Other UA team members are: J. Robert Hendricks, who recently retired from his position as UA educational leadership department head; Renee Clift, the UA College of Education's associate dean for professional preparation; David Baker, an adjunct faculty member and the Flowing Wells Unified School District's assistant superintendent for curriculum; and Thad Dugan, a graduate student in the College of Education.
Severe consequences – like high student transfers, job loss or a major reorganization and possible school closure – meet K-12 leaders in Arizona when they are unable to pull their schools out of "underperforming" status.
To help principals of such schools tie assessments to curriculum for improved student achievement, the University of Arizona is taking the lead on a new tri-university initiative.
The 18-month project, "Assessment Literacy and Instructional Leadership in High-Poverty, Low-Performing Schools," is being funded with a competitive grant of up to $1 million from the Arizona Board of Regents.
"We have not had to be as targeted in our assessment as we do now. This is relatively new given all the high stakes testing principals and teachers must implement," said Rose Ylimaki, an associate professor in the UA College of Education's educational policy studies and practice department and principal investigator on the grant.
Many schools do not have research departments to adequately handle the demand, Ylimaki said. But the initiative is designed to help principals develop assessment literacy and implement stronger curricula, instructional programs and strategies to improve student success.
Principals involved in the new initiative are expected to develop a deeper understanding of standards – the measures and resulting data – and helping them figure out ways to use assessments to strengthen the curriculum.
"You think that if you drill students on state test items you can get better, but you don’t. Assessments are only powerful when they are connected to curricula, instruction and the school learning culture," Ylimaki said.
The UA college faculty members and their partners at Arizona State and Northern Arizona universities are targeting principals at 124 of more than 200 underperforming schools around the state for involvement, also offering principals a chance to earn funding toward school improvements.
Under the new initiative, principals will commit to three institutes and other meetings amounting to about 90 of professional development hours. The first institute will be held June 20-22 at NAU with others being held in January at UA and again in June 2012 at ASU.
Between workshops, principals will be engaged via an online format, with NAU and ASU helping to solidify connections with nationally recognized leadership scholars and award-winning principals.
Also, national experts at each of the institutions will facilitate sessions along with Arizona administrators and UA, NAU and ASU faculty members. UA faculty members will serve as the project's assessment team, administering surveys and conducting interviews with principals before, during and after their involvement, while also assessing the strength of the effort.
The targeted principals are in schools that have been classified "underperforming Tier III" by the Arizona Department of Education, which tend to be in high-poverty areas around the state.
Such a label indicates that a school underperforms year by year, often with high percentages of students failing to meet AIMS standards and with low graduation rates, among other factors.
But the initiative is not a mere matter of helping leaders figure out how to teach to the test, said Lynnette Brunderman, the project's director. Instead, it is about improving both assessment and content literacy.
"When we talk about assessment, we're not just limiting that to the state test. We're also talking about knowing how our students and learning and if they are learning what we want them to learn," said Brunderman, an associate professor of practice in the UA's educational policy studies and practice department.
"The standards are so broad that we have to see how those fit together and see which ones give us the more bang for our buck," Brunderman said.
Aligning the curriculum with standards should not only result in improved student outputs, but student learning. What principals must learn is how also to ensure this remains true on a day-to-day basis, she added.
Brunderman and Ylimaki said one area of emphasis for principals will be in helping teachers also improve their instruction, particularly in an increasingly diverse population.
"You can't ignore culture in Arizona, or anywhere, and you can't ignore poverty," Ylimaki said. "There are particular needs among different populations that must be addressed with assessments, but designed in a culturally neutral way. You have to teach the whole student."
In addition to the need to meet state standards and community expectations, another major incentive is on the horizon.
Come 2012, new legislation will tie up to 50 percent of principals' salary to school performance, said Brunderman said.
"If the principals do not understand the connections among assessment, curriculum and instruction and do not understand how to help their teachers make the connections themselves, they are at risk of losing their jobs, their salaries – many things," Brunderman said.
The new initiative is among others the UA College of Education is leading for the purpose of better preparing K-12 leaders.
In 2009, the college began offering a hybrid option in its educational leadership program, training degree-carrying educators for administrative roles at the district, state and national levels.
And in 2010, the college initiated the Arizona Charter Leadership Academy to train existing and future charter school leaders in areas that include human resource management, Arizona laws and policies, school finance and program review.
Such efforts closely align with a federal-level effort to financial support struggling schools toward improving teacher and student performance.
Last year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that Arizona schools would be able to receive financial support from the School Improvement Fund with the state receiving nearly $70 million to "turn around" its persistently low-achieving schools. Duncan announced an additional $11.38 million in funding in April for the same purpose.
The team drew on prior research finding that a heavier focus on instructional leadership can result in tangible improvements in student learning.
And what many leaders need is a stronger vision with more motivation and support for staff along with higher accountability.
"This model doesn't exist," said Ylimaki, also a former principal.
"It's also about the whole culture of the school and its climate and also being responsive while figuring out how to stress high academic achievement," she added. "The model will be useful, not just here, but it will inform the national discussion," she added. "It's very important work."