The current standards and accountability regime describes effective teaching as the ability to increase student achievement on standardized tests. This narrow definition of effectiveness can lead principals to create school cultures myopically focused on student achievement data (Goe, Bell & Little, 2008; Wechsler & Shields, 2008).
A "laser-like focus on academic achievement," (Reeves, 2004; Williams et al., 2010) if employed too literally, can stymie the necessary professional judgment and creativity of teachers and blind school leaders to the potential of collaboration and accountability to serve as the most significant supports to teacher effectiveness.
Last year I explored two of the state's highest performing, high poverty schools and observed how principals support teacher effectiveness in these environments (Gallagher, 2011). In this article I introduce the two schools, then share teacher descriptions of how they embrace collaboration and accountability cultures--created with their principals--as critical supports to their effectiveness. These themes were prevalent in classroom observations, teacher surveys and interviews. In order to gain honest, insightful analysis, the county, districts, schools, teachers and principals were all told they would be given pseudonyms.
Amber School serves more than 400 kindergarten through fifth-grade students in the Mason School District, a mostly suburban K-8 district of around 4,000 students. The school community is surrounded by some of the most affluent neighborhoods in San Vicente County. It would be easy to miss this community, hidden between the expressways and boulevards that whisk travelers from affluent neighborhoods to high technology business parks or Disneyland-like shopping malls.
The school serves the working class and first generation immigrant families of the surrounding neighborhood who walk their children to school, are welcomed to create community events on the campus and to shape school policies, and who know that their school has received recognition in local and national media for its rapid improvement of student achievement data.
While once this school was maligned for its poor performance, Amber is now considered a jewel of the community. The school's 810 API was the second highest among its 100 most demographically similar California schools. Amber School's improvement has been dramatic. The school improved 208 points from 2006 to 2010, and the school's similar schools ranking improved from the first decile to the 10th.
The school's demographics are distinct from the district's other schools. Amber is the Mason District's only designated Title I school. While 78 percent of its students participate in the federal free and reduced lunch program, only 28 percent of district students participate in the program. Similarly, while 66 percent of Amber students are English language learners, only 19 percent of district students are classified as English learners. Seventy-six percent of Amber students are Hispanic, while in the district only 32 percent of students are Hispanic. Only 13 percent of district parents reported that they did not graduate from high school, compared to 52 percent of Amber School parents.
Ryan School serves about 400 kindergarten through fifth-grade students in the San Marcos Unified School District, a K-12 district of more than 10,000 students. The former and new principals and teachers take pride in the school's reputation for outstanding academic achievement. They note that though Ryan is one of the three highest poverty schools in the district, its 894 API in 2010 was the district's third highest API and was the highest API among its 100 most demographically similar schools.
The neatly arranged rows of classrooms, the expansive blacktop and fields, and the school's multi-purpose room and office are clean, well maintained and inviting. …