Context Matters: Professor Bruce Barnett describes some key findings from the High-Need Schools research projects…
Schools around the world serve large numbers of students at risk of educational failure or in need of special assistance and support. Many of these students live in poverty, are homeless, reside in foster care, have physical and learning disabilities, and are second language learners. As a result of these conditions, many students drop out of school, are employed in low-paying jobs, and become dependent on public assistance. These conditions also affect children’s sense of hope. Although American adolescents and undergraduate students tend to be more hopeful than are their counterparts in other countries (Lester, 2015), about 30% of American adolescents experience a sense of hopelessness, with much higher rates among racial and ethnic minority groups (Child Trends, 2012).
Given the increasing numbers of schools serving high-need students and communities, the International School Leadership Development Network (ISLDN) was developed as a joint initiative of the British Educational Leadership, Management, and Administration Society (BELMAS) and the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA). Two areas of focus have emerged: (1) leadership for social justice and (2) leadership in high-need schools. (For more background about the ISLDN, see https://isldn.weebly.com).
High-Need Schools Project Overview
One of the major purposes of the ISLDN is to examine what leaders in high-need schools are doing to overcome many of the educational, social, and economic challenges students and families are encountering. I, along with Jami Berry (University of Georgia), Ian Potter (Bayhouse School, United Kingdom), Pam Angelle (University of Tennessee), and Charles Slater (California State University, Long Beach), have been co-directing these research projects.
The High-Need Schools (HNS) project consists of researchers who are conducting case studies of high-need school leadership across the globe. The project focuses on schools and communities with large numbers of families with incomes below the poverty line, teachers who are not teaching in the content area in which they were trained to teach, teacher and leader turnover, non-native language speakers, and students from indigenous groups.
The project has sought to identify school principals working in a number of different cultural contexts to addresses the following research questions:
- What fosters student learning in high-need schools?
- How do principals and other school leaders enhance individual and organizational performance in high-need schools?
- How do internal and external school contexts impact individual and organizational performance in high-need schools?
A recent special issue of International Studies in Educational Administration (Gurr & Drysdale, 2018) summarizes how principals in high-need schools in several countries (Australia, Belize, Mexico, New Zealand, United States) deal with the internal and external contextual factors influencing student and teacher performance. These six studies examine the relationship between leadership and context, an important area of study since this interplay can determine success and failure (Clarke & O’Donoghue, 2016). Successful leaders understand the context in which they work and can navigate the various levels of context to forge successful outcomes, while other leaders can be constrained or derailed by the context.
One of the studies of a high-need school in the USA identifies the critical contextual challenges principals experience, including national policy changes affecting privatization and reduced resources for public schools, unequitable allocation of support in high-poverty areas, high principal turnover, and inadequate leadership preparation. The school leader addressed these challenges by developing a positive culture of learning through use of quality data, increased community engagement, improved climate and higher teacher quality.
A second study examines the leadership of three underperforming schools in Australia. The authors identify six layers of context: institutional, community, socio-cultural, economic, political, and school improvement. The leaders of each of the schools worked within these six contextual dimensions to improve school performance despite the fact that two schools were in educationally high-advantaged contexts, but were defined as high-need schools.
The third study explores how four leaders in an urban elementary school in a high-need urban context in South Texas have successfully improved and sustained student performance over 25 years. The findings reveal how each principal sought to understand and work within the community, school, and district context to develop interventions that improved and sustained success. Collectively, the strategies adopted by each principal were shown to build on previous success.
Leadership within an early childhood setting in a challenging social economic context in New Zealand constitutes the fourth study. The research emphasizes how these principals developed strong, nurturing relationships with parents and the community to foster a positive environment that enhanced students’ life chances.
The fifth study explores school leaders’ roles in developing a STEM (Science, Technology, Education, Math) curriculum for students in a secondary school in Belize (Central America). Despite limited resources, the two school leaders collaborated with the community to maximize ways for the STEM program to provide opportunities for students to work practically within the industry to develop career options in tourism.
The final study explores principal leadership practices within three Mexican elementary schools in high-need environments. Using a multi-perspective case study approach, the authors outline the external and internal contextual challenges principals had to navigate. These principals promoted order and discipline, clarified roles and rules, managed external support, and developed students’ self-esteem and sense of belonging.
