Instructional Leadership: Creating Communities
for Academic Achievement  
November 2013
In This Issue
Rubric for Rigor
Principal Leadership
Leadership & Academic Rigor
Leadership in Ontario
Confidence & Leadership
CEI is Blogging
 by Michael Fullan, Professor  Emeritus at the University of Toronto on instructional leadership.
40 Day Challenge
 For 40 days reflect each day on these 5 heart centered words:
Confidence, Consciousness (Awareness), and Community.
Write the words down, and take a few notes of what comes to mind, of what you learn or see or hear that is related.  We also have follow-up information on the CEI website about the next steps. 


Roadmap to rigor   
Roadmap to Rigor Rubric 
NAESP has developed a rubric that will help principals and teachers engage in discussions about rigor and plan for integrating greater rigor into instruction in their schools. While it can be used as an observation and feedback tool, many principals may find it easier to use this tool to help teachers become more aware of the components that facilitate greater rigor.


The rubric addresses higher-order thinking skills, deep understanding, problem solving, and metacognition. The roadmap also includes an appendix with an annotated bibliography and additional resources.

NAESP also offers Rigor Workshops that explore strategies and processes to help students move to deeper levels of understanding through metacognition, higher level expectations, and problem solving. Level I is basic. Level II provides guidance with use of the Rigor Roadmap.


If you are interested in reviewing the Rigor Roadmap and providing feedback to NAESP, or for more information on the workshops, please contact Ed Millliken



Carnegie Mellon 
is accepting applications for their one-year interdisciplinary professional

 Masters in Educational Technology and Applied Learning Science (METALS)


Applications due:

January 31, 2014 


For Information click here. 



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Visit Our Websites 

The Newsletter Archive  page on CEI's website contains a library of previous Wow! Ed editions. 


Also visit the Publications page on the NAESP website to read additional publications designed to meet the needs of today's school leaders. 

Dear Educator,


Last month Wow!Ed focused on courage. This month, we are examining instructional leadership from a heart centered perspective. This month's authors describe schools where principals have advanced academic achievement. 


Have you ever tried to row a boat upstream, to paddle against the current?  In schools that excel, principals create communities that support student learning -- they create a current of support. To turn boats around, those at the helm must rely on their crews. So it is in schools -- instructional leaders not only support their staff, but they also build capacity by furthering the talents of others. Whether it is a school in Cumberland County, Brooklyn, or Ontario, a single emphasis on academic achievement seems to be insufficient to promote deep learning and math and reading achievement. Rather, it requires skilled leaders and perhaps, even as Michael Fullan indicates, "leader of leaders"-- principals who nurture leadership among their staff.

Principal Leadership: Building a Culture of Achievement in Challenged Schools 


By George White, MA     


At an inquiry earlier this year into the leadership factors that contributed to an amazing turnaround in academic achievement at low-income schools in Cumberland County, North Carolina, one of the testifying principals tried to explain. "The state has given us a lot of labels," said Spring Lake Middle School Principal Derek McCoy during his comments at a hearing held by the county's curriculum committee. "One that they have left off is hard work."


"Hard work" was certainly an element in the success. However, smart work in establishing a culture of achievement was the most decisive factor. Smart work or "best practices that promote academic excellence in schools" - particularly those that narrow the achievement gap between black and whites students - are being promoted nationwide by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation's largest school districts.



                                     Derek McCoy


Great City Schools and the education department were co-sponsors of a 2012 summit on black male education. Solutions briefs submitted at the summit are now chapters in an anthology titled A Call for Change. The education department and the Great City Schools have also been circulating reports on best leadership practices at urban schools.

School districts nationwide will be taking a close look at leadership practices at Spring Lake Middle and others in the Cumberland County Schools (CCS) system, because the district was recognized earlier this year when it was named one of the four finalists for the Broad Prize for Urban Education -- a nice "label."


Spring Lake Middle School Principal McCoy referenced labels in his comments to the county curriculum committee. Before the academic renaissance at CCS, there were very different labels applied to the school. Spring Lake Middle School -- along with Cumberland's Douglas Byrd, E.E. Smith and Westover high schools -- were once designated priority schools by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, a dubious distinction based on their lack of progress on assessment tests and graduation rates.


The county's curriculum committee wanted to hear from the principals because the schools have made significant gains over the past five years. At Spring Lake, the middle school's performance composite improved from 45.9 percent in 2007-08 to 69.4 percent last year.


