resource allocation.
Effective school leadership will take an active role in data meetings, ensuring that teachers understand how the data indicates the instructional priorities for classroom. Data meetings should also include the key players who can act on decisions made regarding the data, or, at the very least, incorporate specific next steps to ensure that instructional decisions are implemented.
High-performing schools consistently identify scheduling as one of the key factors of their success, and as such, they focus their efforts to support an uninterrupted period of at least 90 minutes for reading instruction:
• Some schools schedule a 90-minute reading block across all grades first thing in the morning, regrouping students into homogeneous skill groups in each classroom. Sometimes called the “walk and read” model, this approach helps schools better utilize all of their trained intervention staff by placing them in classrooms with the students most at-risk of reading failure.
• Other high-performing schools stagger their reading blocks, which allows reading specialists to serve multiple grades and classes throughout the day and enables them to observe and model lessons in more than one classroom or grade level during the reading block.
4. Positive beliefs and high expectations
A factor that is often overlooked in effective schools is a culture of positive beliefs and high expectations, but this may be the most important aspect of high-achieving schools. High-performing schools often have a stated, school-wide belief in their students’ abilities to achieve despite obstacles such as limited resources, low socioeconomic status, or low parental involvement.
In order to address high absenteeism or high numbers of behavior referrals, many of these schools have started expressing that positive belief to students, to parents, and to the community. When all members of the school community believe that students will be high achievers, that belief will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The 2006 report, Teaching All Students to Read: Practices from “Reading First” Schools with Strong Intervention Outcomes, written by Dr. Joseph Torgesen and myself, points out that factors such as those above are so strongly intertwined that it is not advisable to prioritize one over the other. Implementing them all together would be a daunting task for any single leader, so it is no surprise that the successful schools, highlighted in the research, began with the principal establishing a collaborative approach to leadership.
That is one of the most critical things to keep in mind as you move forward. No one person has to have all of the answers. What you do need to do is foster a shared sense of ownership in the problem and in the solution.