ASU professor creates leadership tool for school principals
As a preschool teacher early in her career, Elizabeth Kozleski took a special interest in the children with special needs. She has devoted her professional life to them ever since.
“The kids that were the most interesting to me were the ones who got dropped off at preschool and cried all morning long for weeks or who had some kind of behavioral issue,” she said. “I just wanted to learn more about how to support kids who are in distress and help them move forward in their lives and become successful at navigating the hurdles they experience.”
Now a professor of special education in the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education at Arizona State University, Kozleski is helping school principals across the country create environments where all children can be successful and feel included. The goal is to improve learning outcomes for all students within the context of general education while decreasing the use of segregated classrooms and programs for students with disabilities.
According to Kozleski, the rate of disabilities within a population is about 6 percent to 7 percent. But in some states, as many as 20 percent of school children are identified as needing special education.
“Special education sometimes becomes a place where children get put when nobody knows what to do with them,” she said. “Sometimes kids are singled out because their cultural history or their language or something else about them is different, and it has nothing to do with them having anything intrinsically wrong with them. Then they get put in a place that often, in spite of good intentions, is really the wrong place for them to be.”
Research has shown that students perform better in general education classrooms than they do in special education “pull-out” settings. According to the results of two large national studies, students with disabilities who spend more time in general education classrooms tend to be absent less, perform closer to grade level and have higher achievement test scores than their peers in special education classes.
During more than two decades of work with school systems, Kozleski has learned that principals are the most important players when it comes to effecting change within a school. They have the most impact on influencing teacher practices and the choices that teachers make in their classrooms. They also are in the best position to reach out to and partner with families, neighborhoods and communities.
“For the past 20 years I’ve been engaged in trying to help schools look at the way they’re organized and how they develop systems in which teachers practice,” said Kozleski. “Based on the data we’ve collected over that period of time, I believe that the most powerful place to be when you’re changing the education system is to work with principals and the leadership teams they assemble.”
Using this knowledge, Kozleski developed the idea for a principal leadership professional-development program and won a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to fund its creation. Over the past three years, she has piloted the program with 30 principals from diverse school districts in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Now she is recruiting additional principals from across the country to participate, with the goal of having 400 on board by this fall.
The project is anchored by an online software program called LeadScape (www.niusileadscape.org) that allows principals to view just-in-time data on student performance in each classroom in their school. Data are mapped onto building images to let the principal know at a glance which classrooms are struggling and need extra attention or resources in any given week.
“It’s a way of tracking what goes on in schools on an ongoing basis, rather than waiting until the end of the year when test scores come out,” Kozleski said. “It enables principals to shift the resources they have to support learning in classrooms where it looks like students aren’t getting the kind of support they need. The principal can say to the literacy coach or English language learning coach or special education teacher, ‘That classroom is struggling this week. Let’s go in and help that teacher.’”
Schools already collect a lot of the data, such as absentee rates, test scores, previous school performance, English-language proficiency and special education needs. Kozleski and her team identify all the stores of information a school already has and then pull them into one display that shows how the data intersect. That provides a “landscape” of the school for its leadership team, hence the name “LeadScape.”
Michael Hernandez, principal of Sherman Middle School in Madison, Wis., has recently signed on to have the data maps created for his school. After trying out the system’s test maps, he already can see how the program will benefit his school.
“We’re doing good things now, but with the data maps we’re going to be able to see some trends that we might have missed,” Hernandez said. “It’s hard data, so when you see on paper that a particular grade or classroom is struggling, then you make some changes. I’m excited about that.”
The data-map tool is connected to a wealth of other resources, including e-mail, the school-improvement plan, professional-learning and information resources and blogs. When a principal sees that a particular classroom is having problems, he or she can send the teacher pertinent articles directly from the LeadScape site.
“With all the resources we provide through LeadScape, principals don’t have to go someplace else on Google to find something,” said Kozleski. “It’s a tool that allows them to focus their efforts and energy on the classrooms that need them in any given week.”
Kozleski hopes one day to have LeadScape in every school system in the country. Hernandez is supportive of that goal.
“LeadScape really fosters the idea of getting to know each and every student and making them feel part of the learning community,” Hernandez said. “When kids feel they belong and the expectations are high, they want to learn and everything goes well. I think nothing but good could come from having LeadScape in every school.”
Written by Barby Grant
Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education