Principal McCoy told the committee that Spring Lake is closing the achievement gap between its black and white students. However, it is what McCoy has been telling his staff that has made a big difference. Consider his directive on the Spring Lake school website:


"The mission of the faculty and staff of Spring Lake Middle is to provide a safe, orderly, caring environment that facilitates high academic achievement, fosters awareness of cultural diversity and individuality, and empowers students with essential skills to become life-long learners. As a result, every adult on our campus, including the receptionists, custodial staff, counselors, teachers, and administrators, is charged with an awesome responsibility: We must positively influence the 'total child.' We are committed to this charge here in our small corner of the world, with the belief that from this small corner will emerge bright, productive individuals that will make a positive difference in every corner of the world!"


Cumberland County Schools (CCS) is the fifth largest school system in the state and 78th in the nation, serving over 53,000 students and 87 schools in southeastern North Carolina. The racial composition of the student population is 44.91% African American, 33.78% white, 10.93% Latino, 1.92%, Native American, 1.69% Asian and 6.46% other. The federal government is the largest employer in the county, followed by CCS.  


CCS serves a low-income district. More than 56% of students meet poverty standards for the federal meal subsidy program. Cumberland County is the largest low-wealth county in North Carolina. Despite the lack of financial resources, students at schools within CCS have been excelling in recent years.


High Expectations. This culture of high expectations is now mandated by the Cumberland County Schools. It was explained by CCS School Superintendent Frank Till in his 2013 report for AdvancED -- a global association that provides accreditation, program evaluations, and research for school districts in the U.S. and abroad:


"All students can achieve at high levels, and it is our responsibility to ensure ALL students graduate ready for college or career -- and ALL MEANS ALL. Our school system believes there are no boundaries to student success."  


However, expectations are not the only factor in the school district's success. In the same report to AdvancED, Superintendent Till revealed the other factors -- student evaluation regimens, achievement improvement systems, and collaboration. 


And in Brooklyn...


Closing Achievement Gaps. Individualized assessments, time-on-task systems, and higher expectations are also part of the culture of achievement at Excellence Boys Elementary Academy, a public charter school in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant community. It is another school touted for its leadership practices. On the New York State Assessments in 2012, Excellence Boys outperformed New York City, New York State, and the state's white students -- demonstrating that the achievement gap in math and English language arts can be closed.


High standards are embedded in terminology at the school, which serves about 400 boys -- primarily African Americans. For example, teachers refer to students as "scholars" and homerooms bear university names, the teachers' alma maters.  



Jabali Sawicki, principal at the Excellence school, cites those standards and the results in a report posted by the Educational Testing Service:  


"Excellence Boys has unapologetically high expectations for each of our scholars for both academics and behavior. We cultivate in our young men the knowledge, skills, and character necessary to succeed academically, embrace responsibility and become honorable citizens and courageous leaders. In 2009, grade four, 90 percent of students passed reading exams at Advanced or Proficient levels; in grade five, 100 percent of students passed math exams at Advanced and Proficient levels, placing Excellence among the top schools in New York City."


The school has also created support systems that leverage a culture of achievement. Excellence Boys has successfully created a culture of learning where "it is 'cool' for boys to be smart, curious scholars." They do not hesitate to show their enthusiasm for learning.


Community Meetings. Each Friday, the school holds a Community Meeting in both the elementary and middle schools where students present what they have learned and recite memorized poems. Teachers describe the exceptional academic work that has been done, and a Spirit Stick is presented to the student who has best exemplified the goals of Excellence Boys school during the previous week. He will carry the stick until the following week's passing of the symbol to a new boy.


Increased Time on Task. One basic goal of the school is to increase time on task. Excellence Boys has met those goals by extending the school day -- 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 pm -- and by adopting a slightly longer school year. The school also has a Saturday Tutoring Academy, and summer school remediation. In addition, students are given homework every day.  


            Jabali Sawicki

Their approach to literacy and math is explained on their website: "The most important factor determining success in school is a child's ability to read. The strongest indicator of future college attendance is a child's coursework in mathematics...  [At] Excellence Boys ... every K-4 Elementary Academy student has at least three periods of language arts instruction (phonics, reading comprehension, writing, and either the Waterford computer-based literacy program [K-1] or independent work [2-3]) and math class each day, as well as social studies and science."