These cases reveal school leaders’ contextual acuity by adapting their interventions or practices to suit their unique circumstances. In Belize, the two principals connected the curriculum with current interest in STEM education and the local industries that were likely to be sources of employment for students. In New Zealand, the three early childhood leaders not only focused on developing teachers, but also understood the importance of developing parents’ skills, particularly in helping them raise their children. In Australia, one of the principals in a school that was about to be closed decided to develop a student-focused learning environment by searching for “next practice” ideas, and assembling them into a coherent instructional program. The other two principals led “best practice” environments where the schools utilized ideas that were known to be effective approaches to learning. In the South Texas school with four principals over 25 years, each principal adapted to their context and built on the foundations laid by previous principals, a powerful story of how thoughtful leaders were able to read their immediate and past school contexts to continue nurturing school success.
What also emerges from these studies of contextual leadership in high-need schools is how common views of leadership describe the core practices of these principals: setting direction, developing people, redesigning the organization, and improving teaching and learning (Day & Leithwood, 2007). The ECE leaders in New Zealand set direction, developed people, and redesigned the organization as well as created positive school/family relationships. The four principals in South Texas set a clear direction for student improvement, supported teachers to improve, altered school conditions, improved teaching and learning processes, and fostered significant parent and community engagement. At the other high-need USA school, significant improvement in staff retention, curriculum, student behavior and attendance, parent involvement, and student learning outcomes resulted from the principal establishing a collaborative school vision, creating a culture of learning, and implementing incremental change in discipline, attendance, training, and curriculum implementation.
Research also demonstrates several types of organizational leaders who are sensitive to their contexts: (1) entrepreneurs are ahead of their time, not constrained by their environment, and able to overcome almost impossible barriers to develop and implement new ideas, (2) managers are skilled at understanding and exploiting their context and possess a deep understanding of how the context can shape and grow their organizations, and (3) leaders confront change and see potential in their organizations that others fail to see. In sum, “Entrepreneurs create new businesses, managers grow and optimize them, and leaders transform them at critical inflection points” (Mayo & Nohria, 2005, p. 48). Evidence of these patterns and behaviors emerge from our studies of high-need school leaders. For instance, the Australian case demonstrates that one of the principals employed entrepreneurial leadership by creating new processes, structures, and practices. In addition, the two leaders from Belize exemplified leadership and entrepreneurship by introducing an innovative STEM program for students in response to the challenges of a high-needs environment. Furthermore, the New Zealand early childhood principals showed leadership by building social capital through partnering with parents in the community. Despite the changing context at different levels at the national, state, district and community levels, the principal in the Texas case study took advantage of the educational initiatives offered at the state level to introduce a series of strategies to build a learning culture and improve teacher quality. Finally, the Mexican principals developed sound managerial strategies for improving student discipline and establishing clear school rules and roles.
Finally, several lessons about leadership and context emerge from these cases. First, leaders in high-need contexts face seemingly insurmountable obstacles; however, rather than being constrained by these contexts, they are optimistic about a better future for their students and communities. Second, by being contextually sensitive and responding with strategic interventions, they demonstrate the competence and skills to successfully manage situations and make good decisions. Third, they are adaptable to changing systemic, school, and community contexts. Together, these factors reflect school leaders’ contextual acuity.
Aspiring and practicing school leaders in high-need schools need opportunities to develop their contextual acuity. On one hand, they can shadow and interview school leaders who are adroit at reading and responding to their contexts. These observations and conversations not only can reveal how leaders are reading contextual clues, but also can uncover their problem-solving strategies. On the other hand, collaborative work groups of school leaders can be established to allow them to compare and contrast different contextual factors affecting their schools. These experiences can sensitize school leaders to consider various options when dealing with these factors to optimize learning for students, teachers, and parents.
Child Trends (2012). Adolescents who felt sad or hopeless: Indicators on children and youth. Bethesda, MD: Author.
Clarke, S., & O’Donoghue (Eds.) (2016). School leadership in diverse contexts. New York, NY: Routledge.
Day, C., & Leithwood, K. (Eds.) (2007). Successful school leadership in times of change. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer-Kluwer.
Gurr, D., & Drysdale, L. (2018). Leading high-need schools: Findings from the International School Leadership Development Network. International Studies in Educational Administration, 46(1), 147-156.
Lester, D. (2015). Hopelessness in adolescents. Journal of Affective Disorders, 173, 221-225.
Mayo, T., & Nohria, N. (2005). Zeitgeist leadership. Harvard Business Review, 83(10), 45-60.