Creating the Capacity to Lead and Support Provincial High School Improvement

Authors: Dr. Sharon Friesen, Dr. Barb Brown, Dr. Gabriela Alonso Yanez, and Dr. Michele Jacobsen. Presented at the Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration and Management (CCEAM) Conference in Malta.

In this paper, the authors describe a mixed methods parallel design research study focused on identifying key elements of leader and teacher learning that might inform scalable change in high schools across a province. In 2008, a group of 16 pilot schools in the province explored how removing the Carnegie Unit (i.e. 25 hours of face-to-face instruction for every high school credit earned) requirement could increase flexibility at the high school level. This pilot project grew to include 27 pilot school by 2012. Each had the initial condition of removing the Carnegie Unit and employing a flexible timetable. At the time of our study there were 209 schools in 51 school authorities in Alberta involved in high school redesign efforts exploring how the removal of the Carnegie Unit might be used as a catalyst to rethink ways to create student-centered learning environments (Alberta Education, 2014). The authors studied seven high schools in the province who were part of the initial 16 pilot schools in the initiative. Two of the schools were located in urban school districts and five were in rural areas of the province. Student populations of the participating high schools ranged from 250-1200 students. The two questions guiding this paper are: In what ways do principals support teachers’ professional learning? and in what ways do district leaders support principals’ professional learning? A convergent parallel mixed methods design (Creswell, 2014) was used to study the seven high school redesign initiatives situated in six different school districts in rural and urban areas.

Using a complex adaptive systems thinking lens, social world arenas framework and social network analysis, researchers examined teacher and principal learning throughout the various layers within the system, such as the ways in which high school principals support teachers’ professional learning within each school and across schools and the ways district leaders support principals’ learning across schools. Continuous professional learning for teachers and for principals was supported through external and internal supports in the learning system, including a provincial network to connect principals and teachers involved in the initiative across the province. Researchers argue networks can foster school leaders’ growth (Beach 2012; Cox & McLeod, 2014; Richardson & Mancabelli, 2011) and support teachers’ growth (Paniagua & Istance, 2018). It is interesting to note that school leaders infrequently report using networks for professional learning (Brown & Jacobsen, 2016). However, accessing external and internal network supports are important parts of complex evolving systems (Antonacopoulou & Chiva, 2005) and can support professional learning for teachers and school leaders.

Researchers found that enacting collective leadership and collective responsibility in iteratively making data informed, research-based changes using cycles of inquiry supported teacher led and teacher driven continuous professional learning. Multiple indicators of success enabled principals to lead a learning system to engage in a dynamic and iterative process of inquiry and professional learning for high school redesign. Overall, participants in this study described key redesigns in their schools associated with school culture, school leadership, school pedagogy and school structure, and the positive impacts of these changes on improving student experience, increasing or maintaining student achievement, student and teacher engagement, student and staff well being, student attendance, student retention, and involvement and satisfaction of parents. Keywords teacher professional learning, principal professional learning, high schools, Carnegie unit, school improvement.


Friesen, S., Brown B., Alonso-Yanez, G., & Jacobsen, M. (2018). Creating the Capacity to Lead and Support Provincial High School Improvement. Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration and Management (CCEAM), November 13-16, 2018, Malta.

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