Wednesday, June 5, 2013

7 Leadership Qualities for Educational Success

Leadership comes in a variety of sizes and shapes and there are many attributes that can make a true leader. The main attributes that come to mind include an appropriate and wide/oriented long term vision, planning, follow through, modeling and giving of feedback, the ability to listen through a culture of trust, creating a culture of innovation, and the ability to inspire. This is a long list of attributes, and it is likely that not all leaders will have all of these attributes present to the fullest extent. However, it is essential for an organizational leader to have some combination of them.

Wide/Oriented Long Term Vision

A good leader needs to have a broad and long term vision for where an organization is headed. This includes broad goals, which can eventually be broken down into a short term benchmarks to measure successes in getting there. In the world of education, the overarching goal would be maximizing student achievement. However, a leader must have a solid definition of what student achievement is, a philosophy, a vision. Is student achievement increases in standardized tests scores, or something broader? How do we define success outside of our school environment? Once we define that success, how do we get there? If leaders define success in a narrow way, for instance, increases in achievement on such and such a measure, and design a plan to meet that objective, your vision may be fulfilled, but you may miss the broader consequences of meeting that vision. If your vision is defined in a broad way (e.g. identifying what makes a successful graduate in college or life, and then working backwards to create an environment where those attributes and skills can be highlighted), this would constitute a wider scope approach, which likely will have a significant effect on the overall culture and structure of an organization, and thus student’s lives.


No vision comes across in an organized and effective manner without a plan. The amount of time spent planning for a major shift in practice is directly related to how fluidly the change integrates itself into the organizational structure, and how successful the plan ultimately will be. Planning involves first, finding a model of success if one exists; if one does not exist, finding experts in a field to organize thought around the closest existing models. Planning takes time, for reflection, to anticipate potential difficulties, to identify key stakeholders, to work on organizational investment in the plan, for training, and for implementation. It also is helpful to have written guides and policies for teachers to turn to when there are questions about a new procedure. If a leader does not invest time in a planning process, organizational chaos can result, as there are communication lapses, errors or complete lack of implementation, a lack of inspiration and investment from staff, and then, thus a general lack of organizational orientation towards the ultimate vision. With wide and oriented long term vision, should come significant long-term planning.

Follow Through

Teachers and staff in a school need consistency and to know what to expect. If a leader plans and communicates the implementation of their vision effectively, there needs to be appropriate follow through. This means that everyone in the organization has to be invested and on board, and the leader needs to make sure this happens. Teachers, and ancillary staff thrive on consistency, and the knowledge that everyone in the school or organization is on the same page. A leader should make sure they are actively involved in the training and implementation stages of a plan, and be able to make sure that the plan is followed through on in an effective manner.

Modeling and giving of feedback

Once a vision is outlined, and a plan put in place, teachers are trained and the plan implemented, a good leader should be actively observing teachers and staff in action. In schools, this means that a principal should be out in classrooms as much as possible, observing teachers, and offering feedback of their own. In addition to feedback, the modeling of what is expected is essential as well. Leaders should be visible, present in a way that is not meant to be intimidating, but in a way where there is a culture of learning at all times. If a supervisor waits one time a year to visit a teacher and develop an evaluation based on that observation, the teacher will make sure they are working on their best lesson and the visit will seem mainly judgmental in nature. However, if there is a culture of trust, and feedback is given as a device to inspire and improve, and it is expected and happens often, there will be much more value in the classroom visit.

Ability to Listen / Culture of Trust

A good leader should be able to listen to their employees, who are on the ground floor every day, regarding what is going well, and what avenues may need to be tweaked, re-adjusted or outright abandoned if not successful. A good leader should be able to receive feedback in a non-defensive way. It is not helpful to surround yourself as a leader in a groupthink situation, where everyone is telling you what you are doing is correct. If there is a culture of fear, and no honest feedback can be provided, the leader may be receiving very inaccurate information regarding what is actually happening. If a leader does not listen to feedback or even seek out advice from others who may have a different approach, they will never get a broad view of a problem or be able to figure out new approaches about how to solve one. Thus, in order to be a good listener, and to take feedback, the leader must instill a culture of trust to make sure that this is possible within the organization. In this way, the leader can then, seemingly instinctively, almost be able to detect the needs of the organization.

Creating time for Risk Taking and Innovation

Good leaders hopefully have hired staff that have the qualities of risk taking and innovation. If the goals are broad enough for a teacher to implement, there should be room to maneuver in many ways to achieve these goals. A culture of trust should be created where a teacher feels that they can use their talents in specialized ways to come up with a creative plan of keeping students engaged. If the long term goal of a school district is developing higher level thinking skills and creativity in students, a teacher should have the ability to design and implement lesson plans that are innovative and creative themselves. Thus, a culture of innovation, creativity and risk-taking is modeled for the students. Teachers hopefully should be willing to take risks and try new things to expand their and their student’s horizons. In order for this to happen, however, a leader must create an environment where this is not only safe to do, but is encouraged.

