Broadening Definitions of Student Success

What is student success? What does it look like? How can we measure it? Is it academic achievement? Is it retention rates? Is it levels of social, emotional and physical wellbeing? Is it a school based measure or is it systemic? Does there have to be physical evidence to support it? The introduction of the 5P planning model in NSW Public Schools has again ignited this debate and has possibly given rise to a broader definition of student success.

There can be no doubt that parents, students and teachers want to see students succeed, but it can be difficult to actually determine what success really looks like. Making judgements about individual student success actually requires a wide range of factors to come into play and may vary depending on specific contextual information. The challenge is coming up with a credible way of measuring individual success.

There is a system requirement that we measure student success. Student academic achievement needs to be monitored, it is one way that we can identify areas for improvement and provides some form of accountability measure for systems and governments to make judgements about policy implementation and financial management. High stakes testing obviously feeds into this form of measurement. The problem with this however is that it has a limited scope and a limited capacity to cater for the individual. This style of testing can be linked to funding decisions and policy implementation which in turn has the potential to narrow the curriculum focus of teachers who may feel pressure to ensure students meet externally identified standards.  I’m not implying that results from this form of testing cannot be used in some way on a school level to assist with future planning, I do believe however, that the results are just a snapshot and have a range of contextual information that needs to be considered when interpreting them. There is no doubt that systems need to collect some form of student success measure. In my opinion the jury is still out as to whether the current high stakes testing regime is the tool to be used.

In stark contrast to the high stakes testing regime, a selection of NSW Public Schools have the opportunity to participate in a strategy known as Early Action for Success. This initiative implemented as a response to the NSW government’s State Literacy and Numeracy Plan provides teachers with high quality professional learning. An appointed Instructional Leader provides evidence based professional learning enhancing teachers’ capacity to provide best practice strategies in developing personalised learning for students and utilising a range of assessment for learning practises. Individual student results are matched against a learning continuum allow student success measures to be recorded, analysed and use in a way that drives individual student performance and focuses teaching and learning programs. Whilst these results are still used to compare with an external benchmark level, they rely on quality teaching practises that engage students to achieve levels of personal success.

If we are to broaden the definition of success we must provide students with the skills and capabilities to understand where their own learning needs to go. I strongly believe that successful students know where they are  in their learning, where they need to go and how they are going to get there. This must encompass a wide ranging curriculum. For some students success could be reaching high academic attainment, for some is may be on the sporting field, for others the area of social interaction may be an attainable goal. I am not suggesting that strong foundations and essential skills and knowledge learnt through key learning areas are not important, merely that student success should be an individualised measure driven by students and strongly supported by quality teachers. Trying to provide narrow banded definitions supported by quantifiable measures will never reflect the accurate picture that individualised measures provide.

There is much debate around the term student engagement and how we can measure this. Observing students actively engaged  in a task has the ability to provide individual success measures for a much wider range of students. If students are engaged in a task rather than on a task it allows us to measure student satisfaction with their learning and can act as the catalyst for self-driven enquiry which if managed effectively can provide powerful avenues for student success. One of the pitfall with this area that I am currently witnessing are students who are given the freedom to discover their learning with little structure or feedback. Many students are lacking the skills necessary to really understand the process of discovery learning. There can be wide spread engagement on task with little learning evident. Whilst I believe that this type of learning has the capacity to broaden the definition of student success it must be monitored and guided by quality teaching practice. Setting high expectations and holding students accountable for their learning by having them establish clear goals and being able to articulate their achievement of goals is an effective way of measuring this type of success.

It is now vitally important that our students learn a broad range of skills to enable them to interact in an increasingly globalised environment. They need  the ability work collaboratively in teams, to be creative, to be able to think critically, to be reflective and be able to evaluate their actions. To my knowledge there is no single high stakes test or single set of performance measures that provide an accurate indication of student success across these areas. A broad definition of success takes into consideration individual context and allows the setting of personal goals. In NSW Public Education our new planning model is widening our definition of student success. It is providing schools with the opportunity to identify and contextual rigorous performance measures whilst still allowing the system to fulfil its obligation of data collection. NSW Public Schools in consultation with their communities now have the capacity to  broaden their definition of student success. The challenge for the system now is to support individualised definitions and determine if high stakes testing has a relevant  place in the new world.

The Evolving Role of the NSW Public School Principal

The role of the NSW Public School Principal is challenging, it’s intellectually demanding and it comes with a great deal of responsibility, but most excitingly, it’s evolving with the support and accountability of a strong state wide system.

The eternal debate between leading and managing a school and getting the balance right is at the forefront of the mind of every NSW Public School Principal. Teacher Quality Advisor, Accountant, Maintenance Manager, Workplace Safety Officer, Family Law Expert, Strategic Analyst, Human Resources Manager, Recruitment and Retention Officer, Policy Advisor, Asset Manager, Communications and Engagement Officer and the list goes on. This increasing managerial role can make it difficult to focus on Leadership that directly impacts on improving student learning outcomes. Balancing Educational Leadership and Educational Management is an increasing struggle for NSW Public School Principals.

