Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Systems Thinking...Professional Learning Communities...The Principal's Role in Implementation of Literacy Collaborative

By Carla Steele, Primary Trainer

After receiving the April 2013 edition of Educational Leadership (The Principalship, Volume 70, No. 7), I found myself returning to the journal several times to think more deeply about principals and the vital role they play – in systems thinking, in professional learning communities – and how this can relate to successful implementation of Literacy Collaborative. This was of particular interest since Jason Hillman, an award-winning principal from Sheridan, Wyoming, came on board as our new director.

Jason is a nationally recognized expert in school improvement, school culture, and professional learning communities (PLCs).  He arrived at The Ohio State University to assume the position of Director of the Kinnear Literacy Project this past September. Among the many accolades Jason has received, the National Association of Elementary School Principals selected him as the National Distinguished Principal of Wyoming in 2011.  It was under his leadership that Sheridan’s Meadowlark Elementary was named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education in 2012.

Jason’s expertise and especially his work at Meadlowlark has encouraged our training team to think more deeply about the correlations between PLCs and the work we do in Literacy Collaborative. Within this, the vital role principals play in helping to create the culture necessary for any initiative to be successful - as well as systems thinking - have also been points of interest. 

The importance of systems thinking, or a systems approach, is not a stretch when it comes to Literacy Collaborative, as this is clearly evident within and throughout the elements of the framework and its design. As a comprehensive school reform project, Literacy Collaborative is a well-coordinated, cohesive system…a system defined by Lyons and Pinnell (2001) as “an arrangement of things so intimately connected that they form a unified whole…greater than the sum of its parts…with components working together in synergy, producing an effect greater than each could accomplish alone” (p. 44).

The goal of Literacy Collaborative is to incorporate elements of effective schools to improve literacy instruction and the reading, writing and language skills of elementary, intermediate, and middle school students in order to significantly raise the level of achievement for ALL children.

 This is accomplished through:

·         long-term professional development - the cornerstone of Literacy Collaborative;

·         school-based literacy coaches trained in research-based methods who receive ongoing professional development as they implement these practices in their own classrooms;

·         a research-based instructional model that is language-based, student-centered, process-oriented, and outcome-based;

·         long-term, site-based professional development for every member of a school’s literacy faculty;

·         assisting schools in monitoring the progress of every student through systematized assessment, data collection, and analysis; and

·         creating in-school and in-district leadership through the training and support of school-based literacy leadership teams, administrators, and literacy coaches.

 These bullet points could be easily correlated to a number of ideas presented in the articles from Educational Leadership that touched upon: how PLCs operate under a shared leadership philosophy; how collaborative professional development creates common ground; how understanding and nurturing the “human factor” is vital to improving schools and helping students succeed; how alignment of professional development and resources to a clear strategy, vision, mission, goal, and focus results in intentionality; how being responsive to student strengths and needs is about being responsive to student learning…not micro-managing instruction; and the importance of the principal’s role in fostering a climate conducive to success.

In discussing this with Jason, I asked if he would share some thoughts as to what has proven to be successful in his work…principal moves that helped him cultivate, nurture, and sustain PLCs…ones that could also help principals/buildings/PLCs in the successful implementation of Literacy Collaborative. His insights are as follows:

“In a shared leadership environment it is very important that staff view themselves as a team – with each staff member being asked to lead team meetings and share data and/or successful teaching strategies.  The principal should continuously lead staff in learning and discussing how and what it means to become a great team – such as staff taking responsibility for student learning and holding each other accountable through sharing data and creating shared goals.  At the opening of every year, the principal needs to ensure that staff development and resources are aligned to the school’s goal(s).  Motivational and team building activities should be intertwined within all training. 

The primary focus of all team meetings needs to be on student learning.  Minutes from each meeting, along with documents such as formative assessments and rubrics, should be turned in to the principal for review, and kept in a binder for easy reference by all.  This system allows the principal to monitor the implementation of policies and to support staff in their endeavor of meeting the expectations of the school community.

A school principal must also take a very active role in the education of all students. He/She is an instructional leader that must work with staff - being willing to team teach, model lessons, and be a visible learner to his/her staff.  The principal demonstrates a strong belief in learning for all by being a member of the team. A principal should be responsible for attending all of a team’s meetings - completing all assignments and learning projects of that particular team.  He/She should periodically attend other team meetings to offer support and guidance as well. It is important that the principal take a small group of students, on a daily basis, to provide instruction based on student need.  This instruction could consist of intervention on a skill students are struggling with, or enrichment on a skill they have mastered.

When operating under this leadership philosophy, schools have the potential to make tremendous gains in student learning.”

In describing the synergy that emerges from a systems approach, Lyons and Pinnell (2001) use the analogy of a symphony orchestra “where each component has a necessary role that must be well performed; all players have defined responsibilities and actions that must be fulfilled; and all sections must work together in harmony (literally as well as figuratively)” (p. 45). Depending upon the context or situation, the conductor’s role could be likened to that of a literacy coordinator/coach, a teacher empowered to facilitate work for the school’s PLC or, importantly, the building principal – “as it is the principal that is the most potent factor in determining school climate” (p. 191).

Principals may also consider the following suggestions, offered by Lyons and Pinnell (2001, p. 191), as they help to facilitate successful implementation of Literacy Collaborative in their buildings:

  • create and work with leadership team to plan schedules to maximize learning time
  • control classroom interruptions through policies about intercom use, scheduling of assemblies, etc.
  • create and work with leadership team to plan schedules to maximize learning time
  • make resources available for building a collection of professional materials
  • designate a meeting place where teachers can keep materials and work together
  • regularly evaluate the results of professional development, looking for evidence of learning on the part of teachers and indices of achievement on the part of students
  • place a high value on teachers’ participation in ongoing professional development
  • participate in staff development sessions along with teachers
Additional suggestion:
  • participate in Literacy Collaborative Team Planning and Principal Academy sessions



ASCD (2013). The Principalship. Educational Leadership, Vol. 70, No. 7. 

Literacy Collaborative (2012). Literacy Collaborative [Brochure]. Columbus, OH:  The Ohio  

           State University. Retrieved from www.lcosu.org 

Lyons, C.A. & Pinnell, G.S. 2001. Systems For Change in Literacy Education: A Guide to
          Professional Development. Portsmouth: Heinemann.