Major boost from Boston

6th April 2007 at 01:00
Professor Richard Elmore has been advising Scottish school leaders during his visit from the United States

WHEN HE'S Not teaching at Harvard, Richard Elmore spends a lot of time in under-performing schools around Boston. The view he brought to Scotland last week was that the secrets of how to lead a school well were more likely to be found in high-performing schools in poor areas than in leafy suburbs.

On the basis of his work on transformational leadership in Boston, his message to Scottish teachers is twofold: teaching won't improve in a school until teachers are in each other's classrooms; and volunteerism doesn't work - it just means you round up the "usual suspects" rather than bring on new blood.

Professor Elmore visited Scot-land as the guest of the Scottish Executive and Edinburgh University's Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration, with a remit to boost leadership capacity in Scottish education. He had some hard-hitting advice for those trying to boost low-performing schools - in which, he says, adults are usually not working from the same page.

"When it comes to instructional practice, low-performing schools are atomised. Most decisions about academic practice are made at classroom level by individual teachers," he told a seminar at Hampden in Glasgow. But he also said teaching in high-performing schools in affluent areas was often "mediocre" at best.

From discussions Professr Elmore had had in Scotland, he believed the situation was no different here from in the United States, so "most of the students in prestigious schools in Scotland get some kind of tutoring in the course of their time in school".

The issue was not so much bad teaching but the variability, he said.

Prestigious schools did not have to pay attention to variability, and mediocre teachers were able to settle into a rut because getting rid of them raised political issues that no one wanted to deal with.

Professor Elmore believes schools in poorer areas that perform well can offer valuable lessons. "They are the ones which have figured out how to use the resources of the school to move instructional practice," he said.

If league tables were adjusted for value-added analysis, there would be some "rreal rude shocks", he said. "Some schools can only produce performance through their teaching; others have a choice. Where there is no choice, they can only do that by offering a coherence of student learning."

Professor Elmore did not advocate parachuting in a new head to rescue a failing school, or wholesale dismissals. If schools are failing, it is usually because the adults and school had not had the kind of support they needed, he said.

A characteristic of low-performing schools was that teachers routinely chose to highlight outside factors as the influences on pupils' attainment - the community the pupils come from, their families, their language.

Teachers in schools which performed well ranked things happening inside the classroom and put the school at the top of the list of factors that affected student learning.

Staff in such schools also said discipline was the main problem. But Professor Elmore said behaviour is no more disruptive than in other schools. Teachers' perception of it is a function of their lack of control and their feeling of disconnection from students, he said.

One of his observational techniques is to follow a pupil from one class to another and analyse how they react to different teachers. "In schools that are relatively atomised, you find that the student is literally a different person in different classrooms - unco-operative in one, passive in another, but active and at the centre of activity in another.

On a visit to Fife, he demonstrated his "medical rounds" approach, in which professionals observe and then describe symptoms of particular problems.

Elmore on the shortage of heads

Richard Elmore had a surprising message for the leaders of the headteachers' associations who last week raised fears of a shortage of high-quality candidates for headship.

Scotland should not be over-concerned if there is a head-shortage, he said.

That meant people had got a clear signal that the work is much harder than it used to be and there is more accountability. "We are moving out of a period where people are getting jobs through having a reputation of being congenial but not having much understanding of how to make organisations work through teaching and learning," he said.

But a shortage in school leadership is still a serious issue. The solution in education is to become more sophisticated and systematic in human resource planning. For instance, a department head could be pulled out of a school for three months and work directly for the head of another. This would give them experience in another setting, smoothing the path to leadership.

Professor Elmore also advocated a talent pipeline, identifying leadership potential early and offering access to learning and support.

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