The Pressure to Balance High Stakes Testing Against Individualised Education
The pressure to balance high stakes testing against individualised education is mounting. I recently read a blog outlining the strengths of high stakes testing. To be fair the blogger addressed issues of why they believed high stakes testing is here to stay and to a point I agree.
Systems and governments will always need accountability measures to be able to justify expenditure and policy decisions. Governments and systems know that they cannot show improvement if they do not have a performance measure. Monitoring and reviewing academic outcomes allows the identification of best practices and areas for development. It also provides data that schools can be held accountable for. I don’t think that any educator has an issue with the theory behind the premise. However high stakes testing has gained such momentum that it is creating pressure cooker environments that run the risk of undermining the accuracy and validity of the data being collected.
High stakes testing is designed to improve student learning, however they are generally held so infrequently that they provide little ongoing advice to support individual student learning needs. I believe that this lack of timely feedback reduces the impact and intended purpose of high stakes testing. Whilst results gained provide data that may indicate particular trends over time, the most significant improvements are found at individual item analysis where improvement has been driven by teaching and learning programs that focus on test specific questioning. This in my opinion raises the question of teaching to the test, a practice that educators know happens. I believe that this practice has the potential to narrow the curriculum focus at the expense of other subject areas. When schools and systems are driven by high stakes testing results, the data analysis and pressure to succeed can consume a schools timetable. Systems are littered with stories of weekly testing regimes that aim to prepare students for an upcoming examination period. This is usually done at the expense of subjects in the arts and humanities. I am sure that many schools have tried to predict an upcoming writing examination and have worked towards preparing students at the expense of writing for a broad range of purposes. It’s just basic mathematics, if we are spending more time focusing on test preparation then something has to go. What I believe this demonstrates is that the pressure of such tests can erode their validity and integrity, as educators continue to refine systems and routines that focus on improving test scores. The ability to rehearse and learn testing skills has spawned big business. Many publishing companies have entered this market developing textbooks, programs and professional learning aimed at increasing a student’s ability to succeed at standardised tests. I am sure educators would agree that high stakes testing will never define nor encompass a well-rounded broad education.
The challenge I see for education systems is to ensure that the pressure from high stakes testing does not drive us away from our curriculum. In NSW Public Education we certainly have high states testing but we are also using learning continuums to plot student achievement and identify the next level of skills and knowledge needed. These continuums target aspects that have been identified as critical to ongoing literacy and numeracy achievement. They allow teachers to make ongoing judgements about student achievement in literacy and numeracy based on a range of assessment information. This helps us navigate a clearer learning path rather than a point in time destination. Tracking student achievement every 5 weeks helps teachers identify students who are risk of not meeting pre-determined benchmarks. Identifying these students allows for the design of targeted interventions at very specific levels. System based high stakes testing provides feedback, but months after the event. Using our learning continuums and PLAN data students are tracked on a system designed database that enables the extraction of results for real time reporting to our system and government, thus serving the accountability purpose of high stake testing without the cost or the pressure. Every term this data can be analysed for areas of strength and areas for improvement at a school and system level. This enables both individual school and system level resource flexibility and responsiveness.
Improving student achievement requires targeted professional learning based on evidence. We must use this evidence to build teacher capacity and focus teaching efforts to identify and specifically design individualised instruction. This move in NSW Public Education, particularly supported by the Early Action for Success initiative, has increased teacher confidence informing learning intentions and using specific language for instruction. Every teaching moment is intentional with teachers becoming more confident in prioritising time to specifically target what matters for the individual student. Having benchmarks that identify where students should be on the continuum helps gives teachers a goal to work towards. This method of tracking learning provides very immediate feedback and feed forward for both teachers and students. In short it is a tight and systematic method of tracking student achievement. When we have access to immediate data we can make a shift tomorrow not next month. The continuum allows us to maintain high expectations but provides an explicit scaffold for how to get there.
Students in NSW Public Education are now more than ever before clearer about their responsibility in their own learning; they know where they are and where they need to go. They are now developing sound skills in monitoring their own progress. This goal oriented and self-regulated learning is building students’ awareness of the learning process, a lifelong skill that will enable them to make informed decisions about their learning journey. On my recent trip to Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer Jon Mundorf said the following “formative assessment never closes.” He went on to explain that point in time testing is like a store with opening hours, it operates during a specified timeframe. In NSW Public Education our learning continuums are always open, they are like the 24/7 convenience store always there, always open and ready for business. I am certainly not advocating for a choose your own adventure style of teaching, this is targeted, it’s intentional and it’s driven by curriculum achievement. Will high stakes testing ever disappear? Does it have a place? I guess these questions will continue to be asked, studied, researched and debated. What I do know however is that while it is here the pressure to balance it against individualised education will continue.
