Where Missouri School Leaders Can Make the Biggest Difference

William Woods EDU

A Wallace Foundation research review that looks at How Leadership Influences Student Learning offers many insights for current or aspiring Missouri principals and superintendents. In the first of a series of related posts, we’ll consider one finding: the impact of a strong school leader is “greatest in schools with the greatest need.”

Often, those at-risk schools align with changing demographics. Take U.S. public high schools, where lower graduation rates are persistent for minority and low-income students.

The Pew Hispanic Center, which chronicles the growing impact of Latinos on the entire nation, addressed this issue in a November 2005 report, “The High Schools Hispanics Attend: Size and Other Key Characteristics.” The report found that Latinos are much more likely than whites or blacks to attend the nation’s largest public high schools and more likely to attend schools with fewer instructional resources and higher student/teacher ratios.

“The characteristics of high schools matter for student performance,” said Richard Fry, the report’s author. “Hispanic teens are more likely than any other racial or ethnic group to attend public high schools that have the dual characteristics of extreme size and poverty.”

As the Wallace study points out:

“Leadership effects are usually largest where and when they are needed most. Especially when we think of leaders in formal administrative roles, the greater the challenge the greater the impact of their actions on learning. Indeed, there are virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around without intervention by a powerful leader. Many other factors may contribute to such turnarounds, but leadership is the catalyst.”

Edutopia offers a library of such school turnaround stories, including this one about how one of the worst performing middle schools in the state, Cochrane, began making strides by narrowing its achievement gap and doubling student performance. The achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their better-off peers has been reduced by 35% (based on those meeting or exceeding state standards in both math and reading).

The Education Specialist in Administration degree at William Woods University — one of Missouri’s leading producers of future district leaders — invests significant instruction time in leading school turnarounds.

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