To be sure, it's clear that hard work by students is a factor in creating a culture of achievement at urban schools. Principals and school administrators in these success stories work hard but they also work smart.

Instructional Leadership, Academic Rigor, and Salary Bumps 


By Kathleen Sciarappa, EdD     


Demands on teachers and principals have intensified as supervision and evaluation responsibilities make direct links to compensation. If students score well on assessments, salaries rise. Conversely, teachers and principals are penalized financially for poor performance of students. The stakes are high and personal. Although many evaluative systems appear ironclad in their objectivity, elements of subjectivity abound. When the first rounds of evaluation are complete, and the results along with student assessment scores are unsatisfactory, what's the next step? In parts of Vermont and Connecticut, the next step includes increasing academic rigor. This may be the key to increased student success and fair compensation.

In the early months of this school year, training in academic rigor was provided to principals and teachers in Greenwich, Connecticut, and Montpelier, Vermont, by Reem Labib and Kathleen Sciarappa, respectively, on behalf of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) and the Center for Educational Improvement (CEI). The centerpiece of the training was a rubric entitled: A Roadmap to Rigor: A Resource for Principals. The rubric and accompanying annotated bibliography were designed to significantly upgrade rigor in instruction. The rubric describes both student and teacher behaviors detailing how to utilize four aspects of rigor: 1) metacognition; 2) deep understanding; 3) higher order thinking; and 4) solving problems on a regular basis. A daylong seminar offered by NAESP and CEI to principals and teacher teams allowed school leaders and teachers to become better acquainted with academic rigor and to learn how to use the rubric to enhance teaching and learning.


The training opened with a review of key pieces of research on rigor including Blackburn's (2012) discussion of techniques principals can use to increase rigor in classrooms; Daggett's (2005) research on the connection between rigor, relevance and personal relationships; the Stupski Foundation (2009) body of research on rigor prepared by the McREL organization; and Marzano's (2013) fours levels of questioning. Together, evaluators viewed short video clips of teachers and assessed use of academic rigor following the four levels of the rubric: a) beginning; b) developed; c) accomplished; and d) exemplary. When ratings fell below exemplary, participants were invited to suggest how the teacher might make modifications to advance to the next level. The video clips included samples of instruction utilizing metacognition, deep understanding, higher order thinking, and solving problems.


Metacognition. The process of planning, assessing and monitoring one's own thinking is an underutilized skill in many classrooms. Students as young as five can be taught how to initiate and monitor thinking strategies as seen on The Teaching Channel (2012) clip Gaze Aversion to Improve Focus and Critical Thinking. In this Scottish classroom teachers encouraged children to avert their gaze for the dual purposes of signaling others more time was required to formulate an answer while also triggering their own more concentrated thinking.   


Metacognitive techniques are employed in a secondary classroom in the United States in The Teaching Channel clip entitled My Favorite No: Learning from Mistakes. At the start of class, students individually solved a math problem on index cards. The correct solutions were set aside while one card with errors was selected to demonstrate good thinking, but it was an incorrect answer. Students verbally followed the line of thinking as the problem was analyzed and then pinpointed where the thinking went awry, hence finding "the favorite no."


Deep Understanding. Using information to solve problems, create new ideas, generalize, reflect, hypothesize etc. involves teaching content in depth using multiple and varied perspectives incorporating 21st century skills while uncovering misconceptions. In one intermediate level classroom on The Teaching Channel the teacher introduced Games for Decimals to help students grasp the difference between tenths and hundredths in decimals. Using graph paper and specific game cards, student pairs competed by adding then graphing a series of decimals.



Higher Order Thinking. Asking questions and implementing strategies to ensure analyzing, evaluating, and creating began with a review of Bloom's taxonomy and a discussion of the higher order skills in the taxonomy: analyzing, evaluating and creating. Higher order thinking includes arguing, justifying and generalizing to new situations, all skills required for The Teaching Channel high school advanced placement economics clip of students engaged in a debate on the privatization of Social Security: Using Debate to Develop Critical Thinking and Speaking Skills.

Solving Problems. Understanding and resolving problems independently, and generating and testing hypotheses was demonstrated on one Teaching Channel video involving Iditarod calculations during the race. Students had data regarding the distances, rules for 24 hour rests, the dogs, the endpoint, and the musher. Students were asked to calculate which musher was most likely to arrive first at the destination, thereby winning the race.