We are fortunate to be leading schools during a period of significant educational reform with increased principal authority allowing us to make contextual decisions with our school communities that have positive impacts on the learning outcomes of our students. It is rare however, that any educational reform succeeds without effective leadership. It is therefore vital that principals challenge their beliefs and values and reflect on their skills and knowledge to ensure that their leadership is adaptable, flexible and transformational. It is important to highlight that our system is encouraging contextual decision making, not independence. We are privileged to be in a strong system that is encouraging principals to explore new ideas and must make the most of this opportunity provided by the current educational reforms.

Highly effective principals place learning at the centre of their decision making process and understand the significant influence they have on decisions made within a school. Research supports the impact that leadership has on student achievement, ranking it second only to the impact of teachers in the classroom in the school context. With this in mind principals must be skilled in using this influence to develop a shared vision that delivers success for every student in the schools that they lead. Effective principals actively seek research-based strategies to improve teaching and learning and focus discussions on best practice strategies. The educationally courageous leader pursues best practice despite elements of their staff preferring to maintain current methodology. As leaders we must ensure that there is whole school emphasis on developing and embedding a culture of continuous improvement, where reflection on practice and student achievement play a central role in the everyday work of the school. Principals in the NSW Public Education system have the platform to inspire, challenge, stimulate and support staff to extend and expand their capacity leading to improved student learning outcomes.

An essential component of the evolving skill set of the principal is the ability to cultivate leadership in others. The ability to identify talent and strengthen a leadership team with a diverse range of views can be challenging for some. I would argue that successful principals do not lose their impact or influence as they empower those around them. On the contrary the most effective principals build a wide ranging leadership team actively seeking a blend of experience and aspirational leaders alike. Whilst surrounding ourselves with like-minded colleagues provides support and stimulates discussion we can potentially run the risk of narrowing our focus. Strong principals actively seek opportunities to be challenged, question current practices and pursue opportunities to learn from others.

The evolving role of the NSW Public School Principal requires a high degree of emotional intelligence. The ability to regulate your emotions and adapt to situations as needed are skills that can never be underestimated and can be difficult to master. In an educational landscape with increased stakeholder expectation, there are times when unreasonable demands can lead to heightened emotions. It is essential that we have the ability to understand and regulate our emotions. With this is mind, my advice in this area is to talk to the students, staff, cleaners, the GA, the office staff and parents in the same way, with respect, dignity and a good sense of humour. Now more than ever Principals require highly effective interpersonal skills.

Principals must possess the ability to think rapidly and logically in response to situations that emerge with short notice. They must process information quickly and work within policy to allocate tasks, and provide timely and accurate information. Staying calm and offering considered advice while operating under pressure are essential traits that successful educational leaders possess. High quality educational leaders are able to judge the level of intervention and leadership required in situations that arise ensuring that they expertly build the capacity of staff by identify learning opportunities when they exist. This astute judgement demonstrated by our most expert educational leaders takes time to master but is an invaluable quality of the NSW Public School Principal.

The role of the NSW Public School Principal is evolving, it is a large complex task requiring an ever increasing skill set. As is the dynamic nature of leading, our skills and capabilities grow and develop as we progress through our careers. The educational reforms are coming thick and fast and it can be taxing trying to lead across so many fronts. It is vital that we continue to network and stay actively involved in collegial groups and associations. The role of NSW Public School Principal is a privileged position that has a positive impact on students and school communities. It’s challenging, it’s demanding but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Power of NSW Public Schools

Since 1880 Public Schools in NSW have been providing free education to all children. The basic premise of the NSW Public Education system has been access for all. This remains as important now as it has ever been. NSW Public Schools remain highly accessible and inclusive for all members of their communities. However a significant transformation has occurred in NSW Public Education. This evolution of schooling has seen the development of the NSW Public Education system’s unwavering strength to provide world class education for the full range of students in the communities it serves.

In comparison many other schooling systems simply do not provide the unparalleled social inclusiveness of the NSW Public Education system. The diverse nature of our school communities contribute very strongly to the holistic development of students in NSW Public Education. If students are learning in closely aligned cohorts there is less potential for views, values and knowledge to be tested and challenged. This narrowing of perspective, I would argue, can make it more difficult for our students to succeed in an ever expanding world, where global opportunities are opening up for future generations on a daily basis. Future generations will need to be more culturally aware and need greater capacity to work across vastly diverse communities than ever before. NSW Public Schools provide an invaluable foundation for our 21st Century students.

NSW Public Education provides opportunity, equity and supports growth in teacher quality. Whilst variation can exist between schools I would suggest that our strong state wide system has the strength to ensure a more consistent approach in ensuring world class education for our students.  The research points to the variation between classrooms being a more important focus for us all.

As a principal of a high quality NSW Public School, Cabramatta Public School, I am in very a privileged position to be leading and managing a school in one of the most culturally diverse local government areas in Australia. Cabramatta Public School represents over 40 different cultural groups. What I am most proud of in my leadership of Cabramatta Public School is that every student matters. We have a positive impact on each and every one of our students regardless of background, regardless of advantage or challenge. As a school we strive to provide a balanced education that provides opportunities for our students to engage and grow academically, socially and emotionally. It is certainly my view that education needs a wide lens to actively assist in the development of the next generation of well-rounded citizens.

Is the NSW Public Education system the perfect system, I’m not sure there is such a beast. What I do believe though, is that it certainly has the courage to act and evolve in response to the needs of the communities it serves.

Irrespective of your view of NSW Public Education, what can never be denied is our united goal of great schools, quality teachers, successful students and vibrant communities.

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