Principal led school improvement and teacher capacity building in the Barwon South Network : final report, May 2013
Rawolle, Shaun, Wells, Muriel, Paatsch, Louise, Tytler, Russell and Campbell, Coral 2013, Principal led school improvement and teacher capacity building in the Barwon South Network : final report, May 2013, Deakin University, Geelong, Vic..
The period of interest for this report is the beginning of 2011 to the end of 2012. The period commenced when the Regional Network Leader of the Barwon South Network of schools in the Barwon South Region of the Department of Education and Early Childhood contacted the School of Education at Deakin University, Waurn Ponds Campus Geelong. The Regional Network Leader outlined a desire to engage with Deakin University to research a short-term-cycle model of school improvement to be implemented in the region. While the model was expected to be taken on by all schools in the region the research was limited to the 23 schools in the Barwon South Network with four schools to be investigated more closely for each of two years (2001 & 2012) – eight focus schools in total.
Many positive outcomes flowed from the implementation of short-term-cycle school improvement plans and their associated practices but there was wide variation in the nature and degrees of success and of the perception of the process. The research team asked the following questions of the data:
1. What aspects of the School Improvement Plan (SIP) approach were important for initiating and supporting worthwhile change? 2. What might we take from this, to provide guidance on how best to support change in teaching and learning processes in schools?
The School Improvement Plan (SIP) worked in a range of ways. At one level it was strongly focused on school leadership, and a need to improve principals’ capacity to initiate worthwhile teaching and learning processes in their schools. Underlying this intent, one might think an assumption is operation is that the leadership process involves top down decision-making and a willingness to hold staff accountable for the quality of their practice.
The second strong focus was on the translation into practice and the consequent effect on student learning, involving an emphasis on data and evidence led practice. Hence, along with the leadership focus there was a demand for the process of school improvement to reach down into students and classrooms. Thus, the SIP process inevitably involved a chain of decision-making by which student learning quality drove the intervention, and teachers responsible for this had a common view. The model therefore should not be seen as an intervention only on the principal, but rather on the school decision-making system and focus. Even though it was the principal receiving the SIP planning template, and reporting to the network, the reporting was required to include description of the operation of the school processes, of classroom processes, and of student learning. This of course placed significant constraints on principals, which may help explain the variation in responses and outcomes described above.
The findings from this study are based on multiple data sources: analysis of both open and closed survey questions which all teachers in the 23 schools in the network were invited to complete; interviews with principals, teachers and leaders in the eight case study schools; some interviews with students in the case study schools; and interviews with leaders who worked in the regional network office; and field notes from network meetings including the celebrations days. Celebrations days occurred each school term when groups of principals came together to share and celebrate the improvements and processes happening in their schools. Many of the themes emerging from the analysis of the different data sources were similar or overlapping, providing some confidence in the evidence-base for the findings.
The study, conducted over two years of data collection and analysis, has demonstrated a range of positive outcomes in at the case study schools relating to school communication and collaboration processes, professional learning of principals, leadership teams and classroom teachers. There was evidence in the survey responses and field notes from ‘celebration days’ that these outcomes were also represented in other schools in the network. The key points of change concerned the leadership processes of planning for improvement, and the rigorous attention to student data in framing teaching and learning processes. This latter point of change had the effect of basing SIP processes on a platform of evidence-based change. The research uncovered considerable anecdotal and observational evidence of improvements in student learning, in teacher accounts in interview, and presentations of student work. Interviews with students, although not as representative as the team would have liked, showed evidence of student awareness of learning goals, a key driver in the SIP improvement model. It was, however, not possible over this timescale to collect objective comparative evidence of enhanced learning outcomes.
A number of features of the short-term-cycle SIP were identified that supported positive change across the network. These were: 1) the support structures represented by the network leader and support personnel within schools, 2) the nature of the SIP model – focusing strongly on change leadership but within a collaborative structure that combined top-down and bottom-up elements, 3) the focus on data-led planning and implementation that helped drill down to explicit elements of classroom practice, and 4) the accountability regimes represented by network leader presence, and the celebration days in which principals became effectively accountable to their peers. We found that in the second year of the project, momentum was lost in the case study schools, as the network was dismantled. This raised issues also for the conduct of research in situations of systemic change.
Alongside the finding of evidence of positive outcomes in the case study schools overall, was the finding that the SIP processes and outcomes varied considerably across schools. A number of contextual factors were identified that led to this variation, including school histories of reform, principal management style, and school size and structure that made the short-term-cycle model unmanageable. In some cases there was overt resistance to the SIP model, at least in some part, and this led to an element of performativity in which the language of the SIP was conscripted to other purposes. The study found that even with functioning schools the SIP was understood differently and the processes performed differently, raising the question of whether in the study we are dealing with one SIP or many. The final take home message from the research is that schools are complex institutions, and models of school improvement need to involve both strong principled features, and flexibility in local application, if all schools’ interests in improving teaching and learning processes and outcomes are to be served.
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