Attendees at the NAESP Rigor Roadmap training were enthusiastic about the power of the rubric. Participants immediately saw the value of having teacher teams learn about the rubric and recognized the importance of having clearly defined behaviors for both students and teachers as part of any rigor initiative. Could this tool serve as an equalizer for those educators who are committed to moving forward? Perhaps. Might a rigor rubric lead to better teacher teaching and learning? Probably. Would increased rigor lead to better assessment results and stronger teacher evaluations? Certainly!



Blackburn, B.R. (2012) School leadership strategies for classroom rigor. Retrieved September 12, from: 


Daggett, W. R. (2005). Achieving academic excellence through rigor and relevance.

International Center for Leadership in Education. Retrieved September 15, 2013 from


Englert, K., Apthorp, H., & Matthew Seebaum, M. (2009). Stupski Foundation's learning system: Pedagogy. Denver, CO: McREL. Retrieved September 12, 2013 from


Marzano, R. (2013). Asking questions at four different levels. Educational Leadership, 70 (5), 76-77. Retrieved September 12, 2013 from: 


Teaching Channel Videos (2012). Games for decimals. Retrieved October 28, 2013 from


Teaching Channel Videos (2012). Gaze aversion to improve focus and critical thinking. Retrieved October 15, 2103 from 


Teaching Channel Videos (2012). My favorite no: Learning from mistakes. Retrieved October 15, 2013 from           

Teaching Channel Videos (2012). The iditarod and math. Retrieved October 28

Teaching Channel Videos (2012).Using debate to develop critical thinking and speaking skills.  Retrieved October 28, 2012 from


Instructional Leadership in Ontario, Canada 


By Christine Mason, PhD     


Historically, Ontario has fared very well on TIMMS and PIRLS, international tests of reading and math achievement. Internationally, the province has generally been recognized among the top five benchmarking participants. In talking with NAESP's Ontario affiliate, the Ontario Principal's Council, we learned that part of the reason for its success is the approach taken in schools where students are under-performing. Rather than using a punitive system of posting ratings, removing principals and transferring teachers, Ontario uses a system of supports, bringing resources in to help build capacity.


Democratic Classrooms. To understand more about Ontario's approach, I visited the McKee Elementary School in Toronto. I was greeted at this PreK-5 school by two student ambassadors who began my tour. We visited many of the classrooms, and the ambassadors were quick to point out some of the best features of their school, including the two gym teachers and the two music teachers. as well as the library, a focal point for the school. The school includes French language instruction, several student awards programs, and systems, such as separate exits to the playground for various grades, for helping students to follow expectations for maintaining order.  Moreover, the school's approach, as explained by the principal Mr. Domenic Giorgi, is one of  "democratic classrooms" where teachers are given release time to plan with colleagues and develop action plans for the school. 


McKee Elementary is culturally diverse and serves about 730 students. In 2011-2012, 83% of the students achieved provincial standards in reading, 88% in writing, and 87% in math. In 2011-2012, reading scores rose by 9 points. While 39% of the students come from low-income households and 73% percent speak English as a second language, they out-performed other schools in Ontario by 12-18 points on each exam. While a large number of students come from other countries, this is a welcoming school whose philosophy resonates with the Heart Centered Approach that CEI is recommending.



Each month, McKee recognizes students who "beehave" well at school. These students are entered into a drawing to receive a special prize. Students are recognized for:

  • Being Safe - safe behavior in the school and on the playground
  • Being Fair - acting in a fair manner when dealing with conflict or during a game
  • Being Kind - being polite when talking to others
  • Being Healthy - making healthy choices when eating
Job-Embedded PD. The principal, Mr. Giorgi, indicated that he works closely with the parents and students, including over 200 volunteers. He attributes the school's success to its positive, welcoming school culture and the teamwork that has been established.  One important feature is "job-embedded differentiated professional development."  With this model, targeted teachers are provided time to observe and/or assist colleagues as needed. 


At McKee, parents, students, and teachers are all working towards goals of educating students and creating a climate of success, where each student feels valued. One teacher indicated that the support she receives at the school from staff, the teachers, and parents is "amazing." Although she had previously taught at another school, since transferring here, she would "never want to teach elsewhere." 




