Dr. Sean Kearney & Dr. David E. Herrington


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Dr. Sean Kearney & Dr. David E. Herrington

  1. 1. High Performing Principals in Historically Low-Performing Minority-Serving Schools: A Glimpse into the Success of 90/90/90 Schools in South Central Texas W. Sean Kearney, EdD David Herrington, PhD Texas A&M University-San Antonio ABSTRACT This study explores the experiences of principals in South Central Texas whose schools have the following characteristics: a student body composed of at least 90% ethnic minorities; 90% of students receiving free or reduced lunch, and passing ratios of 90% or higher on standardized achievement tests. A concept map was constructed to visually represent the lessons gleaned from this panel. Results of this study indicate that 90/90/90 principals in South Central Texas provide stable leadership, over time, by increasing support structures, enhancing trust, and emphasizing relationships with various levels of constituencies while simultaneously reducing potential threats to school success. Key Words: sustainability, principal tenure, trust, mindfulness “I was at…the highest functioning school in our district. And what I discovered after 4 years was these kids were smarter than I was. So I called [the superintendent], and I said, ‘Jack, get me out of here. You know why you put me over here; I’m just good at (expletive deleted), and keeping your parents satisfied, but I need to know if I know anything about teaching school. I want a school that’s really having difficulty,’ and he sent me [there] saying I was a nut” (Principal Panelist, March 27, 2010). There are some principals who feel a sense of calling to work for schools with the greatest need. For principals like this, working for affluent monochromatic schools is simply not an option. Hand in hand with this calling comes a unique challenge – how do you get students to succeed academically when the school itself has a history of low performance? Design of the Study Schools have arrived at a critical juncture where equity and excellence share equal importance at both policy and practice levels in American society. The need to understand principal behaviors and perspectives that lead to higher levels of achievement among all populations of children is great (Brown, 2010). Within the context of this mindset, this study was designed to identify top producing principals within a selected Education Service Center (ESC) in South Texas and to interview these individuals regarding their attributions of success. 63
  2. 2. Based on researchers’ findings, this concept paper represents one of several connected efforts to capture the essence of what goes on in 90/90/90 schools. 90/90/90 schools have a student body composed of at least 90% ethnic minorities, at least 90% of its students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, and achieves passing percentages of 90% or higher on standardized tests (Reeves, 2004). To determine whether there were any 90/90/90 schools in South Central Texas, data were obtained from the state accountability reporting instrument entitled, “Accountability Ratings by Region: Region 20: San Antonio” (Texas Education Agency, 2009). The three most recent years of testing and demographic data for 664 schools in this region were examined, using the following criteria: 1) schools with 90% ethnic minority population; 2) schools in which 90% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch, and 3) schools that had an over-all passing rate of 90% or better on the math and language arts sections of the state’s mandated competency test (the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills). Fifteen schools met these stringent criteria. Six of these principals agreed to participate in a 90/90/90 principal focus group. These six leaders represented a cross section of gender and ethnicity. Two panelists were male; four were female. Two panelists were Anglo; one panelist was African American, and three panelists were Hispanic. The proceedings of the panel presentation were digitally recorded in audio and video and subsequently transcribed. This study records their insights and interactions which also are treated herein as a focus group. Finally, researchers developed a concept map to show the possible roles of various principal qualities and conditions that reinforce a culture of commitment to high levels of school achievement in both equity and excellence. Research-Based Themes Responses were coded into recurrent themes which form the basis for the findings presented in this article. The most significant areas of agreement among the 90/90/90 principal panelists were: 1) the role of support structures; 2) building relationships; 3) principal longevity; 4) stability; 5) the role of trust; 6) staff development based on identified needs; 7) refining the shared vision, and 8) sustaining a culture of learning and achievement. While these emergent themes were specific to the panelists of this study, the uniqueness of their success in similar circumstances strongly suggests that there is good reason to examine each of these areas more completely, both within this concept paper and in future research efforts. Stability over Time Perhaps the most overarching theme found among the six 90/90/90 principals was “Stability of Leadership over Time,” on each campus. Principals who had been involved within the community, the school district, or, especially the campus, for an extended period of time, offered the greatest stability. In some cases, the principal had taught the parents of children currently on their campus. (One principal quipped about her longevity on her campus, saying that when she has seen the grandparents of her former students come through her school, perhaps it may be time to retire.) In one case, there was a principal who had served as assistant principal on the same campus, having inherited the support structures and relationships that had existed during the previous administration. In this case, the teachers already knew the system. In fact, 64
