Complying with school accountability requirements and the impact on school leaders
Volume 39 Number 2, February 2014; Pages 58–69
In Australia all schools are accountable to government for the public funding they receive and for the educational performance of their students. As well as laws specific to education, schools must also adhere to parliamentary acts and regulations relating to finance, child protection, employment, the professional status of employees, building standards, and the recording, maintenance and disclosure of information. Tensions may arise between principals’ obligations to government and to parents. Tensions may also exist between the requirements of state and federal governments, between agencies, ‘and, perhaps, even between different parts of single agencies’. A 2007 meta-analysis found that accountability pressures strongly reduced principals’ job satisfaction, and discouraged other educators from aspiring to positions as principal. A particular concern of principals was the belief that minimum academic competency testing would narrow the curriculum and reduce schools’ ability to nurture students’ cultural awareness and citizenship. A Western Australian study has examined the impact of policy compliance requirements on the workloads of school leaders. The research took place in April-May 2013 and involved 12 non-government schools. The schools were guided by differing educational philosophies, and covered a wide range of year levels, sizes, gender composition, and locations. Evidence was obtained from interviews with each of the principals, and sometimes also other leaders within the school, who participated at the discretion of the principal. Participants described a ‘zone of ambiguity’ in the degree of accountability expected of them. They sometimes used this ambiguity to shape policy directives to suit the school context and philosophy, at the risk of being ‘caught out’ if they pressed too far. All participants firmly accepted the need for compliance measures, but they raised concerns about current requirements. Compliance was time consuming, particular with reference to preparation for re-registration reviews, policy development and implementation, maintaining attendance and enrolment data, and staff performance management. While principals at larger schools were able to delegate such responsibilities, at small schools they imposed a very heavy workload. As well as taking time in themselves, these tasks also intruded into principals’ ‘headspace’ while off-task. Participants expressed considerable frustration when accountability demands were deemed to be needlessly burdensome, eg when state and federal governments each demanded school census data, in different formats, ‘within days of each other’. Participants also expressed ‘suspicion and disillusionment’ when data supplied for one purpose was then used for another. Some regulations were seen as overly restrictive, for example when playgrounds had to be ‘so safe that nobody wants to play in them’ and when exacting requirements made school excursions impractical. Other concerns existed around the independence of their school; the compulsory nature of the curriculum and reporting; the obligation to prove viability of the school after a history of demonstrable success; the negative effect of compliance requirement on others’ aspirations to principalship; impact on personal well-being, and loss of family time.
Subject HeadingsWestern Australia (WA)
Education and state
Reading on the Internet: realizing and constructing potential texts
Volume 58 Number 6, March 2015; Pages 504–517
In the world of traditional print the learner may establish a ‘reading pathway’ as they move back and forth, for example, from a table contents, footnotes, and the main body of text. In the non-linear environment of the internet, the work of establishing a reading pathway tends to be considerably more complex. Online readers have to ‘realise’ texts, in the sense that they choose them from the vast repository of material on the internet. As they move through and in between websites these readers can also be said to ‘construct’ online texts, ie forge disparate blocks of texts together: establishing start and end points, and an overall textual coherence, that exist only in terms of particular, personal reading goals. The online reading strategies of a gifted 14-year old, ‘Amalie’, have been examined in a recent study. The context was an assignment in which Amalie conducted research on the internet in order to generate critical questions that could guide class discussion on the topic of obesity. For the study she voiced her thoughts as she conducted her research, while screen capture software created a step-by-stop record of her internet research activity. The article summarises the research process she undertook. She evaluated the credibility of sites against various criteria, including internet domain (eg .gov or .com), author information, and style of language. She prioritised those that seemed well organised, and hence more likely to give her evidence without undue effort. She attempted to identify the target audience of the site: while recognising that some sites were designed for experts, carrying content that was largely beyond her, she also identified parts of these sites she could in fact access, such as embedded videos that offered relatively popular material. She noted promising sites, but did not rush to explore every one of them. As this work proceeded she also considered questions she might put to the class, checking how well they aligned to the evidence base she was developing, picking out information gaps she still needed to fill, and refining her searches on the fly. The article includes a tabular checklist of prompts to help students use the internet effectively for research. Students need experience in coping with the open-endedness and highly variable quality of internet resources, and in resisting its off-task distractions. Such experience is not obtained from print materials pre-selected by teachers. Students also need experience in forging the inter-textual links required for internet research. (A free author podcast about the article may be accessed via the journal table of contents.)
Reading thematically related texts to develop knowledge and comprehension
Volume 68 Number 1, September 2014; Pages 53–63
One of the reasons that students sometimes struggle with reading tasks is limited knowledge about the content of a text. A limited knowledge base discourages students from reading, and thus extending their knowledge, producing a vicious circle of poor reading performance. The Interactive Strategies Approach (ISA) is an intervention designed to address this problem, by boosting subject knowledge of students in the early primary years. An extended version of the intervention (ISA-X) now aims to achieve similar gains for struggling readers in years 3-7. The intervention is designed to create conditions in which even struggling readers find texts enjoyable as a way to acquire knowledge, encouraging their development as independent learners. It contrasts with the more common approach to preparing students for content-area reading, in which teachers provide instruction about key vocabulary and background knowledge: an approach that may encourage dependence on the teacher. At the start of the ISA-X process students are introduced to very simple, image-rich informational texts; the teacher explains the preliminary nature of these texts so that the students do not see them as ‘babyish’. More complex texts follow, on the same topic, building students’ content knowledge. The culminating text in this thematic sequence is usually a work of quality fiction that presumes the background knowledge that they students have by now acquired. The successive texts to which students are introduced may follow the same genre, deepening students’ sense of it. For example, reading several informational texts in succession gives students repeated opportunities to learn the nature and uses of tables of contents and glossaries. Alternatively, the successive texts may vary in genre, sharpening the delineations between genres in students’ minds. The article includes tables setting out several subject-related reading lists, including titles, guides as to reading level, content, and key concepts.
