The most successful principals relied on a frequently identified ‚best practice‛ in the literature on standards-based school reform — use of evidence concerning student outcomes. For example, some principals kept progress charts on the walls of their offices and knew where each student in the school was in terms of reaching important benchmarks on state assessments or supplying the vision and inspiration need to coalesce positive action on the part of the staff.
Still most principals who used these strategies seemed to be using systems and materials that they ‚ invented‛ themselves with little assistance from the district.
In future Issue Briefs we intend to devote greater attention to these school-level factors and to further explore the relationship between student achievement and the promising practices we identify here. Moreover, our initial findings suggest that any follow-up study should also attend to the relationship between practice and the state/district role in supporting the learning and effectiveness of principals, teachers and counselors. Many middle and low-functioning schools in our study claim to be implementing the same practices (e.g., data-driven reform, standards-based instruction) that the more successful schools are implementing. But results vary widely. What seems to make the difference is prior capacity in the form of experience and strong leadership from both principals and teachers. Yet, strong educators in our field study say that they got where they are despite a lack of professional development and leadership training specific to work with vulnerable youth. Many found success only after years of “on-the-job trial and error.”
One over-arching conclusion thus seems clear: in the absence of clear signals about expectations, systematic support and incentives for performance, the quality of instruction in continuation schools will continue to depend largely on the beliefs, effort and motivation of individual teachers and local administrators.