Leading Whole-School Improvement

How high expectations, constructive feedback, and valuable professional learning experiences combine into schoolwide success

October 18, 2018
Colored Pencils

James Kozlowski, the principal of Endeavour Sports High School in Caringbah, Australia, was a 2018 participant in Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership, a professional learning program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

For a school principal, the task of leading school improvement can be daunting; schools are large organizations filled with those most unpredictable of things — people. They are also places where there is a plethora of opinions about the methods that should be used to achieve success.

Nearly four years down the road, my school’s success can be distilled into three words — expectations, collaboration, and celebration. When I started at Endeavour in 2015, we had just been through a tough couple of years; enrollments were falling and staff morale was down. We needed to set the standards high, get everyone working toward the same goals, and celebrate our achievements at every opportunity.

1. Expectations

Too often, we let “realistic expectations” limit what’s possible. There is nothing wrong with having realistic expectations, but what if those expectations are built upon a false premise: that what we can achieve is based on what we have achieved — a type of recency effect? Coming into a school as a new leader, I was perfectly placed to bring a fresh view of what was possible. A natural optimist, I knew we could do better and then some; and so, the lifting of expectations began. The most tangible example of this was the creation of our High Expectations policy for students. At its core is the message that learning comes first at Endeavour. Addressing the three pillars of attendance, application, and behavior, we review student data every five weeks and withdraw privileges if students fail to meet our high standards. So, involvement in sporting teams, excursions, and other extracurricular activities are restricted until students get back on track with their learning. We help them to do this by providing additional support until the next review period. Meanwhile, those who meet these standards are rewarded and acknowledged.

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There is nothing wrong with having realistic expectations, but what if those expectations are built upon a false premise: that what we can achieve is based on what we have achieved — a type of recency effect?

You know that a policy is working when the language it employs features in daily conversations. Staff and student discussions regularly employ “high expectations,” “red flags,” and “gold flags,” with their implied meanings. Language is a big part of culture, and our High Expectations policy is now a firmly embedded element of the Endeavour culture.

2. Collaboration

When it came to collaboration, I saw it as part of my leadership to guide staff through the minefield of opinions to find “what works best,” based on expert research, for whole-staff professional learning. If our High Expectations policy was directed at students, this collaboration was targeting quality teaching. We started with the assumption that the most important within-school factor influencing student achievement is the quality of the teaching.

The evidenced-based strategies we employed excluded no one. The message we wanted embraced was that these strategies were for everyone — and their success needed everyone. Feedback is a strategy of enormous power, and we have become a “feedback school.” According to the work of people like Professor John Hattie of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, when measuring teaching and learning strategies and their impact on student achievement, feedback consistently produces one of the largest effect sizes. At Endeavour we have focused on two elements of feedback: firstly, that which is given by teachers to students about their performance on a task; and secondly, feedback that is given to teachers about their practice.

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The message we wanted embraced was that these strategies were for everyone — and their success needed everyone.

Feedback given to students must address three questions about their learning: Where am I going? How am I going? Where to next? Feedback to teachers is given via a whole-school lesson observation program. But we also know that every student is giving feedback to a teacher when a piece of a student’s work is being assessed — a student’s success is an indication to the teacher that their strategies are working, and a lack of success reveals the opposite.

Like the language of high expectations, feedback has become part of the Endeavour vernacular. What may once have been seen as unsolicited judgement is now viewed as expected support for enhancing the quality of teaching and learning.

3. Celebration

Reinforcing our collaboration and the establishment of high expectations has been the celebration of success, whenever it arises. Both student and staff success has been recognized and publicized. Nothing fuels future success like current achievement and the acknowledgement of it. Key to this has been our use of social media to allow our community into the Endeavour world. Too often, only those within a school’s gates get to see the great work that is being done. Social media has allowed my school to share our success on a daily basis and reward those who have achieved their best. We don’t wait for end-of-year presentation days or whole cohort exam results to salute our students and staff. By consistently sharing the everyday achievements, we are recognising those who may never have been placed in the spotlight.

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About the Author

James Kozlowski
James Kozlowski is the principal of Endeavour Sports High School in Carbingbah, Australia, which was named Secondary School of the Year (in the government category) at the 2018 Australian Education Awards. He is also vice president of the Sports High Schools Association of New South Wales (Australia). In the summer of 2018, Kozlowski attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s professional learning program Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership.
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