Subject HeadingsReading comprehension
“I skim and find the answers”: addressing search-and-destroy in reading
Volume 68 Number 1, September 2014; Pages 71–79
‘Search and destroy’, or skimming, is a technique by which students scan texts for key words in order to answer questions for tests or assignments. There is evidence that skimming is often used unproductively by students who lack the skills for close reading. It is also true, however, that skim reading is suitable in some contexts, just as close reading works best in others: a good reader employs each strategy, along with others, as circumstances dictate. In this sense it is unhelpful that effective reading and close reading are so often seen as the same thing. The article discusses why struggling readers resort to inappropriate skimming. It also suggests how teachers may detect this problem, how they can help struggling readers access texts demanding close reading, and how they can help these students employ a repertoire of different reading strategies to suit different situations. These issues are examined in the context of a study of ten struggling fifth-grade readers in Georgia USA, who were preparing for a high-stakes test. Students’ ineffective use of skimming was found to derive from beliefs that closer reading was either unnecessary or overly difficult. One factor contributing to over-use of skimming was teachers' heavy use of passages from practice tests, as a way to develop students' skills in content area reading: from practice tests, students acquired the habit of searching out and focussing on only those sections of text that were of key relevance to test questions. Other contributing factors were lack of student choice in reading, and the expectation on students to read above their actual reading level. The authors recommend that teachers identify the reading strategies that their students are currently using. One way to do so is via student interviews and questionnaires; the authors suggest formal assessment tools that may help in this process. Another strategy for teachers is to discuss with students the possibility of reading in different ways for different purposes. One helpful tool in this context is the children’s book Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading. Students need the chance to distinguish between tasks that do and don’t require close reading of a text.
The potential for school-based interventions that target executive function to improve academic achievement: a review
‘Executive function’ broadly refers to the cognitive skills used for purposeful activity, and is understood to cover ‘working memory, attention control, attention shifting, and response inhibition’. A range of researchers and practitioners have suggested that interventions targeting students’ executive function could improve their academic achievement. The idea has also been taken up in the mass media. Numerous studies have found correlations between executive function and academic achievement. However this research does not demonstrate a causal connection between the two: both may be effects of high levels of SES and parental education, which are also strongly correlated to both executive function and academic achievement. Many of the studies do not control for these variables, and a ‘surprising number’ do not control for IQ, which is also strongly correlated to executive function. Research has produced limited, and sometimes contradictory, findings as to which elements of executive function correlate most strongly with academic achievement, which academic subject areas correlate most highly with executive function, and how either type of correlation varies between age groups. The current article reports on new research, ‘using meta-analytic techniques’, to identify any causal connections between executive function and academic achievement. It found a ‘moderate unconditional association’ between executive function and academic achievement, both at a single point of time and as a predictor of future achievement. However it found ‘no compelling evidence’ of causation. A few studies have found ‘some positive impacts’ from interventions designed to improve executive function, but have not produced convincing evidence that these improvements have then led to higher academic achievement. The article calls for further, rigorous studies into possible causal associations between executive function and academic achievement.
Subject HeadingsEducational evaluation
Thought and thinking
Multi-dimensional trust: how beginning principals build trust with their staff during leader succession
Volume 17 Number 4, 2014; Pages 410–441
A study in Nova Scotia has examined how early career principals manage the process of building trust with staff at their schools. The study involved 16 principals, eight newly appointed and eight with one year’s experience in the role. They covered a wide range of ages and levels of educational experience. Most had some degree of experience as a vice-principal, and in administrative roles in a school, although several were ‘long-time teachers’. Half the participants had taken up principalship within their current schools, the other half had moved to new schools. The participants were all interviewed near the start of the school year, one month after the arrival of students. Themes in their responses included the importance of modelling the types of behaviour they expected of others; the continuing rise in the complexity of the principal’s role; and the need to provide a ‘safe, structured and engaging teaching/learning environment’. They saw their core role as one of instructional leadership: providing professional learning opportunities, observing classrooms and engaging in collegial discussions about teaching and learning with their staff members. However they also spoke of the importance of efficient organisation and time management to minimise administrative work. For this reason they prioritised and filtered the ‘constant barrage of paperwork’ they faced, based on their values and goals. To build trust with staff members they modelled appropriate behaviour, such as hard work, accessibility and following through on commitments. They also demonstrated continued support to teachers who had made mistakes; attended carefully to what teachers said; participated alongside teachers in a range of curricular and extra-curricular activities; and showed that they were willing to take responsibility for their own actions.
Subject HeadingsSchool principals
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