Excellence in Education: The Making Of Great Schools

Consider just a few of these issues: safe schools, how to better integrate technology into the curriculum, extending the school day and the school year, how much homework is too much, figuring out successful strategies to develop community-based schools, finding foreign language and science teachers, managing gender disparities in achievement and coping with testing. So let’s take a look at Excellence in Education: The Making Of Great Schools.

Sound familiar? These concerns have been the stuff of staff development meetings and educational administrator conferences here for years, as teachers, principals and superintendents struggle to adjust to an ever more demanding, and swiftly changing educational environment.

What’s different in this comprehensive and scholarly book, obviously destined for academic and policy-making circles, is that the educational system in question is that of the United Kingdom, which has in recent years been as convulsed by upheavals as our own system.

So the authors tackle many of the same questions and problems that have been the focus of similar research projects here, reaching many of the same conclusions. Particularly interesting was the calendar developed by one school, which offers a sequence of eight-week academic terms followed by two-week vacations, with only a four-week summer break, as a means to make instructional time more efficient.

Other British schools have experimented with having the school day start at 8 am (commonplace here, but not there, where 9 am has been the usual start time), offering homework clubs and after-school study support as part of an effort to deliver more effective academics to an increasingly diverse and often needy student population.

While the British have looked to America for models on how to deliver gifted and talented education—notably through the Johns Hopkins University National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth—and managing magnets and charter schools, British educators have turned their focus to France and Germany for inspiration on recasting their vocational education system. This book would be a fascinating read for anyone interested in international education, and comparative education issues; through this exploration of the British system and its challenges, it is perhaps easier to identify precisely what educators in America need to do.

Principals urged to rethink roles for quality schools

The role of principals must be redefined in the 21st century as U.S. schools struggle to boost student achievement, a school leaders group said Monday.

Gone are the days when principals spent most of their time with bus schedules, fire drills, and general curriculum, says the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). Today’s school leaders must keep abreast of state and federal goals, the latest technologies and teaching practices, as well as learn to use data to spot gaps in learning among all students.

“Influenced by the academic standards movement — which is demanding that we focus on equity and instruction as never before — school leaders are thinking anew about how to define ‘quality’ in schools and how to create and manage the environments that support it,” says the NAESP in a comprehensive handbook.

Also, a potential shortage of school leaders has been predicted by research that shows large numbers of principals are reaching retirement age.

The NAESP notes six standards that redefine the responsibilities of elementary and middle school leaders.

Principals must be able to:

  • Lead schools in a way that student learning and teacher training are key focuses; tie the daily operations to school and student learning goals that are set by parents, staff and the community.
  • Set high expectations for the academic and social development of all students, teachers, and staff. Assure the resources to meet high standards.
  • Hire and retain high-quality teachers and hold them responsible for student learning; provide up-to-date technology and instructional materials.
  • Connect professional development to school learning goals; provide opportunities for teachers to work, plan and think together.
  • Consider a variety of data sources to measure performance.
  • Share leadership and decision-making with parents, teachers and the community.

“Regardless of location, racial or socioeconomic demographics, communities demand that principals lead the instructional and academic performance in their schools,” says Darrell Rud, NAESP president and principal of Newman Elementary in Billings, Mont.

The standards, written by a panel of principals, build on two previous NAESP publications. They will be distributed free to all association members, federal and state policymakers, leaders in the education community and others involved with the recruitment and development of principals.

While not mandated, Rud says the standards should give schools and communities “guidelines as to what professionals feel is a strong leader.”