Cohort 1, published 2010
A Mixed-methods Study to Understand the Perceptions of High School Leaders about ELL Students: The Case of Mathematics
Statement of Problem Research has shown that school leaders’ understanding of high quality mathematics instruction and their ideas about how to support it are significantly influenced by their perceptions about the nature of mathematics, teaching, and learning (Nelson, 1999; Spillane & Halverson, 1998; Spillane & Thompson, 1997). It has been proposed that high school leaders’ content knowledge in mathematics and their perceptions about how it is both learned and effectively taught is critical to their effectiveness as school leaders for the improvement of students’ achievement, including ELL students (Nelson & Sassi, 2005; Stein & D’Amico, 2000; Stein & Nelson, 2003). In other words, according to Stein and Nelson (2003), school leaders’ perceptions about the teaching and learning of mathematics influence their decisions and actions because subject matter is central to teaching, learning, and leadership. A strong knowledge of mathematics is the cornerstone for a sound decision making process (Nelson & Sassi, 2005; Stein & Nelson, 2003). From direct and daily experiences, school leaders have realized that students’ future success depends critically on the level of their mathematical, analytical, quantitative, procedural, and statistical skills and abilities that are developed from their learning experiences in mathematics (Nelson & Sassi, 2005; Stein & Nelson, 2003). Since mathematics will continue to be an important subject matter of the school curriculum, a better understanding of mathematical knowledge and its place in the development of human activities is increasingly necessary for school leaders and teachers. According to Stein and Nelson (2003) and Nelson and Sassi (2005), this kind of mathematical knowledge is necessary for the practice of instructional leadership that effectively links school leadership to teacher learning and student learning with subject matter at the core. Thus, the purpose of this study is to capture and describe the perceptions of the school leadership concerning the challenges ELL students face in relation to their academic success in mathematics standardized high-stakes tests under NCLB in nine high schools in Alpha Unified School District (AUSD), a suburban school district near Sacramento, California. This is a mixed-methods study composed of interviews with open-ended questions and a survey that contains both Likert scale (quantitative data) and open-ended questions (qualitative data). The goal of this study is to determine how school leaders’ perceptions are influenced by an understanding of the effects of the ethnic cultural background of ELL students on academic performance in mathematics standardized high-stakes tests such as the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) and California Standard Tests (CST). This research also seeks to describe the approaches that high school leaders use in relation to their ELL population. These approaches include promoting the use of best instructional practices, implementing fair assessments and using obtained results to improve instruction, developing strategies to increase teacher capacity and cooperation for the instruction of ELL students, and creating a culturally and linguistically relevant school. Finally, it is a goal of this study to develop a series of recommendations that may help high school leaders to successfully meet the needs of their ELL population. Sources of Data The data collection procedure chosen for this mixed-methods study was designed to use data collected through interviews, surveys, open-ended questions, and ELL students’ performance on CST and CAHSEE as well as demographic data about ELL students, principals, and vice-principals. Collection of Qualitative Data Interviews with 24 open-ended questions were conducted with six principals of the nine high schools at AUSD. Each interview lasted 40-50 minutes. Principals were given an advance copy of the interview protocol. Responses to interview questions were used to identify relevant themes that emerged from the answers and to identify patterns that existed across the responses of these principals and vice-principals. Surveys were administered to 6 principals and 20 vice-principals in the same nine high schools at AUSD. Qualitative data of the survey were collected from 10 open-ended questions. These open-ended items allowed principals and vice-principals the opportunity to describe their answers in detail. Collection of Quantitative Data Using a 4-point Likert scale format, the principals and vice-principals responded to 30 items focusing on their perceptions about ELL students. Quantitative data was obtained from these items. The survey was designed to be completed within 20 and 30 minutes. Finally, ELL students’ performance in the mathematics portion of the CST and CAHSEE were analyzed. School demographic data for ELL students, principals and vice-principals were also collected. Conclusions Reached The challenges of the new millennium and the increased accountability it demands requires a different kind of leadership that enables school leaders to serve their students more effectively. In addition to administrative knowledge and skills, Sergiovanni and Starrat (1998) affirmed that leadership development tends to be shaped by a set of “beliefs, opinion, values, and attitudes which provide a foundation of practice” (p. 133). This set of personal educational values and beliefs that has become to be known as an “educational platform” (p. 133), which guides school leaders’ actions and decision-making. In this context, Sergiovanni and Starrat (2001) stated, “educators carry on their work, make decisions, and plan instruction based on their educational platform” (p. 70). Therefore, school leaders need to develop their educational platform and engage in reflection, both of which are essential to their leadership practice. Similarly, researchers have recognized that reflecting on or pondering an ideal, issue, perception, belief, or problem leads school leaders to an enhanced educational practice (Airasian & Gullickson, 1997; Kuhn, 1991). Since professional reflection constitutes a valued strategy for enhancing professional practice, school leaders must create opportunities to reflect upon their own leadership practice in order to understand, critique, and modify it. According to Airasian and Gullickson (1997), “reflection is a central process of constructing knowledge and developing professionally” (p. 219). In addition, a deep understanding of both culture and its connection to mathematics is an important source of knowledge for school leaders to reflect upon in order to modify and transform their leadership practices. In this regard, if school leaders in this study are to facilitate successful learning opportunities for all students, they must know their students, their cultural roots, linguistic backgrounds, previous experiences, and their students’ perceptions about the world. This also includes knowing ELL students' linguistic backgrounds and cultural values that may influence performance on standardized high-stakes assessments. In this context, knowing each student's cultural and linguistic background is essential for providing successful learning opportunities for all students, including ELL students. Professional development about understanding their students’ cultural and linguistic differences may help school leaders to facilitate, structure, and validate successful learning for students through a variety of strategies and practices that best fit their specific needs. For ELL students to reach their full potential, instruction should be provided in ways that promote the acquisition of increasingly complex mathematical knowledge and language skills in a social climate that fosters collaboration and positive interactions among students, school leaders and teachers. Such classrooms are inclusive in their emphasis on high standards, expectations, and outcomes for all students (Lipman, 1995). Important features of such settings include high expectations, and exposure to academically rich curricula, materials, resources, and approaches that are culturally and linguistically relevant to the ELL students’ needs in order to enhance mathematical learning and achievement. In addition to using effective methods and materials, school leaders and teachers need to possess cross-cultural communication skills and develop clear understandings of the culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds of their students (Garcia & Dominquez, 1997). In conclusion, school leaders and teachers who understand their students’ linguistic and cultural differences strive for intentional variety in instruction, curriculum, and assessments that lead to an improvement in the learning of mathematics. School leaders play a key role in encouraging and supporting appropriate professional development experiences and best pedagogical practices for themselves and for all teachers and students in their schools. In this regard, professional development that addresses students’ linguistic and cultural differences is strongly recommended.
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