Closing gaps takes time
According to Anneke Markholt, CEL’s associate director, a recent study in Washington conducted by College of Education researchers Marge Plecki and Ana Elfers showed a strong desire among the state’s principals to spend more time on their instructional leadership as well as a general understanding of the importance of work like that being done by CEL in Blaine and elsewhere.
“It’s a big idea that’s well accepted in the state,” Markholt said. “But it’s a challenge for districts. It’s a challenge to find the time and to find the support to do it better.”
“We know that in places where we have been for a period of time — not just one or two years — and in places where we can work with the entire system, it really does make a difference for kids,” Markholt said. “And it happens in part because there are leaders who are really committed to orchestrating ongoing opportunities for teachers while keeping the kids front and center. The principal makes a huge difference in that.”
CEL brings the lens
According to Blaine Middle School Principal Darren Benson, there had long been a desire among Blaine’s leadership to work together and develop a system-wide approach — but working with CEL made it much easier for leadership to find a shared vision and create the structures needed to bring that vision to life.
“When you have someone like Joanna who sees the big picture and has worked with a lot of schools in a lot of places, she can bring in tools we haven’t used before, or maybe show us how to use them in a different context,” Benson said.
“With CEL, with Joanna, with the strong leadership team I have, each one brought a different piece. Joanna brought the framework, the definitions. My people brought the organizational knowledge. And I brought the support.”
The changing role of principals
CEL’s Michelson said that by embracing new methods of supporting teachers, Blaine’s principals have made a real difference for kids.
“It’s been great watching principals develop a deeper understanding of what kids can actually do in classrooms — the potential for students to take more ownership, to excel in their reading progress, to fall in love with reading,” Michelson said.
That progress has been measurable. In 2019, as Blaine’s high school end-of-year report noted, teacher evaluations showed increases in purpose, student engagement, culture, and curriculum and pedagogy.
In addition, Blaine’s high school students were more actively involved in reading and writing, and were speaking about texts they’d read for longer periods of time.
In fact, during the 2018-2019 school year, Blaine showed measurable improvements in literacy at all age levels — all the way down to kindergarten. In addition to observations of increased student engagement across the system, elementary in particular saw measurable student learning gains in the 2019-2020 school year. More specifically, 80 percent of elementary students receiving special education services increased by four levels in their reading. Also, 55 percent of K-5 students below benchmark in the fall made more than one grade level growth and 31 percent of elementary students below benchmark in fall were at benchmark in spring.
“The more principals are able to describe that story to teachers, the more it propels the energy and desire among teachers to keep getting better at their teaching,” Michelson said. “It’s the principals’ vision, their ability to keep focused, their ability to create opportunities for real collaboration among teachers — that’s what’s having a direct impact on what students experience.”