Lessons Learned through Partnership: The Journey of Governors State University
Governors State University has been committed to supporting local schools in forming collaborative teams, engaging in hard conversations, and sharing data in ways that foster school improvement. Their experiences highlight the importance of shared leadership and the principal's role in establishing a collaborative culture—endeavors found to be vitally important in driving change and impacting student achievement.
At Governors State University, we were very pleased to see the National Center for Literacy Education’s focus on the importance of leadership and school culture with its 2012 report Remodeling Literacy Learning: Making Room for What Works.
Governors State University has had the opportunity to work closely with high-need school districts in the south suburban region of Chicago on various initiatives with a focus on collaboration. I feel blessed that, after twenty years of teaching, I came to a University that had a strong commitment to working closely with schools. In our elementary program, our professors have been teaching all methods courses in our lab sites for almost thirty years.
I’d like to share some of our initiatives focusing on the importance of collaboration and the principal’s role which relate to this study, as well as some of our lessons learned on this journey. Recently we developed a Framework for Collaborative Teacher Preparation because we realize that teaching is very sophisticated work that demands a true partnership over time, with teacher preparation programs and school districts working closely together to fulfill our missions.
This framework is grounded on our extensive work with area schools, but came to fruition through our work with our current Teacher Quality Partnership grant which includes a yearlong residency for our candidates. What follows is our focus on the fourth link in our framework—“Focused Work with District and Building Administrators.”
We have had several grants which have played a central role in our major areas of work, our induction and mentoring initiatives and our alternative certification program. Our main focus has been preparing high quality teachers and working with school districts to provide high quality support through comprehensive induction with intensive mentoring. It did, however, become increasingly clear over time that we needed to work more closely with district administrators, particularly principals, to enhance the strong partnership and have the greatest impact on student learning. Hallinger and Heck (1998) noted some time ago that which is so often highlighted today—that school principals are second only to classroom teachers as the most influential factor related to school achievement.
The Principal’s Role in Induction and Mentoring
We received a state induction grant that provided a great opportunity in this area. We included administrator learning communities as part of this initiative with 15 partner districts. We realized that we had effective principals who were working very hard, but they did not have a strong grasp on certain concepts related to new teachers that we thought would be very valuable, particularly new teacher development and the role of the principal in supporting them, as well as the research on new teacher attrition related to leadership and school culture (Johnson, Kraft & Papav, 2012).
Two members of the University induction team went to an administrative team meeting in each district to share this important work with the district and building administrators. Each administrator in our partnership was given a copy of Jonathon Saphier’s book, Beyond Mentoring, which highlights the role of the principal in supporting new teachers. As a part of this grant, each principal developed an action plan with a goal in each of these areas:
- Personal support of the district’s induction and mentoring program
- Personal support of the new teachers in the building
- Facilitation of support for all new teachers by the entire faculty
- Facilitation of alignment of mentor/protégé work with building initiatives.
Because of this focus on working with administrators over the three years of the state funding, we were very proud that when the funding ended, our partners continued their induction programs. We do not think this would have happened without this important work with the administrators.
Our current Teacher Quality Partnership Grant has provided the opportunity to work on school culture and the importance of the principal’s role in several initiatives. Dr. Joseph Murphy from Vanderbilt University, a national leader in the areas of school improvement and the principalship, was hired as a consultant through the grant to assist on various leadership initiatives described below.
Principal Performance-Based Assessment
In collaboration with the University’s Metropolitan Institute for Leadership in Education (MILE), we worked with University faculty and administrators from our region to develop a Principal Performance-Based Evaluation system. Dr. Murphy had been working with several states around the country in this area and our state was mandating a program the following year. We were the only pilot in the state and are now entering our third year of implementation. Our model includes the Vanderbilt Assessment of Leadership in Education (VAL-ED), the only valid and reliable 360 assessment available (American Institute for Research, 2012).
A survey of our participants by our external evaluator indicated that they believe that the evaluation system has had an impact on improved communication. Principals and superintendents agree that setting and working towards principals’ student growth goals, professional, and organizational goals has the greatest impact on communication with teachers (OERAssociates, 2013). Collaboration is enhanced as they seek their staffs’ input in determining the foci of their goal setting.
