November 2015
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INSTRUCTIONAL LEADERSHIP FOR ENGLISH LEARNERS: THE ROLE OF THE PRINCIPAL
Michaela Colombo, Laurie Hartwick, & Kinnon Foley


Michaela Colombo
University of Massachusetts Lowell, Lowell, Massachusetts, USA


Laurie Hartwick
Lawrence Public Schools, Lawrence, Massachusetts, USA


Kinnon Foley
Lawrence Public Schools, Lawrence, Massachusetts, USA

As instructional leaders, principals play a compelling role in the academic success of English learners (ELs). Research suggests that instructional leadership is second only to effective teaching in promoting students’ academic achievement (Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstrom, & Anderson, 2010). This article provides an overview of principal leadership practices in one secondary school that has evidenced high growth rates of English development in ELs. These instructional leadership practices are consistent with practices found in reviews of successful schools (e.g., Cummins, 2015), yet explicitly focused on leadership that improves educational outcomes for ELs.

We portray instructional leadership practices in a secondary school that is a part of a study we presented at the 2015 TESOL Conference. The larger study consisted of five secondary schools located in one mid-size urban district disproportionately impacted by poverty (62%), high needs (80%), identified ELs (30%), and first language not English (70%). We collected and analyzed data from various sources, including focus group interviews with principals and assistant principals, individual interviews with five principals, school improvement plans, scores on ACCESS (a standards-based English language assessment developed by WIDA and the Center for Applied Linguistics), as well as notes and documents from professional learning community (PLC) meetings with five principals, the district-wide English Language Learner (ELL) Director, the secondary schools ELL Facilitator and one university faculty member.

We describe the instructional leadership practices of one secondary school principal, Mr. Paul Neal, because 84% of ELs at Mr. Neal’s school showed steady growth in the acquisition of academic English as measured by ACCESS. This is striking when compared to percentages of ELs who showed progress in district secondary schools (64%) and across the state (62%). We present our findings on Mr. Neal’s practices using a framework for instructional leadership found in reviews of successful schools: 1) Convey a clear vision, 2) create an educational climate that promotes collaboration, 3) cultivate leadership in others, 4) maintain clear focus on improving instructional practice, and 5) effectively manage resources (Cummins, 2015), yet we focus on the practices that directly relate to the instruction of ELs.

Convey a Clear Vision

Consistent with research on instructional leadership (e.g., Cummins, 2015), Mr. Neal conveys to his faculty and to other principals a clear vision that ELs can succeed academically, and that it is the principal’s responsibility to ensure that they do. He guides his faculty to remain focused on improving the academic achievement of ELs to prepare them for graduation and for postsecondary education. He explains to teachers that “this initiative has to become part of the fabric of what we are doing.”

Mr. Neal collaborated with the ELL Facilitator to foster the implementation of effective instructional strategies across content areas for ELs with different levels of English proficiency. As a team they conducted classroom observations, which they debriefed with teachers. Mr. Neal explained, “We need to create a climate that is open… where teachers are comfortable with administrators in their classrooms” (P. Neal, personal communication, February 19, 2015). He seeks to promote this open climate by initiating coaching cycles; teachers try out ESL instructional strategies and then as a team select two strategies that each teacher then implements in her/his classroom. Teachers collect and discuss informal data based on EL outcomes. Teachers who become experts with particular strategies host teachers and administrators (including those from other secondary schools) to demonstrate strategies in action. 

Create a Climate of Collaboration

The National Association of Secondary School Principals (2011) recognized collaborative leadership as a core factor for improving schools. Mr. Neal works to build a climate of collaboration that specifically benefits ELs. He, other secondary school principals, the district-wide ELL director, and the ELL facilitator actively engage in PLC meetings on a monthly basis.

One problem the PLC sought to address was how to consistently improve faculty and principals’ understanding of ESL practices (for example, indicators of effective grouping, academic language, objectives, and vocabulary instruction). The ELL director and facilitator were encouraged to develop an ESL observation tool, which they shared with principals. Principals provided input and revisions that were incorporated into the tool. Together, principals made observational rounds in each school using the tool to identify effective ESL practices. Then, using the data collected during these rounds, principals discussed leadership practices that would improve instruction for ELs.

According to Mr. Neal, the PLC format provides a space for his own professional development. He explained, “You learn what other people are doing in their buildings, what’s working. And then you can go back and have the same discussions with your own leadership team and then that trickles down into the grade level teams” (P. Neal, personal communication, February 19, 2015).