  3. 3. they were the system. It was the prolonged period of engagement by each principal in the study with the community that provided the richness of understanding and empathy needed to have credibility with the parents, teachers, and students. Two of these principals indicated that the current campus was the only campus where they had ever worked – first as a teacher, then as assistant principal and most recently, as principal. Two other panelists indicated that they had previously served at the same campus, but in a different role, before being promoted. The final two principals came from within the same school district and knew the campus before they took the position. They all felt that their contribution to school success came from maintaining existing campus initiatives. In the view of the participants, stable leadership positively impacts school success. One principal told us the following story that shed light on this concept. “I think probably what kind of helped in our particular case is the fact that, back in the ‘90s, … all the stakeholders that were involved with the school [completed a survey]…and the survey hit upon about 36 effective schools indicators. So everybody took the survey… and the results showed what key areas we were low at, and which were the ones that we had particular strength at.” It is striking to note that this principal attributes her current success in 2010 to a survey her campus completed in the 1990s. This principal had served at the same campus in various capacities for more than 35 years. Providing further stability are the support structures on each of these campuses. Without safety, students can’t focus on their school work (Valenzuela, 2005). “I’m very big on discipline,” one principal stated, “To me, if you have discipline in your school – then you don’t take away from instruction.” Another panelist agreed, explaining that after a particular rule infraction and subsequent consequence, parents were incredulous. “At the beginning you get, ‘For that?’ ‘Yes ma’am.’ And after a little bit the word gets out –as long as you’re consistent.” Mindful Allocation of Staffing Resources Regarding the capacity to teach children, the 90/90/90 principals asserted that people and relationships are far more important than programs. The capacity to teach can be expanded through effective staff development, but the capacity to care for children as unique individuals cannot be taught. Hiring for “heart” was a priority. As one principal indicated, “When I interview a person, I’m not concerned about how smart they are – I’m concerned about the heart they have. I can teach you how to teach school, but I can’t teach you how to love children. So that is very important.” Staffing the campus with the right personnel sets the school up for success (De Cicco, 1985). For one principal, this meant hiring a math facilitator; another hired a reading specialist, and several hired community liaisons. School leaders, in this study, identified a need on their respective campuses and allocated resources to address that need, including materials, staffing, and staff development. Building Relationships Once staff and students feel safe, relationships can be built (Noddings, 2005). “It’s about people. It’s not about programs. Programs come and go, but I really think it’s about the people” (Principal Panelist, March 27, 2010). The relationship between the principal and his/her staff is 65
  4. 4. the foundation of school success (Tschannen-Moran, 2004). As one principal said, “I’m out in the classrooms a lot. And I talk to them. I find out what their interests are. I know each one of my teachers and a little bit about their family. I build those types of relationships with them. I find out also what their goals are, and I try to help them achieve those goals.” Another principal spoke to the importance of casual conversations to make the teachers feel at ease, while a third principal told us that he plays poker with several members of his faculty once a month. The approaches may vary, but each of these principals emphasized good relationships with their teachers as key to their campus success. The phrase, “Kids first,” was repeated by the principals in this focus group time and again. “One thing that no matter who you ask on my staff, they will always tell you kids come first. We don’t deviate from that,” one principal said. “Anything that we do, all of our decisions are based on what’s best for kids. Kids come first” (Principal Panelist, 2010). Another administrator added, “If I’ve got a hungry kid, I’m going to feed him. If I’ve got a teacher that’s having difficulty, I’m going to help her or him.” Building relationships between teachers and students creates inroads for success. One principal told an interesting story that demonstrates the power of relationships. “I bought pizza for all the kids…I told the teachers, you know take the afternoon off and chill, you know, no book covering, no writing paragraphs about what you did over the vacation – and get to know your kids, talk to them, and let them know you, too. Eat your pizza, relax, get to know one another, because the stronger the relationship you develop with each of these kids – is going to take you a lot farther than anything you can possibly do, especially around crunch time.” Schools are an integral part of the local community (Fiore, 2006). “I would say some of the key components that we have is (sic.)…really knowing your campus. You need to know your students; you need to know your community,” said one administrator. Part of knowing the community is addressing the needs of the whole child (Mack, 2008). “Our philosophy is teachers can teach children who are healthy, and healthy children come from healthy families. So, if you have an unhealthy family in your neighborhood, no one is going to do anything about that if you don’t” (Principal Panelist, 2010). As one principal said, “Anything that’s happening at the apartments, I wish I could say, ‘Go to the manager.’ It comes to our campus. Anything that happens on the outside, we deal with it.” How that relationship between the school and the community is finessed is a delicate art. If a school makes parents feel unwelcome, they risk losing parental and community support altogether (Bryk, 2010). Trust Another theme that resonated clearly was that of trust. With trust comes greater engagement and ability to focus on the vision. Trust diminishes the likelihood of teachers leaving unfulfilled at the end of the year. It increases the likelihood of teachers becoming more engaged or “in the mix.” The principal’s trust in the teachers’ willingness to recognize and admit to shortcomings was important. Safety on the part of teachers to admit their shortcomings in a trusting context triggered help-seeking behavior on their part. This, in turn, helps to eliminate teacher isolation and teacher burnout (Tschannen-Moran, 2004). Principals who communicated their disdain for the blame game that often plagues less successful schools helped to increase a feeling of safety, fostering trust. Willingness to delegate responsibility regarding decisions about curriculum, instruction, 66
  5. 5. and staff development further built each school’s capacity for trust. Principals build trust among their faculty by sharing meaningful authority with them (Adler, 1996). As one administrator informed us, “I delegate. Write that down. Delegate. It will keep you from having all the heart attacks I’ve had. The issue in this business is, you can’t do it folks, I’m telling you. You cannot run a school by yourself. It can not be done, and delegating issues to people will build power and trust in themselves, and so all of a sudden teachers feel like they are a real affirmative part of your school.” Another way to build teacher trust is through positive affirmation (Cummings & Bromily, 1996). “There are a lot of great things going on in classrooms, and a lot of great teaching going on that I was not aware of before I got to be an administrator – that I only saw in my classroom. Now I see, I’m just amazed at what these teachers…are doing out there” (Principal Panelist, March 27, 2010). When teachers trust one another, they can begin to ask authentic questions (Short & Greer, 1997). “On this campus,” said one of the panelists, “it is a virtue to say, ‘I don’t know what’s happening. This is not happening in my classroom. I must have slept through this during training, but I need some help.’” Teachers trust administrators who have demonstrated the ability to advocate upwards to central office on their behalf (Butler & Cantrell, 1984). One principal shared a story to demonstrate this idea, “So the teachers found a program – the Success for All. They’re the ones that found the program – I’d never heard of it. And they brought it in, and then we started building on that, and I told all the supervisors in the district, ‘Don’t come to my campus. We’re just going to work on Reading this year.’” This story demonstrates not only the trust that teachers could legitimately have in their principal to advocate on their behalf; it also demonstrates the high level of trust which the district had in this principal. Teacher-Centered Staff Development As trust builds between teachers and administrators, staff members are empowered to take responsibility for their own professional development. It may sound like a simple concept, but convincing adults that every individual on campus has areas that should continually be improved can be a difficult sell (Orlich, 1989). Once the staff members understand and embrace the concept of life-long, self-actualized learning, they will be better able to embrace needed change (Hall & Hord, 1987). Some principals in the group designed their professional development around teacher needs, while others on the panel preferred to enhance teacher strengths. Regardless of their perspective, all 6 principals emphasized the need for continued adult learning which was designed to meet the unique needs of their campus. As one principal put it, staff development, “absolutely… has to go with the needs of that campus. Once again it comes back to you have to know your kids. You have to know your campus because staff development for mine is going to be very different from (a campus) at the opposite end of the district.” Diminishing the Inhibiting Factors to Student Success The 90/90/90 principal panelists also indicated the importance of working to diminish inhibiting factors on their campuses. One factor they identified that can inhibit school-wide success is teacher isolation (Drago-Severson & Pinto, 2006). One principal explained how she 67
  6. 6. moved from isolationism towards collaboration in the following manner, “There wasn’t (sic.) enough 2 way types of conversations and collaboration. We would get together for grade level meetings, and the blame game was played a lot. You know, 4th grade blamed 3rd ; 3rd blamed the primary, so the bottom line for this particular project was the teachers get together and formulate a plan. If these are your weaknesses, then what’s the plan to address them? So the teachers sat down and developed collaborative meetings between 2nd and 3rd , 4th and 5th , and set ground rules. And it set the tone or the morale that was going to be more collaborative, rather than this…blame game.” Another factor that principals in this focus group addressed was the reduction of uncommitted or untrained staff on their campus. They accomplished this either through staff development or through career counseling. As one principal put it, “Two things happen your first year – you’ll be challenged a lot from a lot of different people because they want to see where your parameters are. Secondly, you’ll have staff that wants to transfer after your first year. I am telling you that is one of the healthiest things that can happen. Districts never look at that as a negative. Because then you’re able to hire your people, and then your growth really starts.” Another panelist agreed with the importance of helping some individuals find a different school or career when she said, “You’re going to have