The school administrators’ role has never been more challenging. They oversee increasingly complex, high-tech facilities while serving more and more diverse communities. But the central task remains the same: improving teaching and learning within a school or a district.
The administrator’s role as instructional leader is a key theme in the federal No Child Left Behind law. It’s also the focus of a new staff development curriculum called Lenses on Learning, developed by EDC’s Center for the Development of Teaching (CDT). To Barbara Scott Nelson, CDT’s director, effective instructional leadership often requires changes in both knowledge and practice. She cites the example of an administrator she worked with in the course of developing Lenses on Learning.
"In the course of our work together, the administrator commented, ‘My ideas are in a new place, but my practice isn’t,’" recalls Nelson, who has spent the last eight years working with administrators. Nelson encouraged the administrator to apply her new understanding of mathematics content to the curriculum selection process. "In the past, the selection committee would use a standard checklist," said Nelson. "This time, the administrator changed the nature of that list, developing questions that involved the committee in discussions of how children learn mathematics." The administrator later reported, "the exercise of forming those questions…gave me the courage…the willingness in each session to say to the teachers not so much, ‘what does this exercise do?’ or ‘what does this unit do?’ but ‘what kinds of thinkers will this create?’"
There are two Lenses on Learning courses, the first of which has just been published by Pearson Learning. The second will be published in 2003. The materials, developed with funding from the National Science Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, offer support for principals, superintendents, staff developers, teacher leaders, math and Title 1 Coordinators as they accommodate changes brought about by standards-based reform, says Nelson, the center’s director. Nelson’s center also offers a summer training program to facilitate use of the materials.
Over the past few decades, educators’ understanding of instructional leadership has deepened considerably, says Nelson. The last 20 years of research in cognitive sciences, education, mathematics instruction, and school reform reveal a new truth that educators are still getting used to: "Learning is subject-specific." And so is teaching; teachers lead their mathematics class differently than they guide an English class. While their principals do not need the depth of knowledge of a classroom teacher to be effective leaders, they do need to appreciate and support complexity and depth in all the subject areas, says Nelson.
Many of today’s administrators were educated when mathematics was viewed simply as an assemblage of facts and procedures. Learning was a straightforward process of absorbing new information and practicing new skills and drills. Teaching entailed transmitting accumulated knowledge and providing an opportunity to practice new skills. Today’s mathematics instruction, however, strives for a balance between mathematical reasoning and computation. Today’s instructional leaders have a vision about the learning and teaching that will happen in their schools. They hire and support excellent teachers who can work toward that vision, interpret the significance of test scores, assess changes at school, and they keep parents posted on reforms.
Two New Lenses
Lenses on Learning: A New Focus for Mathematics and School Leadership, the new first course, consists of three modules designed to help administrators explore the significance of these new ideas about mathematics instruction for their own administrative responsibilities—supporting teacher professional development, doing classroom observations, and instructional leadership more generally.
The new modules consider the following issues:
- The nature of mathematical understanding: Through engaging in mathematical problem solving, administrators gain an appreciation for the nature of mathematical understanding that goes beyond algorithmic manipulation.
- The development of children’s mathematical understanding: Using videos and reviewing children’s written work, administrators learn about the development of children’s mathematical thinking.
- Discourse-based mathematics instruction: Administrators develop an "eye" for elementary mathematics classrooms and see how learning occurs through problem solving.
- Professional development for teachers: Administrators are introduced to several approaches to professional development and they discuss what teachers need to know and what they need to know how to do.
- Heterogeneity in the classroom: Administrators consider differences in cultural socialization, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, cognitive style and motivational style.
- Assessment: Administrators consider the meaning of standards-based assessment, and review new kinds of assessment. This course was nationally field-tested in eight sites.
The second course, Lenses on Learning: Classroom Observation and Teacher Supervision in Elementary Mathematics, scheduled for publication in 2003, is an in-depth experience in classroom observation and teacher supervision. It is designed to provide administrators with experience in observing elementary mathematics classrooms, both on videotape and in their own schools. Participants use a specially-designed, standards-based observation guide to focus their viewing of videotaped elementary and middle school mathematics classes. The course encourages administrators to use their insights to rethink the nature of their interactions with teachers, particularly in post-observation conferences. This course, too, was nationally field-tested in eight sites.
In both courses, materials include instructional recommendations and detailed facilitator notes for every class session, readings, artifacts for analysis in class (videotapes, sample student work, case studies, etc.) and homework assignments.
Ultimately, the goal of the curriculum is to help administrators build their instructional leadership skills so that they can have a positive impact on teaching and learning. "Administrators’ responsibilities—managing schools, supervising teachers, setting district-level professional development policy, selecting curricula and assessment instruments, etc.—put them in positions where they can either help or hinder improvement efforts in mathematics and other subjects by the way they see and understand the practical issues before them, and by the practical judgments they make," says Nelson.
Originally published on January 1, 2003