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Leadership from the Ground Up: Effective Schooling in Traditionally Low Performing Schools

reviewed by Beth Ann Loveland Sennett - March 15, 2013

coverTitle: Leadership from the Ground Up: Effective Schooling in Traditionally Low Performing Schools
Author(s): Michele A. Acker-Hocevar, Marta I. Cruz-Janzen, & Cynthia L. Wilson (eds.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1617356506, Pages: 296, Year: 2012
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In their recently published book, Leadership from the ground up: Effective schooling in traditionally low performing schools author/editors Acker-Hocevar, Cruz-Janzen, and Wilson have summarized important findings from seven case studies exploring the sustained success of seven schools whose profiles match those of historically underperforming programs.  Looking beyond a strict focus on data collection, analysis, and individual intervention, these authors wanted to understand the factors leading to the atypical achievement of these populations at risk for low performance.  School populations studied were characterized by low socioeconomic status, high racial and multiethnic composition, and a large percentage of English Language Learners (ELLs).  The case studies overseen by these authors involved elementary schools in Florida that had sustained achievement and progress in reading or math for two or more consecutive years at the start of the study.  Sustained student academic gains are difficult to obtain in almost any setting, in spite of intense responsiveness to data, especially in highly diverse schools that are negatively impacted socially and economically.  It is not an exaggeration to state that this topic is critically important to educators and administrators everywhere.

Research methodologies used by Acker-Hocevar, Cruz-Janzen, and Wilson arose out of a grounding of the study in school practices research related to school improvement, standards-based reform, and school effectiveness, and evolved into a Systems Alignment Model (SAM), based on ten theoretical variables.  Explicit variables related to standards-based reform literature were identified as accountability, instruction, personnel, resources, and information management.  Implicit variables embedded in standards-based reform included leadership, parent/community involvement, decision making, culture, climate, and communication.  The SAM provided a means for evaluating the interaction of factors that led to successful student academic outcomes and high achieving programs in spite of extreme challenges. These authors reported that previous literature had not fully explored interactions between the embedded and explicit variables studied through the SAM.  

Acker-Hocevar, Cruz-Janzen, and Wilson described a framework that they likened to a tree’s form and function, which they called a learning partnership tree (LPT).  In this model, all components of the learning partnership are aligned to the trunk, which represents essential supportive organizational core values.  The sustaining variables (leadership, decision making, culture and climate, parent and community involvement, and communication) are like the nourishing roots of a tree.  The organizing variables (personnel, accountability, information management, resources, and instruction) in the framework symbolically extend outward from the supporting trunk as branches of a tree would.  The LPT model recognizes the reciprocal support between component variables and leading core values.  Just as a tree’s trunk, branches and roots collect and distribute energy from soil, precipitation, and sunlight to nurture a tree, in a school the core values, organizing variables, and sustaining values interact to ensure a school’s function and growth.

The authors concluded from their case study analyses that no single prescriptive solution produced the exceptional results obtained at the seven schools they studied.  This news will disappoint those who seek a single solution to increasing students’ educational gains on an ongoing basis.  Rather, at least in each of the cases presented in this text, some key combination of essential elements was constructed, and the interaction among primary variables present was fluid and uniquely suited to the particular milieu.  Leaders, teachers, and other stakeholders working within these specific programs collaborated in order to employ their individual skills in varied and meaningful ways depending on the evolving needs of their milieus.  Interactions and interconnections between embedded and standards-based reform variables were uniquely well-balanced in each of the seven programs studied, reflecting each school’s culture.

According to Acker-Hocevar, Cruz-Jansen, and Wilson the factors that consistently stood out across all seven of these successful programs were the establishment of learning partnerships, which fostered strong and effective working relationships with all stakeholders; the extensive use of distributive and shared leadership, which created a consistently positive culture and climate; and the access to resources, which provided needed tangible and intangible program supports.  No single solution resulted in sustained positive academic outcomes.  However, of particular importance to all of the successful programs highlighted by the case studies was the sense that strong positive culture and climate must reflect additive schooling: individual and collective differences in program stakeholder groups were viewed as assets and respected as such.

Arising out of the seven case studies was a new framework, which Acker-Hocevar, Cruz-Jansen, and Wilson termed Sustainable School Improvement (SSI). A theory–in-practice, this framework highlights the core effectiveness of the seven schools, derived from additive schooling, a humanistic philosophy, resourcefulness, shared leadership, and accountability.

Acker-Hocevar, Cruz –Janzen, and Wilson sought to understand the interaction of variables underpinning sustained student academic success in seven disadvantaged schools whose profiles mirrored those of historically underperforming programs. The complex and multifaceted interactions among variables at play in each milieu make it clear that no simple explanation or formula can insure replication of the successes they studied.  In light of the present findings, Acker-Hocevar, Cruz-Janzen, and Wilson  recommend further study of internal human work structure and connections within school settings, as these issues are not well understood.  In addition, the authors suggest that empirical literature has paid scant attention to the specific work skills associated with leaders of successful schools whose populations are typically at highest risk for failure.  Acker-Hocevar, Cruz-Janzen, and Wilson maintain that the way in which teachers and administrators of those very vulnerable schools run their programs should be addressed during teacher and administrative preparatory coursework.  They are equally as insistent that our nation’s teacher and principal preparation programs currently fail to prepare candidates to collaborate with stakeholders to secure grants, to obtain local business support, to elicit family commitment to school activities, etc.  The latter are practical skills that were essential to the success of all seven schools studied by these authors. Rather than training teachers and principals for isolated positions in routinized factory-like schools, graduates must be prepared for flexible and varied roles in programs unique to the needs of the communities they serve.  Acker-Hocevar, Cruz-Jansen, and Wilson describe a system embroiled in conflict as individuals and schools strive to successfully respond to pressures exerted by externally imposed standards-based accountabilities.  The expectation that educators and school leaders will ensure continued student achievement and academic growth is an enduring part of the landscape.  According to this text, data-driven decision making is only one piece of the solution, albeit a critical one.  Nonetheless, according to these authors, the way to best achieve the goal of sustained success in our schools and school systems is by development of and rigid adherence to core values, from the ground up.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 15, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17058, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 6:36:42 PM

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About the Author
  • Beth Ann Sennett
    University of Hartford
    E-mail Author
    BETH ANN LOVELAND SENNETT is a former school administrator whose background is in special education. She is currently a doctoral candidate in educational leadership at The University of Hartford, focusing on teacher and administrator concerns relative to new performance evaluation measures. Beth Ann currently provides independent individual educational testing, consultation, and tutoring in most subject areas for all ages. In addition, she is engaged as a graduate research assistant at the University of Hartford. Other research interests include professional learning communities, meeting students’ mental health needs, and reducing incidents requiring seclusion and restraint in schools.
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