A players, B players, and C players. You can make a B player an A player. It’s a lot harder to make a C player an A player. But on your campus, you need to have A players all the time. So it’s just a matter of how do you get them there? And then you will have those that will never be A players. And so those are the tough decisions that as an administrator we have to make – where we go from here – once again how is that affecting kids? Remember, if we have a C player, one year of instruction for a student that has lost a key component, it is difficult for them to regain. We can continue to grow that teacher, and that teacher’s getting successful. The thing is that student still has a year that they lost. You know what? We don’t have time. We really don’t. It might sound horrible, but it’s a reality, that we can not afford to have a weak link continue, because that kid keeps on falling.” Refining a Shared Vision by Working Together All of the principals in this focus group have found ways to address inhibiting factors directly while increasing the support structures leading to their school’s success. Regardless of which factors they have emphasized the most, they each communicated a clear vision which their staff appears to have personalized. “Visions are written to be attained,” said one administrator, “Don’t write a pretty vision. Write a vision that will lead you to the next step of success.” A common leadership flaw is to focus on too many areas of growth (Colvin, 1999). As one administrator said, “You know we try to teach teachers everything in one year, and you just can’t do that. So you need to identify one or two things that the probability is very strong that if you concentrate on those, your achievement will increase. If you have 5 goals, let me tell you, you fail. Then on those 1 or 2 things, you look at your budget, and you focus your budget to those 1 or 2 things. Teachers are talking about this. Staff development, strategies, meetings, everything you do is on these one or two things. You’ll get one or two new ones next year, and the next year, and all of a sudden you’ve done 6 things.” Every one of our panelists pointed to key decisions that were made by the staff and informed by data. By sharing (or in some cases giving over) the decision making to their teachers, administrators were able to utilize more than just their own skill sets to move the campus forward toward greatness. 68
  7. 7. Toward a Conceptual Framework for Sustaining High Levels of Equity and Excellence Finally, the principals in this focus group discussed the impact of the decisions they made. As a result of their efforts, they found their staffs had increased commitment, higher expectations, and enhanced levels of trust, while enjoying fewer discipline problems and a decrease in staff turnover. There does not appear to be one simple formula that can be duplicated in a scientific manner to lead to that school’s success. Instead, school success appears to be more situational and contextual. What was found were a number of common themes that these highly successful principals believe were vital to their school’s success (See Figure 1 below). The authors noted that the experiences of these principals were not incompatible with prior research in Educational Leadership and leadership studies in general. The Ohio State Studies in 1945 provided a way to examine leader behaviors and styles. The constructs “Initiating Structure” and “Consideration” have been shown to have high validity even today (Judge, Picollo, & Ilies, 2004). The problem with these two constructs alone was that no combination of these factors or interaction effects between them could reliably predict successful outcomes (Bass, 1990). In this study, we used similar terms provided by the six 90/90/90 principals that included “Support Structures” and “Relationships” to describe the context in which these minority serving schools were operating and succeeding (See Figure 1). Conclusion: A Concept Model Introduced The 90/90/90 principals of this study revealed a strong belief that building relationships was critical to the success of the school. They identified structure as a “good word” and did not see it as incompatible with relationship or trust factors. Principal longevity was the critical piece that enabled them to provide the kind of stability that a new principal coming onto a campus might not be able to achieve in a short time. Support structures and relationships that were established on each campus were not accidental; these were critical ingredients of building and sustaining a culture committed to looking for and responding to identified challenges. As these schools began to initiate change processes, root causes of isolation and complacency among teachers were identified and eliminated. It is not surprising that the principals reported a reduction in the number of less committed staff decreasing over time; those who were not committed to the new vision of meticulously examining pockets of inequity among student learners eventually came around to take part in the transformation. Those who did not were encouraged to find a setting more suitable to their own needs, or they simply left on their own. Simultaneously, building trust among school stakeholders, especially teachers, was paramount. Each principal had a deliberate strategy for achieving this. Principals emphasized the role of teacher engagement in the selection and deployment of staff development on their campus. Teachers identified specific areas of need, and professional development was selected accordingly. As expectations were rising, teachers led in addressing the issues of equity and excellence. All of these actions were honed through a lens of a common vision that the staff members had initially helped implement with the expectations and support of principals who expected them to take the lead. The most important piece of the Kearney-Herrington model (Figure 1) is its results- orientation. As these schools began to experience success, they found that staff turnover 69