Tales From Harvard – Part 2
Whatever you think a week at Harvard might be like multiply it by 1000 and then you may be close. I have been asked by so many people to describe what it was like and I find it extremely difficult. I honestly believe that unless you were there you will never truly comprehend the power of this life changing experience. To be given quarantined time to work, study and live with 179 high quality leaders from 17 countries is an experience that will leave an indelible mark on my leadership. I was speaking to some parents from my school, Cabramatta Public School, prior to my departure and they were so pleased that our school community had been recognised, it gave them great pride that the Cabramatta area would be represented on a world stage. Walking to Harvard that first day and sitting in Radcliffe Yard looking around I felt an enormous sense of pride, but was also very humbled by the opportunity given to me.
What became evident very quickly at Harvard was that the issues that we face in Australian education are issues faced by education systems worldwide. Increasing societal demands, the pressure to balance high stakes testing against individualised education, teacher quality, leadership replacement, getting the right mix of leading and managing and developing school culture were topics of conversation across all 17 countries. What I would say is that our system in NSW Public Education have evolved into a dynamic and powerful force that has made many advances in comparison to some of the systems I encountered. Our planning model, funding model, community consultation, teacher development and early career teacher support structures and professional standards are areas that my colleagues at Harvard were very interested in.
From day 1 the heat was placed firmly on us as the leaders of our schools and systems. What is your strategy? What impact are you having on the culture of your school? Your system? I entered Harvard with a pre conceived idea that I would come away and fix things, systems, schools. I left more reflective of my own place in developing culture and building relationships and my ability to be clear about strategy. I need a deep understanding of this and my role in developing it before I can save the education world. My entire career I have lived by the mantra of relationships, relationships, relationships. A week in Harvard has only confirmed this view but has me reflecting on my previous ability to successfully uphold this mantra. Have my words and actions really supported this? Whilst I pride myself on being able to talk with anyone, I am reflecting on my true commitment to develop deep relationships across the schools that I have worked in. I have always worked well with my community and staff and obviously have a great knowledge of my students particularly those that I have taught but that really deep knowledge to understand what motivates and drives people I think has been lacking.
In some ways the course confirmed things that you already knew but really made you think deeply about why you held them to be true or why you considered them best practice. What struck me most was the power of relationships. When you have a group of people who know why they do what they do, they understand their purpose, collectively that sense of belonging is so powerful. Powerful relationships form bonds and develop culture and this sense of belonging can allow you to achieve the unimaginable. The key themes of being strategic, building school culture, immunity to change and developing teacher quality permeated most presentations. In addition to this a few quotes stood out for me. “Formative assessment never closes” Jon Mundorf. “You will never change what you are willing to tolerate.” Katherine Merseth. “A leader who is silent on mediocrity speaks loudly.” Kim Marshall
As leaders we have a significant impact on the culture of an organisation. I left more reflective of my own place in developing culture and building relationships and my ability to be clear about strategy. As a leader of a NSW Public School you need to very focused on your school vision. In the day to day operation of a school it is easy to get distracted and to try to take on too much. We get excited in our quest to improve what we do and sometimes this can leave you working across many fronts. Schools can get very busy and it is easy to get caught up with the noise on the periphery. You must know your strategic areas and be disciplined in ensuring that they remain the main priority. Ensuring that the main thing is the main thing, is the main thing. Our job is to educate our students, to develop lifelong learners who are well-adjusted citizens. Leaders need to ensure that the school stays focused on their strategic areas, stays reflective, stays sharp and continues to deliver high quality education for their students. Continually answering the following questions is a good practice to get in to. Why are we doing what we are doing? What are we doing? Is it making a difference? How do you know? I believe that if we keep these questions in mind then we can help all members of our school community reflect, continuously improve, and bring their ‘A’ game every day.
