By Dr. Susan Hall

Years ago, I honestly believed that even if the principal of a school wasn’t focused on improving student literacy, supporting a few good teachers could still be enough to succeed in driving literacy improvement. But, while it’s not impossible to achieve success when the principal isn’t committed to leading the way, it is a really tough road.

What does it take for a principal to establish a school-wide culture dedicated to improving literacy?

According to the Wallace Foundation, an organization that supports school leadership research, there is an empirical connection between campus leadership and improved student achievement.

The Wallace perspective suggests that principals need to consistently perform these five practices to implement a school-wide literacy initiative that improves student achievement.

  1. Shaping a vision of academic success for all students. An essential element of campus leadership requires developing a school-wide vision of high standards and success for all students. Principals need to communicate the desired (and monitor the actual) direction and destination of all teachers and staff members to ensure ongoing improvement.
  2. Creating a climate hospitable to education.  Effective principals foster and cultivate a cooperative and solution-oriented environment for staff as well as students. When the culture is toxic, this becomes the number one priority.
  3. Cultivating leadership in others. Teachers and staff members need to have a direct responsibility in realizing the school vision. Sharing leadership with faculty provides greater access to collective knowledge and improves teachers’ working relationships with one another.
  4. Improving instruction. For teachers to teach at their best, and students to learn to at the highest level, principals need to define and promote high expectations, emphasize research-based strategies, and encourage continual professional learning.
  5. Managing people, data, and processes. To foster school improvement effective leaders nurture and support their staffs and hire carefully. They rely on campus statistics and supporting evidence to identify problems, to understand cause and effect, and to provide sound solutions.

Effective leaders walk through classrooms on a regular basis often spending less than 10 minutes observing. I’ve trained hundreds of principals to use an observation form that is tied to eight key characteristics for effective literacy instruction. These campus leaders learn to identify great instructional practices and share constructive input with teachers who require additional support. In addition, these principals review student data with their staff to celebrate success and to identify areas where intervention is needed.

To properly implement early intervention initiatives, a principal must be committed to systemically solving reading problems before it’s too late, and play a significant participatory role. The principal needs to be an instructional leader in this process and not just an observer. Without this leadership, the initiative is less likely to succeed.

One thing I’ve noticed in “beat the odds” building is that many leaders use a stimulus to make a change on the campus. Implementing practices to improve literacy achievement can’t be simply mandates handed down from the district office. Good leaders identify 3-4 data points showing low student test scores, and use these reasons as a “call to action” with the teachers. Keep in mind that the closer the need for change is tied to student needs, the easier it will be to motivate your teachers. Be sure that at least one of your teachers has the foundational knowledge required to teach struggling readers, to advise administrators and to coach other teachers.

Take a moment to reflect on your leadership style and how well you work with your staff to improve student achievement. Do you share responsibility and delegate leadership roles to your staff? Is this working? Do you hold all staff members accountable for student success? How do your leadership skills cultivate literacy improvement on your campus? Will your EOY reading benchmarks warrant a celebration or signal the need for instructional leadership improvement and early intervention for Fall 2017?

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Dr. Susan Hall is an educational consultant and founder of 95 Percent Group, Inc. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanHall_EdD


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