Mr. Neal collaborated with the ELL facilitator to foster the implementation of effective instructional strategies across content areas for ELs with different levels of English proficiency. As a team, they conducted classroom observations, which they debriefed with teachers. Mr. Neal explained, “We need to create a climate that is open…where teachers are comfortable with administrators in their classrooms” (P. Neal, personal communication, February 19, 2015). He seeks to promote this open climate by initiating coaching cycles; teachers try out ESL instructional strategies and then, as a team, select two strategies that each teacher then implements in her or his classroom. Teachers collect and discuss informal data based on EL outcomes. Teachers who become experts with particular strategies host teachers and administrators (including those from other secondary schools) to demonstrate strategies in action.

Cultivate Leadership in Others

No instructional leader can effectively implement and sustain instructional improvement alone. Mr. Neal promotes leadership throughout his faculty. For example, in collaboration with the ELL facilitator, he identifies teachers who are proficient with specific instructional strategies as lead teachers and role models. He explained, “Then we can send people [into their classrooms] to see how it’s being done seamlessly.” Referring to classroom visits, he explained, “It’s not taking away from what [visiting teachers] are doing; it’s actually adding to what they’re doing” (P. Neal, personal communication, February 19, 2015).

He also strives to ensure that ESL leadership is not the sole domain of ESL teachers. He has encouraged biology and history teachers to team with ESL and special education teachers to develop learning modules for ELs and ELs with special needs. For example, one of his lead biology teachers teamed with a lead ESL teacher to implement ESL biology instruction in a pilot after-school program.

Maintain Focus on Instructional Practice

A clear focus on instructional practice—teaching and learning—is a hallmark of schools that make and sustain improvements (City, Elmore, Fiarman, & Teitel, 2009). Under Mr. Neal’s leadership, grade-level teams collaborate with the ELL facilitator to select research-based ESL strategies they will implement with fidelity across content areas. In this way, practice becomes systematized. Mr. Neal explained, “ELs become familiar with the strategy so that when they go between classrooms they are not learning a totally different strategy for vocabulary or reading” (P. Neal, personal communication, February 19, 2015).

Once teachers have implemented strategies and informally collected student outcome data, they meet in teams to analyze the data, thus connecting content, teaching, and learning (City et al., 2009). Based on their analysis of EL outcomes, teachers decide how they might adjust a strategy as a whole or how it might be differentiated depending on content area. As part of general instructional practice, all teachers in Mr. Neal’s school use a lesson plan template that includes specific supports for ELs. During normal and routine visits to classrooms, he expects to see the lesson plan in action, and posted content and language objectives are nonnegotiable.

Manage Resources

Effective leaders often must manage limited resources. As noted previously in this article Mr. Neal makes efficient use of human resources. He collaborates with the ELL Facilitator and principals in other secondary schools. He views this collaboration as instrumental to his professional growth as a leader of a school with a high population of ELs.  By distributing leadership among his faculty, he has established structures for in-school professional development; teachers observe effective ESL practices in action.  This professional development is a resource for his teachers as well as other district secondary teachers and administrators. Mr. Neal empowers his content-area and ESL teachers to collaboratively develop instructional units for ELs that are then available to district teachers.  

References

City, E. A., Elmore, R. F. Fiarman, S. E., & Teitel, L. (2009). Instructional rounds in education. A network approach to improving teaching and learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Cummins, H. J. (2015). Best practices in action: Nine principals share their successful strategies for school leadership. Principal, January/February 2015, 26–29.

Louis, K. S., Leithwood, K., Wahlstrom, K., & Anderson, S. (2010). Investigating the links to improved student learning: Final report of research findings. Retrieved from Wallace Foundation website: http://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/school-leadership/key-research/Documents/Investigating-the-Links-to-Improved-Student-Learning-Key-findings-from-wallace.pdf 

National Association of Secondary School Principals. (2011). Breaking ranks: The comprehensive framework for school improvement. Reston, VA: Author.


Michaela Colombo is an associate professor and faculty chair at the Graduate School of Education, University of Massachusetts Lowell. Michaela has prepared teachers and administrators to work with English learners for nearly 20 years.

Laurie Hartwick is the ELL facilitator for the Lawrence Public Schools in Massachusetts. Laurie has worked with ELLs and in teacher education for 24 years, is an adjunct instructor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership.

Kinnon Foley is the Pre-K–12 ELL director for the Lawrence Public Schools in Massachusetts and an adjunct instructor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Kinnon was a bilingual teacher and ESL coach in New York City and now works to foster collaboration and professional development for all teachers of ELLs in Lawrence.

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