On the walls hung a huge banner “Learn to Change the World”. The course certainly left you feeling like you could do this but only after a period of inward reflection where you were challenged to change yourself first. Professor Robert Keegan delivered a lecture on Engaging Our Own Immunity to Change. This really challenged me to be very self-reflective. He asks why is it that people don’t change even when they know they should. He quoted examples of people who have had health scares that don’t change lifestyle choices, or consistently follow up with medication and had us reflect on changes that we have tried to make and the reasons why they may have not eventuated. He challenged us to test our underlying beliefs and assumptions around change. This was a very powerful lecture. He has a process that he lead us through to discover our own change immune system. I think this is something that I have certainly taken away from Harvard and can see how this will impact on all facets of my life. What will I change? I’m not sure but after a week at Harvard learning with and from some inspiring educators I will certainly have the courage to do what is necessary.
Tales from Harvard – Part 1
I am sitting at Sydney International Airport waiting to board a plane to Boston Massachusetts to attend a course at The Harvard Graduate School of Education. The course Leadership an Evolving Vision, is designed to allow participants to expand their leadership practices and challenge their current beliefs surrounding their educational vision. In the hallowed lecture theatres of Harvard participants have quarantined time to examine, refine, refocus and revitalise their current educational strategies. It has me thinking, in 48 hours I will be sitting with 200 principals from 20 countries, will I be able to articulate my educational vision? What is my vision? Do I convey this vision to my staff consistently or do my actions counteract my words? I am sure by the time I leave Harvard I’ll be able to answer these questions with a little more clarity. But for the sake of reflective practice, I thought I’d give it a go now.
As a Principal a vision means having a clear idea of what your school is, could be or should be. I believe that it is a single focus goal that drives your school, the main reason that you do what you do. It permeates everything that happens at your school. The trap we fall into when thinking about our visions is that we feel that it needs to be some profound elaborately worded statement. I firmly believe that if you can’t explain the vision in a few simple sentences then chances are it won’t be easily understood by all members of the school community. The more complex it is, the more susceptible it is to variation and interpretation. Once you have had some time to cement the vision into the fabric of the school, staff members, students and parents should be able to articulate in their own way what the school is about.
A vision is nothing without the backing of your actions. Under the current educational reforms in the NSW Public Education system each school has the authority to construct their own vision in consultation with their community that best meets their contextual needs. Each school’s vision is not necessarily system bound, but is backed by a strong system. The increase in principal authority to make contextual decisions is enabling school communities to ensure that they are able to support their vision with their allocated resources. This provides schools with a strong platform from which to launch their educational journeys.
As a leader I am aware that I need to communicate and articulate the vision regularly it cannot be developed and implemented successfully if it is communicated sporadically. In this period of new school planning this is something that I believe many Principals are coming to terms with. As we work through our new school plans many are finding that the overall vision whilst compelling may be too broad. As the leader of a school you need to be focussed on the core business of teaching and learning. Sometimes in the busy schedule of a school we need to be reminded of this. As a leader you need to have a deep understanding of the vision. You need to understand how to guide and manage the school for successful implementation ensuring that the distractions on the peripheral don’t derail your efforts. Having a strong understanding of your vision provides you with a structure to hang your decision making from. When faced with challenges and tough decisions being able to run it against your vision helps to clarify your decision making process. Does my decision align with what we want our school to be?
I believe that you must be persistent and relentless in pursuing the vision as without these attributes the power of tradition can take over and grind any transformation to a halt. You may be required to challenge the culture or current practices, this doesn’t mean that they don’t have value, but unless they are tested how do you know they are effective. Even with a transformative vision it is still important to honour the past and respect and value the skills of those that came before you. Recognising and acknowledging that people add value to their work, building a sense of achievement ensuring that each member of staff knows that they have an important role to play in achieving the vision helps build momentum.
I am hoping that my learnings at Harvard will enable me to confirm that I am on the right path or at least on the right side of the road. The pre readings thus far are asking me to identify and challenge my leadership style and determine if I am able to lead effectively. Have I been able to develop a clear vision? Do I know what it is that I am trying to accomplish? Can I articulate my vision effectively enough to gain support? Am I able to motivate my staff and provide enough guidance to keep the transformation moving forward? Do I actively support my vision in words and actions? If I say one thing but my actions, body language and even the tone of my delivery say another then people will never get on board. It’s an interesting reflective exercise and I can see that I will grow from the experience. It’s my own internal 360 degrees survey. I’d encourage you to try it.
