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Summer Spotlight: Leading 21st Century High Schools

Hunter GelbachDuring the summer many educators take the opportunity to develop their skills through professional development. Over 1500 educators come to the HGSE campus every summer to participate in a professional development experience. Programs in Professional Education offers a variety of leadership development opportunities tailored to K-12 and higher education leaders. The programs not only let you recharge and connect with like-minded individuals, but they also show you how to apply what you learn directly to your work for years to come. There are still openings this summer and you can learn more about Programs in Professional Education here.

The goal of Leading 21st Century High Schools — being held on campus June 2327 — is to help leaders cultivate effective teaching practices, enhance social dynamics, and implement innovative leadership approaches as key levers in the overall improvement of contemporary high schools. The program examines four leadership themes — school improvement, instructional practice, student/adult connections, and motivation and engagement strategies — and looks at how to adapt and implement specific leadership strategies. Attendees gain practical, hands-on solutions to leverage their schools’ strengths toward improving the overall school communities. Principals, assistant principals, department heads, directors, classroom teachers, coaches, superintendents, and other central office personnel responsible for curriculum and instruction and the supervision of schools are among the institute’s regular participants.

Associate Professor Hunter Gelbach has been a faculty chair of PPE’s Leading 21st Century High Schools since 2011. We caught up with Gelbach and he answered some questions about the challenges facing high school leaders today:

What do you see as the biggest challenge for high school leaders today?
I see a huge tension between external accountability pressures and internal social and motivational dynamics of high schools. In other words, the average school leader faces pressure from the school district, the state, the parents and the local community to get high test scores. This idiosyncratic type of achievement is what they are evaluated on. Yet, these tests and the typical approaches to preparing students for these tests are immensely de-motivating. Although these standardized tests have improved over time, the focus on them still narrows the outcomes that we care about improving. So producing students who are creative, who can navigate delicate social situations, who encourage their peers to perform better, who take extra science classes, or who can figure out the right questions to be asking in the first place is a lower priority than producing students who can nudge test scores higher. I think many school leaders have to make tough decisions around this central tension on a nearly daily basis.

What is the most important question a high school leader could ask themselves about the social dynamic in their school?
Would you want to send your own son or daughter to this high school? What if your child was of a different race? Different social class? Spoke a different language? Had a learning disability? Was not a part of the dominant peer group at the school? What can you do to answer ‘yes’ to more of these questions?

How has your work informed/supported school leaders? My current research illustrates how intervening to improve the social dynamics of a school (particularly by improving teacher-student relationships) can help close achievement gaps.

Register for Leading 21st Century High Schools today: www.gse.harvard.edu/ppe/hs.