Assessment Opinion

2 Actions That Help 21st-Century Leaders Build Success

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 27, 2016 5 min read
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If it happens in New York, it may be happening across the country; if not yet, maybe soon. In New York field tests are given to students to determine the suitability of specific questions for specific subjects and grade levels. Recently, the State Education Department encouraged each of the 700 school districts to volunteer one school as part of a planned pilot program. The purpose of this pilot as outlined in this article from the Poughkeepsie Journal is explained:

The results of the experiment will be used to fine-tune the system before schools can offer the computer-based model on tests that count next school year -- though the state insists it will be up to the schools to decide whether to participate, at least for the next five years. The goal is to have all students in grades 3-8 take their state-mandated tests online by 2020.

It is an ongoing frutration that some still look at student achievement as a result on a test. But, it can offer a quick and easy snapshot to measure students and schools against regarding knowledge and facts. Only in its beginning stages can these multiple choice type measures reveal the students’ skills and abilities that are needed in the 21st century. 21st century models of education are not demonstrated by using 21st century tools (computers) to take the place of “fill in the circle with your pencil” tests. And 21st century tests can not be assessments that demand one correct answer. It is the plethora of skills needed to come to solve a problem and reach a conclusion that 21st century leaders and teachers need to be developing.

We believe it is true, that once the teaching and learning is transformed, results even on computerized multiple-choice tests may improve. Yet, what we are testing still remains in question. If we assess what matters, then the backwards message to educators is memorized facts and multiple-choice tests are what matters. The tail wags the dog. So, we look for the exceptional ones. There are those daring leaders who work with their teachers and their communities to take a risk and consider new and different ideas about what good teaching and learning look like. They pay less attention to the tests that are given to measure one student against another and one school against another and more attention to the quality and relevance of what is being taught, how it is being taught and what is being learned.

A Plan
In order for an organization to grow and change, there must be some sort of plan for developing the professionals. We must admit that even with limited resources to provide it, other deterrents exist: time and buy-in, risk, rehearsal, and feedback. Rarely does professional development do more than open eyes for some and it shuts down others. Mandated change, when coupled with scarce professional development, is a ploy used by some but it hasn’t yielded much progress. Our proof? Only few can boast they have found the ‘secret sauce’ and improved teaching and learning and achievement. But many are on their way.

A challenge exists in that schools are each different from each other. They are a combination of the values and talents of the adults working in them. They are a combination of the challenges and capacities of the students who attend and the values and interests of the communities in which the school is located. Many schools have the advantage of long-term employees; teachers who come to work and stay for their careers. The further you get away from a metropolis, the more likely that the pool of those looking for work is limited to people from the local area. It is only those who are in administrative positions, in schools and in business, that typically take the risk to move to a vastly new area to take a new position. There is an advantage in a stable workforce as long as they continue to learn and grow. Leaders have time for building relationships within and outside of the school and to learn the values and culture the community holds dear. Leaders can infuse new ideas, push against the limits of the district and introduce a new vision. Yet, even those who have embarked on these rough waters often stop there. The leader must be an authentic model for the changes s/he is asking of the students, the faculty and the community. It takes time to become that.

Imagine an elementary principal who understands the value of STEM. Let’s even say they connected with a group like SLED (Science Learning Through Engineering Design) or VISTA (Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement) and was able to engage teachers in opportunities to begin their transition toward a collaborative, integrated, problem based manner of teaching. But imagine the leader becoming busy doing familiar tasks of the role and loses the time to grow along with his/her teachers. How, then, can that leader give credible feedback, coach, support, and help evaluate the changes and risks the teachers are taking? Big shifts in teaching and learning require at least two essential steps. First,

The role of the 21st century leader is complex, gathering the voices of all constituencies, listening deeply to the beliefs and opinions of the community, and building the vision and the plan to achieve it. Becoming the lead learner in the organization is essential. The change process unveils places where knowledge and skills need attention. New ways of doing things always requires new information and new learning. (Self-Directed Professional Development for Leaders, Leadership360. 3/15)

The Role of Lead Learner
Second, the 21st century leader, in their complex role, must be the lead learner constantly modeling new thinking and supporting others who join the process. Leaders know that changes do not take root if they are dependent on one person. So, the leader must be a collaborator and attentive to letting others stand out as models also. When the change leaders leave his/her position, will the change be sustained? Ensuring that it does, is part of a leader’s work. These changes, risks, shifts cannot take place with out the entire organization growing together and moving in unison. As the new teaching and learning behaviors grow, they become embedded in the school culture. In that way, should the leader leave, the organization searches for the next right answer in leadership who will continue the direction already set and raise the changes and shifts to the next level. This passing the baton of leadership is essential for change momentum to continue and thrive.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.