The opportunity to study at Harvard will give me time to reflect on whether my vision is just words on a strategic plan or if it embodies each and every interaction I have in my school. I hope that my leadership provides a supportive collegial environment that focuses on professional growth, a deep understanding of curriculum differentiation and a strong knowledge of each and every student. I want to be able to guide my staff in a direction that has them feeling fulfilled and empowered. Am I effective at turning this vision into action, I guess I’ll be able to answer that question a little better on my return.
What I do know, is that when the vision becomes the way we do business then my work is done. Until then it steady as we go, celebrate the success and continuously revise the strategy to achieve excellence for our students.
Innovation or Just a Trip to Ikea
Like many of my colleagues I have been witnessing the rise of the Innovation Tour. These tours provide opportunities for schools to showcase their teaching and learning spaces and allow visiting staff from a wide variety of schools to view innovative practices in action. Tourists have gone far and wide in search of the innovative practice. I am not suggesting that this is not a valuable pursuit, educators have been visiting other sites and borrowing best practice since well before I entered the profession. I am not sure though that every tourist is looking at the pedagogy behind the innovation. The question that has to be answered after each tour is, how has this environment improved the educational experience of students?
My first year at school was in an innovative classroom. Back in 1975 I was enrolled in a “Family Group”. The idea was that students would become involved in interest based projects in a K-6 classroom. There was no one restrictive classroom rather a block of rooms that students could choose to work in. The furniture ranged from traditional desks to bean bags, to lounge chairs to cushions on the floor. There were no bells and no strict routines. Students chose to participate in more regular school work or participate in passion based projects. As a 5 year old this was Nirvana. At the end of the first year I had learnt three important lessons. The first, I discovered on an overnight excursion, was that I was still small enough to sleep in a baby’s cot, the second that if you put your hand into a pot of molten wax when you withdrew it and it cooled down you could make a wax glove. The final lesson, that a cow pat made a great soccer ball when you were in a paddock. All of these lessons obviously left an impression as I am able to recall them in 2015, however none had much relevance to life after school. At age 6 I could neither read nor write, I had no real experience of co-operation or collaboration as I was in a class with a range of ages all of whom chose their own learning experiences. There was little or no systematic instruction, no way of ensuring I had a core set of skills that would allow me to access the curriculum and no real plan to see this improve. I had however, survived an innovative classroom. In 1976 I enrolled in a mainstream NSW Public School.
Innovation by its very definition requires change, transformation, reorganisation and restructuring. Innovation in education is more than semi-circle tables, ottomans and a chair in the shape of large hand. It is about challenging pedagogy and designing ways of engaging students that make learning relevant. In my view innovation is placing a lens over the concept of having mastery over content knowledge and asking is it more desirable to be able to access and interpret such knowledge? Our students still need systematic and explicit instruction, they need to be shown how to engage in new ways of learning. We still need to provide our students with the core skills needed to be able to access and utilise the resources at their disposal. Many of us look at new ways of learning through adult eyes and bring our own interpretation. We still have a restricted view on what education is. Talking with our students about what they know, what they need to know and how they are going to get there, places students at the centre of their learning. I believe that this has always been at the heart of quality teaching practice, we are now just labelling it with more specific terminology i.e. success criteria, learning intentions, student goals etc. Innovation is about changing your thinking as a teacher. It’s about knowing your students and knowing what works for them. It’s about daring to think outside the box and challenging yourself to look at things differently. It’s certainly not a disjointed free for all.
Educational innovation is seeing the changing of learning spaces. Schools and systems are moving away from facility standard designs and looking at functional approaches to designing spaces. I would encourage any school heading down this path to think deeply about why they are changing their learning spaces. What is the reason for the change? How will it enhance students’ learning? What is the motivation for innovation? What are you trying to achieve? What evidence do you have to demonstrate that this approach is making a difference for your students? The physical learning environment is just one element that can impact on a students learning. Your understanding and reasoning of how this will enhance learning opportunities for your students should be the main focus of any re-design of a learning space.
