Wanted: Leaders in schools
There is new international research citing strong management as one of the key factors affecting school performance.
Educator Dr Marcelyn Collins-Figueroa, who has been mulling over the findings, reported to The Fourth Floor on research conducted by the London School of Economics across countries. Good management in schools, the study concluded, has a stronger effect on student outcomes, more so than class size or the quality of teaching.
Convinced of the importance of leadership and accountability, Fourth Floor participants sent a clear message that now is the time to accelerate efforts to strengthen school leadership and nurture effective leaders who have the vision to steer the winds of change in Jamaica's schools, particularly in the 39 per cent that are badly underperforming.
Participants in the education discussion heard examples of turn-around efforts by some of the country's effective school leaders like those at Jamaica College in St Andrew, Denbigh High in Clarendon, and Old Harbour High in St Catherine. It was observed that some of these leaders were not given enough time at any school to produce an enriching effect on the educational aspirations of students. In any event, there were not enough transformational leaders to maintain the required rigor in the system or to produce the desired outcomes.
Emulate top principals
Former Education Minister Maxine Henry-Wilson noted that there were many successful principals whose methods of collecting and studying data about students, teachers, and offering systematic feedback, while seeking input from parents, teachers, and students, ensured the development of a shared vision around standards and school success. It was suggested that the management practices adopted by the best schools could be successfully imported to other schools.
Dr Canute Thompson, educator and leadership coach, drew attention to the efforts by the National College of Education Leadership (NCEL) to train principals through its Aspiring Principal Programme. He lauded the programme for making important linkages with the community.
"One of their modules is called community leadership, and in that module practitioners are taught how to identify community resources and build partnerships to leverage the support of the community," he explained.
Several references were made to Campion College, seen nationally as an oasis of excellence located not too far from several poor-performing schools.
Some Fourth Floor participants felt that placing the head of Campion, say, in an inner-city school could yield great results in the same way that inner city students excelled at schools like Campion. Others, however, doubted that the excellence of Campion could be easily transferred.
Henry-Wilson said it was a matter of culture. In one instance, an active parent-teacher association and alumni body support the school, including providing scarce resources like a computer lab or a library. In many inner-city schools, parents are unresponsive to the school's pleas for support. In fact, one of the disturbing trends observed in inner-city schools is the phenomenon of absentee parents. Students often do not value education, and there is no connection between school and community.
New Forrest transformation
Trisha Williams-Singh, senior corporate relations manager at Digicel, is not convinced that good practices cannot be successfully transferred, having seen the transformation of New Forrest Primary and Junior High in the three years that she has chaired the board. She was insistent that transformational leaders can make a difference over time, wherever they are placed.
Thompson also believes it can be done. In fact, he has been looking at the question of performance contracts and painted a scenario wherein a successful principal gets a 50 per cent raise in salary and is given a contract to turn a school around in three years. He is assessed every six months, and at the end of three years, if he does not achieve the targets, he reverts to his regular salary and is sent elsewhere.
Concerns about accountability were raised by some participants on the Fourth Floor. In recent times, public discourse about education inevitably focuses on accountability, with increasing demands for the school's leadership to be held accountable for performance.
While school leaders cannot reasonably be expected to be hands-on with curriculum and instructional issues, they can have an impact on the teachers they hire, how they assign these teachers, how they mentor teachers, and, create opportunities for their staff to grow and develop.
There was unanimous agreement from The Fourth Floor that without transformational leaders, most of the goals of educational improvement would be difficult to achieve.