As educators, we know what works in classrooms. There have been thousands of studies around effective leadership, school improvement and raising student achievement. In schools that have high academic optimism, there is a concerted belief that “Learning and student success is our priority” (academic press), a palpable teacher attitude that “We believe in our students” (trust in students), and the knowledge of teachers that “We can do it!” (collective efficacy).
Schools are under much pressure to close the achievement gap between students of different races, those who are rich or poor, and those who live in suburban or urban areas. No Child Left Behind (2001) was the federal response in the USA calling for more accountability vis a vis Common Core and standardized testing. Australia pioneered a national curriculum and NAPLAN (National Assessment Program in Literacy and Numeracy) standardized testing.
Understanding the social contexts in classrooms and schools allows education leaders to work with faculty in examining current practice in an effort to improve the educational outcomes for all students, even those who must overcome the obstacles to learning posed by their low socioeconomic status. Academic optimism, a schoolwide confidence that students can succeed academicially, is crucial to nurture. Below are some strategies to nurture the three aspects of AO in schools.
Academic Press. Education leaders must work with teachers in order to establish an environment where academics are the most important aspect, in order to nurture and raise student achievement. Leaders must ‘lead the way’ in ensuring that school is a place for learning, not just a place where extracurriculars (such as sport etc) occur. Teachers may need additional training in order to meet the difficult demands of the classroom to meet the needs of all students. In urban schools particularly, where the teaching and learning environment are pressed by many other challenges, it is crucial that school leaders provide leadership and limit disruptions of instructional time and provide training for teachers on ways to build a serious learning community where students work together to meet high expectations and where academics and successes are celebrated.
Trust in Students. Faculty trust can be built in several informal and formal ways. Education leaders can act with benevolence, trusting that stakeholders will act in ways that are appropriate and respectful. If teachers act professionally and fairly and students work hard to achieve, education leaders can assume that parents are willing to collaborate in order to help students meet and exceed their high expectations. Education leaders can further build trust by being reliable and competent. This can be demonstrated by leaders beginning and ending meetings at their appointed times, following through on requests or promises, and backing up teachers as the need arises. When there is follow through with the expectations of the class and the school, stakeholders feel more confident that the leadership of the school is adept at their job of leading the school. This in turn may encourage others to believe in their abilities of professional competence. Finally, education leaders can lead their schools with honest and open communication and transparent actions. Leaders can be accessible through email and telephone, and can also hold parent meetings at various times to meet the needs of working parents. School newsletters, memos, and websites can all be used as communication tools in order to strengthen the relationships between home and school, which in turn may inspire parents and members of the community to become more engaged with the school. Regardless of the ways in which education leaders seek to foster and build trust, it is a necessary component of improving student achievement.
Collective Efficacy. If teachers believe they can influence positively their students, most likely they will. School leaders can work with teachers to nurture their self efficacy. Teachers who attend relevant, targeted professional development or by visiting classrooms of teachers who have high student achievement have the opportunity to learn instructional strategies through vicarious learning experiences. Once they take these instructional strategies back to the classroom, such as metacognitive strategies for helping their students become better readers or more students centered approaches to math using manipulatives, mastery experiences occur as student achievement in math and reading improve, thereby enhancing their affective states. Social persuasion as a tool to build collective efficacy can be powerful. Teachers can work with coaches and more veteran teachers in an effort to provide support, share successfully implemented instructional strategies, and collaborate on ways in which improved student achievement in reading and math can occur. Collaboration among departments may also provide another way for teachers to work together to provide opportunity for vicarious experiences and social persuasion on teaching tasks or instructional strategies as a way to refine their practice in order to best meet the needs of all of their students.
If policy = money, then the public, particularly elected representatives in the United States and Australia, have not exerted enough of their will to support all students on their journey of education. For a myriad of reasons, public policy fails to support the work needed in schools, especially in schools with high proportions of students who are poor. Taking a macro look at both societies enables one to see that money spent on education now saves millions in the future. Again, we know what works in classrooms and school systems, but there does not seem to be the public will to support schools that are ready for students. Instead, policymakers and some education researchers focus on students being ready for school, an age, rather than stage approach, standardized curriculum, standardized assessments and standardized instruction to produce nations of test takers, who will be unable to highly function in the future (for those jobs have not yet been created) because of lack of creativity, innovation and a personal approach to students in classrooms. It is our duty as the public, and those of us who have the privilege to be educators, to not give up ‘the good fight’ in doing everything we can to advocate for our students in order to improve their life chances. We are truly better together and we can do it!