Innovation is about transforming education so students engage in and with it rather than endure it. It’s about relating it to real world experiences and preparing students to be problem solvers, to be critical thinkers and discerning users of information. Innovation certainly has its place. Our curriculum is expanding as is the way our students will have to interact in their world as they leave school. Students are certainly required to have a much broader skill set. The time of working hard at school until you transition into the workforce have long gone. There are vast numbers of graduates flooding markets creating increased competition for employment. Innovation in education is about preparing our students for this environment. Our students need to be able to think creatively to solve problems, they need to be flexible and adaptable. They need to be able to transfer skills across multiple contexts. This is what I am looking for on an innovation tour not a splash of colour and a funky piece of furniture.
The Importance of Individualised Student Needs Based Funding
Imagine a funding model that does not discriminate. A funding model that recognises diversity of context. A funding model that is based on student and school need. Imagine also a distribution mechanism that recognises the importance of student equity. In the NSW Public System this funding model exists, it’s simple, it’s fair, it’s transparent and it’s evolving to ensure that it gets individual student need right.
There is much debate surrounding this topic, unfortunately whilst the debate continues in political circles the students are the ones who may miss out if the current method of allocating resources to students based on student need is not funded accordingly. Any plan to have this funding model dismantled or at the very least watered down has the potential to compromise the quality of education provided to our most valuable assets. Given that the NSW Public system services the neediest students in the state the consequences of any reduction in funding will see an impact across the full diversity of our communities. Whilst funding does not make an education system it is certainly the vehicle that can enable a significant contextual impact to be made. It is funding of this kind that enables a school to employ expert additional staff such a speech pathologist, an instructional leader to upskill staff and build capacity or a community liaison officer to broaden the impact on students a school may serve and develop valuable links with the community.
All key stakeholders in NSW Public Education have worked tirelessly developing a funding model that focuses on fairness and transparency in funding and getting individual student need right. We are very fortunate to have a State Education Minister who recognises the importance of an injection of Gonski funds. He understands the importance of individualised needs based funding. For the first time, certainly in my career all key stakeholders are heading in the right direction. What we all agree on, is the absolute moral imperative that the current method of individualised student needs based funding must continue and it must be supported by all levels of government.
The current method of Individual student needs based funding provides funding certainty for schools. Previous funding methods have not had the capacity to recognise the full breadth of diversity across our system and were tied to limited timeframes that did not provide school communities with the ability to meet student needs as communities changed. Former program funds provided funding to a limited pool of schools and came with significant administrative procedures that at times had schools questioning their value. The current model of individual needs based funding in NSW Government schools provides schools with the knowledge that the funding will adapt to meet each schools individual circumstances. It enables schools to develop both long term and short term professional learning goals for staff which translates into schools being able to firmly embed a sustainable culture of high quality teacher practice that meets the needs of their students.
In the NSW Public Education system we now have the ability to individually fund all 780 000 students. For the first time we are funding 398 000 students from low socio economic backgrounds, 52 00 Aboriginal students and 145 000 students with English language proficiency needs. Whilst some schools may argue that there are complexities that may not have been taken into consideration we all agree that this method of funding is a much fairer and transparent way of distribution.
The current method of funding has enabled my school to employ additional staff to run high quality specialised early intervention programs. It has provided opportunities for staff to receive additional professional learning in the use of effective evidence based teaching strategies. It has enabled additional time for data talks that have facilitated staff in identifying and preparing individual instructional pathways for students. We have been able to employ specialist staff to provide students access to speech pathology and occupational therapy. These highly skilled therapists are team teaching with staff to increase capacity and lay foundations for the longevity of a sustainable program. Students now have access to highly skilled professionals with skills in creative and performing arts, that enhance an already vibrant school culture. It has enabled us to provide students with access to a range of technology and embed this as part of their everyday learning. We now have the capacity to develop, participate and offer a wide range of professional learning opportunities for our staff and have the flexibility to offer these opportunities to other schools helping to build a strong state wide system. Indeed it has been some of these opportunities that have provided the rich collegial dialogue that has fostered the strengthening of networks that will make a significant impact for students across a very large geographical area. All of this has been made possible by the current needs based funding model.
In NSW Public Education we strongly believe that student success at school should not be determined by background or geographical location. Our system is based on providing world class education for all. The current method of funding must continue there can be no question. Reducing recurrent funding for education, regardless of your political persuasion in just unspeakable. The government system is undeniably the universal provider of high-quality education. Any move to jeopardise this and place our students at risk shows a lack of judgement, insight and little understanding of how vitally important the Public Education system is to Australian society.
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.