School Administrators: Key Players in Your Literacy Program

School Administrators: Key Players in Your Literacy Program

School administrators are an important component of how well schools and districts function. Although the research base for this assertion is still fairly new, anyone who has worked in or sent their children to a school would likely be quick to agree that the quality of school leadership makes a difference. In 2013, Stanford University researcher Eric Hanushek publicized a report that sought to shine light on the role principals can play in boosting student achievement. His conclusion was that principals can have a tremendous impact on the overall quality of a school, partially by effectively managing the turnover rate of teachers. According to Hanushek, keeping high-performing teachers on the job has proven to be a good way to keep students on track academically.

The Wallace Foundation, an education-focused philanthropic organization, has also devoted significant resources toward understanding what constitutes strong school leadership. In 2013, the foundation released a report based on its deep dive into what makes principals effective. One conclusion from the report seems especially noteworthy: Principals “have to be (or become) leaders of learning who can develop a team delivering effective instruction.” As the report points out, principals were once expected to be little more than “building managers” tasked with carrying out district orders, but in today’s heightened climate of accountability in education, they are being asked to step up and provide meaningful instructional support and direction.

One place to see such leadership taking shape is literacy. Indeed, the push to get all kids reading at grade level has increased in recent years, thanks in part to recent federal education policies such as 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act. While still controversial in some ways—particularly in regard to how reading interventions and funding are handled—the Every Student Succeeds Act has continued the emphasis on improving overall literacy levels, and there is certainly a constructive role for school administrators to play within this framework. One video produced by a learning disabilities support network in Ontario, Canada, highlights the important work school administrators can do to make sure literacy is a school-wide priority. The video also describes the various methods used by successful school leaders to keep literacy instruction at the forefront.

Michael Smit, a principal featured in the video, emphasized that teachers are the ones who are “in control of the planning for their classrooms and for the reading programs that are in place.” His job, then, is to ensure that the proper levels of planning and implementation are occurring. It is clear from the video that Smit carries his own deep knowledge of reading instruction into his work, with a collaborative focus on how students learn to read and what particular barriers get in the way of the development of strong literacy skills. This is achieved through data collection and analysis, leading Smit and his team of teachers to gain more awareness of how to spot and effectively instruct struggling readers early on.

Some of the teachers who work with Smit were also interviewed for the video. They shared their own stories of using data and early assessment strategies as a way to identify problem areas as quickly as possible—even for the school’s youngest students (kindergarteners)—and detailed a whole-team approach to boosting literacy skills that fits well with recommendations from the American Association of School Administrators. In a post on the Association’s website, California reading instruction expert Linda Diamond made this stark declaration: “Middle schools and high schools across the country face a literacy crisis of monumental proportions.” What is needed in response to this crisis is what Diamond calls a “systems approach” that sets out and adheres to “high expectations for all students and includes specialized, intensive interventions for underprepared students.”

To this end, Diamond recommended that no stone go unturned. “To meet the needs of struggling readers,” she advised, “schools must rethink their organization, schedules, curriculum materials, programs and teacher training.” Diamond insisted that teachers be given specified training in how to work with struggling readers, and that such efforts must be supported and directed by school leadership teams. In California, where Diamond works, this support has included school-based curriculum and instruction directors, as well as district-level administrators.

In a 2018 post on the International Literacy Association’s website, Alina O’Donnell argued that, “More than ever, administrators who are passionate, knowledgeable, and advocates for literacy are needed in our schools and districts.” That’s because literacy specialists surveyed by the International Literacy Association have overwhelmingly expressed the need for such support and involvement from administrative staff.

O’Donnell’s piece included a wealth of resources for administrators and school teams looking for the best ways to support on-site literacy instruction. These resources stretch beyond reading programs and address such things as equity and school climate, all under the umbrella of effective school leadership strategies. The purpose is to put all hands on deck in the quest to see more students become strong readers who are able to participate in rigorous coursework. Tapping school administrators to help with this makes sense in light of Linda Diamond’s blog post, in which she offered this straightforward assessment: While “designing, implementing and sustaining effective reading programs is everybody’s business,” school administrators play an essential leadership role in successful student outcomes.

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