School Improvement in Maryland

Keep the Focus on Student Achievement

The allocation of time is one of the truest tests of what is really important in any organization. The time devoted to an issue on both the annual calendar and within the daily schedule of an organization tells its people what is really valued.

Align time, money, and staff development with the goals

A key challenge for principals is to keep a sharp focus on the target. Given the many competing agendas operating within and without schools, it is always difficult to keep staff focused on improving student achievement. One only has to look at the central office meeting agendas to get a clear idea of the number of issues that can pull schools off that focus. As principal, you have the primary role in keeping this focus at your school. It is you who determines how staff time is used, what is monitored, what is recognized, and how inservice time and resources are used. Therefore, paying careful attention to how you use regularly scheduled staff meeting time, what messages you give and what you recognize and monitor are critical aspects of focusing your staff on the target.

Robert Eaker points out that "modeling is the way leaders 'advertise' their personal values—and the central values around which the organization operates. All too often school officials espouse certain ideals and beliefs but then pay attention to other things. Students and faculty learn what is truly valued in a school by observing what school leaders pay attention to." Consequently, any assessment of a principal's effectiveness in communicating values should include the following questions:

  1. What does the principal plan for?
  2. What does the principal monitor?
  3. What does the principal model?
  4. What does the principal reinforce through recognition and celebration?
  5. What behavior is the principal willing to confront?

The allocation of time is one of the truest tests of what is really important in any organization. The time devoted to an issue on both the annual calendar and within the daily schedule of an organization tells its people what is really valued. Successful principals keep the focus on school improvement efforts and align time, money, and staff development opportunities with the student achievement goals.

You might want to self-assess your success in keeping your focus by answering the following questions:

  • What did you do at your last two staff meetings?
  • What did you do at your last two team meetings?
  • What did you do at your last in-service day?
  • Were all of these activities aligned with your focus?
  • What message is staff receiving from how you spend your time with them?

In most organizations, what gets monitored gets done. When a school devotes considerable time and effort to the continual assessment of a particular condition or outcome, it notifies all members that the condition or outcome is considered important. Conversely, inattention to monitoring a particular factor in a school indicates that it is less than essential, regardless of how often its importance is verbalized.

Principals have numerous opportunities to pay attention to student achievement goals. Perhaps the most important way is to ensure that regularly scheduled time with staff (staff meetings, team meetings, inservice activities) reflects and reinforces the importance of the progress toward achievement goals. Agenda topics should include analyzing and sharing data, problem solving barriers and solutions, examining student work, recognizing efforts, celebrating progress on achievement goals, and sharing successful practices.

One strategy for focusing staff and stakeholders on your student achievement goals is to display the progress toward attainment of the goals on a bulletin board, display case or school wall. The display should allow staff and stakeholders to quickly see where you are, where you are heading, and how the journey is going. You should also communicate progress toward attainment of the student achievement goals in newsletters and other correspondence to staff, parents, and other stakeholders. You should not miss a communication opportunity to reinforce that your top instructional priority is improved student achievement.

Monitoring staff on their collection and use of data is also a critical way to keep staff clear about your priorities. Your school's monitoring plan will already have identified what data need to be submitted to whom and how frequently and how the student performance data will be discussed and used. You will need to monitor the plan and its use on different levels. You will need to make sure the data is being submitted and confront any teachers who are not complying with the expectation to submit their data in a timely way. The attached memo illustrates one way you can both reaffirm the importance of the process as well as remind staff of their assignment. You will need to monitor how frequently and how well they are able to analyze their data and use the results to modify their instruction. You will need to know if they are interpreting the data and can answer basic questions about student success including which students or what percent of their class have mastered an indicator. You will need to make sure that teams have reached consensus on proficiency on an indicator/objective and have diagnosed student strengths and areas of need. Finally, you will need to monitor whether staff are using the student performance data to modify their instruction to address student diagnosed needs.