Our model includes Professional Learning Communities with Dr. Murphy. We are currently working with our partner principals on strategies for sharing the VAL-ED data with their teachers to work together on school improvement. As one can imagine, there is a range in how principals are approaching this process. It is powerful to hear them interacting in the PLCs about making difficult choices on sharing their VAL-ED results, showing their vulnerabilities because they know, in the long run, it is what is best for their school and their students.
The NCLE study results indicate that principals were more positive than teachers about existing conditions for collaboration in their schools. At our next PLC, we will share the results of the NCLE study, with particular focus on the conditions for collaboration, including the teachers’ and principals’ perceptions, which link directly to the challenges and opportunities of sharing the VAL-ED data with their staffs. Sharing these national results could provide valuable groundwork for the often difficult conversations about teachers’ views on their principals performance from the VAL-ED results.
Closing the Achievement Gaps Professional Learning Community
As part of the TQP grant, we have been able to provide the opportunity for building administrator and teacher leader teams to develop projects for their buildings based on Dr. Murphy’s research from his book Closing the Achievement Gaps and to share their work in an ongoing PLC. The GSU GAPS PLC also has a site on the NCLE Literacy in Learning Exchange, sharing their work with the wider community. School culture has been central to this work and many are using the NCLE Asset Inventory with their team and/or staffs for this ongoing work.
The NCLE study indicated that only 20% or fewer principals viewed their work in teams as part of a collegial conversation rather than as supervisors. These GAPS teams of administrators and teacher leaders developing specific projects for work with their staffs for closing the achievement gaps in their schools provide an excellent model of administrator/teacher collegial work.
In both our Principal Evaluation PLC and our GAPS PLC, our work with Dr. Murphy has evolved to include his recent work on strengthening school culture, from his upcoming book Creating Productive Culture: Communities for Students, Teachers, and Parents (Corwin Press, 2014.)
Last week we offered our first full day workshop for our region on this work—“Academic Press and Supportive Culture: The Paradigm Shift for Improving Student Outcomes.” This research emphasizes that our current emphasis on academic press—i.e., a strong focus on academic success—is not in itself enough to get the outcomes needed. The workshop provides a strong framework for leaders to strengthen their school culture by providing supportive culture not only for professionals but for students as well, and includes the research that shows that both academic press and supportive culture are essential for optimizing student outcomes.
We are very proud that our collaboration with our partners has continued to evolve. We have been able to provide opportunities for them, and we have learned so much from them by active involvement with schools. Preparing high quality professionals and supporting them and their leaders is strengthened by collaborative partnerships with a focus on strengthening the supportive cultures of their schools.
Lessons We’ve Learned
- Go to the schools! Universities can facilitate the collaborative partnership by willingness to meet on site.
- Networking across districts is powerful. Principals love to hear from other principals about how they approach like challenges.
- Focused discussion on pertinent research is important. In the hectic day-to-day operation of schools, it may be difficult to sort through important research. We found that most of our principals did not know about the research on new teacher attrition—that weak leadership and school culture were major issues for new teachers.
- Building trust takes time. Principals sharing their own experiences about their vulnerabilities and challenges in sharing their VAL-ED 360 data has had far more impact than just noting how important it is to do it.
- PLCs are important. As we know, ongoing interactive professional development is what works. We must view these initiatives as ongoing processes of continuous improvement.
- We keep learning. This work on providing a supportive culture for students may be the most critical of all, but can it happen without a supportive culture for professionals? Administrators are key.
Condon, C. & Clifford, M. (2012). How rigorous are commonly used principal performance assessment instruments? American Institute for Research.
Hallinger, P., & Heck, R.H. (1998). Exploring the principal's contribution to school effectiveness: 1980-1995. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 9, 157-191.
Johnson, S. M., Kraft, M.A., & Papav, J. P. (2012). How context matters in high-need schools: The effects of teachers’ working conditions on their professional satisfaction and their students’ achievement. Teachers College Record, 114, 10 1-39.
Rasher, S. (2013). Governors State University MILE teacher quality partnership college of education GSU principal performance-based evaluation plan surveys technical report #1020. OERAssociates.