Ability to Inspire

Ultimately a good leader has the ability to inspire their staff. They have the ability to clearly articulate their vision and get everyone excited and on board with it. They have created a culture of trust, innovation and a lack of fear, where teachers can experiment and innovate to find new creative ways of fostering student success. There is broad communication across the board, where there is a culture of sharing and collaboration surrounding the broad goals of student achievement. Modelling and feedback is expected, encouraged and shared, and everyone learns from each other, but is focused on the big picture. When there is a good leader, you would go to battle for that individual, taking their vision and moving forward, bringing everyone along with you. The best leaders inspire in this way, and make an organization a proud place to work.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Cognitive Ability Tests? There are better uses of a psychologist's (and a student's) time.

Most school psychologists, spend most days of most weeks of the year assessing children.  This year I've assessed over 140 students in some manner, and in most cases an intelligence test was administered. This is mandated assessment, and when I say mandated, we're not talking about re-evaluations that occur every three years, or whether or how to choose a battery to diagnose learning disabilities; it is mandated, in that our district uses a discrepancy model to determine whether or not a student has a specific learning disability, and whether or not they qualify for special education services.  If you are not familiar with the discrepancy model of learning disability diagnosis, here's a quick crash course: The idea is that your level of achievement should be predicted by your cognitive ability.  The reason we know this, is that we've done significant amounts of research that shows if you have average ability, you generally have average achievement, above average ability above average achievement, below average ability, below average achievement, etc...  When there is a significant difference between ability and achievement therefore, (e.g. you have average cognitive ability and below average achievement), this stands out. This gap between ability and achievement has been one of the hallmarks of diagnosing learning disabilities for over 40 years of school psychology practice.  Those that have below average ability and achievement (low average, or slow learners), generally then don't get diagnosed with a learning disability, despite the fact that they often have significant learning deficits as well.

What has become clear however, is that knowledge of someone's cognitive ability does not have much of an impact on what we prescribe as treatment for learning problems.  We know what works to remediate reading difficulties.  If the reading difficulty is one of decoding or fluency, generally a scientifically based sequential reading decoding problem works to remediate this area of weakness.  It generally doesn't solve all reading difficulties for a student, but we have scientific proof that these programs improve this area of deficit.  If the problem is one of reading comprehension, we prescribe scientifically based reading comprehension programs that focus on predicting, inferencing, vocabulary development, describing text features such as identification of setting, attributes of characters, etc...  These programs work regardless of what a student's cognitive ability is; we also have scientific proof of that. The question then becomes, if we know these things, for what purpose are we administering intelligence tests?  Two answers are often postulated related to this question:  1) That we can learn about what abilities and strengths a child has other than a student’s deficits; and 2) If a child has a deficit in a specific area on a cognitive ability test (language, memory, visual processing etc.), we can develop plans to accommodate those weaknesses or even attempt to remediate them.  

The answer to the first question generally does not hold much weight, in that, we can also learn a great deal about a child by simply interviewing the people that know them and looking at their performance in all aspects of their lives, both in and out of school.  Good interviews and rating scales, and targeted assessments can get at a much more vast pool of strengths than a cognitive ability test, which is limited by how you define intelligence, and what is assessed.   Thus, it is a waste of resources to spend that much time on a cognitive ability assessment, when we can use that time to examine a student in a much broader fashion using other methods.  The answer to the second question is currently being investigated by research, but results have been mixed. There is evidence that if a student is poor at memory tasks, that we can develop good accommodation plans to help manage this weakness and work around it.  There is very little strong scientific evidence that we can significantly improve our memory capacity, however. The evidence is not strong on improving visual/perceptual reasoning skills either, and there is no evidence related to how this impacts reading achievement in any way (although there may be some with impact on math/science achievement). There is good evidence, however, that we can remediate language weaknesses such as receptive and expressive language, verbal reasoning and vocabulary skills.  Improvement in these areas can therefore improve performance on reading comprehension tasks later. However, there is also evidence that there are better ways to assess these skills directly other than through a cognitive ability test.

This is not to suggest that tests of cognitive ability hold no value.  We know this not to be true, as they are the best predictors of achievement that we have on the market, and they are good long term predictors.  Also, different cognitive ability tests do provide a profile of strengths and weaknesses that can be helpful to get to know a student's individualized abilities.  What I am suggesting is that the amount of time we spend on administering these types of tests does not pay off in active increases in student achievement.  We can use our resources in a better way.  When we conduct assessments, we can get more information from comprehensive reading and math assessments, progress monitoring, structured observations, performance assessment, and interviews.  As psychologists, we should be spending time on these things, rather than testing for the sake of testing, because of antiquated district policies or supposed legal requirements.  If we really want to make a difference in student achievement, we should be asking better and more specific questions, closer to what a student actually does every day, and rely less on supposed inferences of the relation between cognitive abilities and achievement, with very weak ties to research support.  The time is now to start addressing what it is we really are doing as school psychologists every day. In order for you to feel comfortable about your contributions to improving a student's achievement, where should you be spending a majority of your time?