  8. 8. declined; discipline problems diminished, and student success rose dramatically. The relationships, compassion, and passion that these leaders modeled for teachers have shaped the attitudes and behaviors needed to bring about the high levels of student success that they realized on each 90/90/90 campus. In the Kearney-Herrington model, there is an attempt to show desirable factors increasing and limiting factors decreasing over time, both on the input side to the left and the output side to the right. The critical ingredients are depicted at the center of the model as a “lens” through which the inputs are channeled (Argyris & Schon, 1978; Senge, 1990; Bennis, 1989). This lens of building the “common vision” and “shared decision-making” revealed by 90/90/90 principals was developed in a context of trust, expectations, and intentionality. The authors suggest that without this lens to bring together the simultaneously increasing and decreasing inputs, the high equity/ high excellence results would likely not have occurred. Finally, the stability of these schools contributed greatly to their success. Principal longevity within the context of a well-led school was a consistently reported factor among the successful principals in this study. Principal longevity could be viewed as reinforcing the other variables that lead to positive outcomes, including the creation of a culture of commitment. For principals who feel a sense of calling to serve at schools that have the highest levels of need, it is important to further explore and identify connections between reinforcing and limiting factors when it comes to creating and sustaining high performance with respect to both equity and excellence. The themes that emerged from these interviews provide insight into the success of high performing minority schools. It is hoped that further investigation will lead to the development of a more robust model that can inform principals who aspire to work with schools of highest need. References Adler, K.S., & Christenson, S. L. (1996). Two types of bureaucracy: Enabling and coercive. Administrative Quarterly, 41, 61-89. Argyris, C., & Shon, D. (1978). Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective. New York: NY: Addison Wesley. Bass, B.M. (1990). Bass and Stogdill's handbook of leadership. New York, NY: Free Press. Bennis, W. (1989). On becoming a leader. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. Bryk, A. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement. Phi Delta Kappan, 91(7), 23-30. Brown, K. M. (2010) Schools of excellence and equity? Using equity audits as a tool to expose a flawed system of recognition. International Journal of Education Policy & Leadership, 5(5). Retrieved from www.ijepl.org Butler, J. K., & Cantrell, R. S. (1984). A behavioral decision theory approach to modeling didactic trust in superiors and subordinates. Psychological Reports, 55, 81-105. Colvin, G. (1999). The ultimate manager. Fortune, 140(10), 185-187. Cummings, L. L., & Bromily, P. (1996). The organizational trust inventory (OTI): Development and validation. In R. Kramer & T.T. Tyler (Eds.), Trust in organizations (pp. 302-330). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. De Cicco, J. (1985). What is effective school management? Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, New Orleans, LA. 70
  9. 9. Drago-Severson, E., & Pinto, K. (2006). School leadership for reducing teacher isolation: Drawing from the well of human resources. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 9(2), 129-155. Fiore, D.J.(2006). School-community relations (2nd ed.). Larchmont, NY: Eye On Education. Hall, G. H., & Hord, S. M. (1987). Change in schools: Facilitating the process. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Judge, T.A., Piccolo, R.F., & Ilies, R. (2004). The forgotten ones? The validity of consideration and initiating structure in leadership research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(1), 36- 51. Mack, J. (2008). Continuous progress schools see the “whole child”. Education, 129(2), 324- 326. Noddings, N. (2005). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. New York, NY: Teacher’s College Press. Orlich, D. C. (1989). Staff development: Enhancing human potential. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon. Reeves, D. (2004). Accountability in action: A blueprint for learning organizations. Englewood, CA: Advanced Learning Press. Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization.. New York: NY: Doubleday-Currency. Short, P.M., & Greer, J.T. (1997). Leadership in empowered schools: Themes from innovative efforts. Columbus, OH: Merrill. Texas Education Agency. (2009). Accountability ratings by region: Region 20: San Antonio. Retrieved from http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/cgi/sas/broker Tschannen-Moran (2004). Trust matters. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Valenzuela, A. (2005). Subtractive schooling: U.S. Mexican youth and the politics of caring. New York, NY: State University of New York Press. Authors Sean Kearney is assistant professor of educational leadership at Texas A&M University- San Antonio. He has experience as a school administrator and has led regional consortiums of campus and central office administrators from across South Central Texas. Dr. Kearney has research interests in the areas of Principal Influence, Change Orientations, School Culture and Climate, and the confluence of administration, ethics, and emotionally intelligent leadership. David E. Herrington is associate professor and coordinator of educational leadership studies at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. His research agenda includes lean six sigma initiatives within public schools and universities, innovative applications of social media in teaching and learning, and oral history of significant events and players in 20th Century public education. 71
  10. 10. Figure 1. The Kearney-Herrington Model of Effective School Leadership. Stable Leadership Over Time Common Vision Shared Decision Making 72