Confidence and Instructional Leadership 


By Ingrid Padgett, M.A., and Christine Mason, PhD     


The idea that principals should serve as instructional leaders in their schools -- not just as administrators -- is widely subscribed to among educators. In real-world settings, though, few principals develop a regimen that allows them to spend significant time in classrooms analyzing instruction. But let's take a closer look at this phenomenon. When principals observe, monitor and evaluate classroom lessons, are they positively impacting the quality of instruction in their schools and/or ensuring higher student achievement on standardized tests?


Academic Ethos. In a recent blog post, Larry Cuban, a veteran high school social studies teacher who served as a school district superintendent in Arlington, VA, and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he taught for more than 20 years, discusses his new book, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change Without Reform in America about this phenomenon. Cuban points to past and current research on principal behavior in schools that makes it clear that the correlation between principals' influence on teachers and student performance occurs when principals create and sustain an academic ethos in the school, organize instruction across the school, and align school lessons to district standards and standardized test items. 


However, Cuban says that based on his research, "There is hardly any positive association between principals walking in and out of classrooms a half-dozen times a day and conferring briefly with teachers about those five-minute visits." So, what then is the solution?


Cultures of Confidence. At the Center for Educational Improvement (CEI), confidence is one of the pillars of our work to support principals and educators in leading school improvement initiatives. In cultures of confidence, the principal, teachers, and students share in an enthusiastic confidence -- a "can do" confidence that relies on competence. Competent administrators guide teachers to build their competence. Confident teachers through their knowledge, skills, and relationships with students, help to develop students who are both confident and competent.


In Iowa - it takes more than principals. As reported in December 2012 by members of the VIVA ISEA Teachers Idea Exchange in their report, "Re-Imagining School Leadership for the 21st Century" to the Iowa State Education Association, schools cannot be run by principals alone. The report presents ways to build teacher leadership. That report describes creating cultures with teachers who remain committed to serving their students while also sharing their skills and expertise with others.


Download a copy of the complete report to explore further some of these highlights:
  • Teacher leaders must have the confidence of faculty members and administrators. While there are many potential teacher leadership roles in school, those who adopt them by modeling best instructional practice, mentoring new teachers, liaising with families, and helping teachers prepare for their evaluations must be encouraged. All roles must be clearly defined to ensure leaders do not cross into the realm of purely administrative tasks.   
  • Teacher Leaders can provide a low-cost, more effective professional development by using their unique positions in the school or district to disseminate best practice ideas and differentiate professional development to fit the needs of each individual teacher and school.
  • Teacher Leaders, Teacher Mentors, and Model Teachers can be effective only if they know that their students will continue to thrive academically while their teachers are away performing Teacher Leadership duties. This can easily be accomplished through a variety of approaches, including hiring "permanent subs" for a building or district, and bringing in retired teachers as subs.

Learning Comes to Life. When creating cultures of confidence, CEI sees the opportunity to go beyond the ordinary. Michael Fullan, when he describes how to create climates of success is delivering a similar message. Fullan, at NAESP's conference in July 2013, described the value of creating learning environments that are "irresistibly engaging." To achieve this end, principals and teachers must know their students.  Fullan noted the resistance that often occurs in working towards a new goal -- resistance to move from business as usual to dynamic, exciting classrooms that are "alive" with learning. To do this, he suggests that we "give people respect before they respect us" and that we work on making people "more lovable" to create the conditions for success -- or in our terms, to create confident learning communities.    




Over a decade ago, when I was with the Council for Exceptional Children, we conducted a study under a U.S. Department of Education Beacons of Excellence grant. That study used the Malcolm Baldrige criteria to conduct a search for schools of excellence that were inclusive, obtained great academic results,  and provided strong support for all students. I thought about these Beacons when I hear Jerry Weast, former Superintendent of the award-winning Montgomery County Schools in Maryland, speak at a recent Carnegie Foundation meeting. Weast talked about teaching everyone to lead. He described a "servant leadership model," with administrators supporting the leadership of teachers, using metrics to guide progress -- and instilling hope, trust, compassion, and stability.

Beacons continue to be needed to light paths for those who follow. Today, principals, teachers and students face great pressures. With the enormous charge of implementing the Common Core and other high standards, we see a need for more beacons, for more instructional leaders to develop rigor, high expectations, community, teacher leaders, confidence, and student supports to light our way.
Christine Mason, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Educational Improvement
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