Moving from what is wrong to what is strong

Improving achievement by identifying students' strengths
By: | Issue: July, 2015
June 11, 2015

Student engagement is directly linked to achievement. The higher the engagement, the more successful students are in their work.

The reverse, however, is also true. Howard County Public School System chose to face this challenge head-on through a partnership with Gallup, in which school leaders, educators and students identify their own strengths, then learn ways to leverage those strengths to increase engagement and success in learning and teaching.

Starting at the top

A recent Gallup surveyshowed that school leadership is directly linked to engagement and student achievement. Talented leaders can make all the difference. Gallup and other major research studies have shown that effective principals account for a significant portion of student learning.

In fact, after classroom instruction, leadership is the second most important school-related factor that contributes to what students learn. When school leaders recognize teachers and students for the talents they bring to the table, engagement increases for both audiences. And when engagement increases, students are more successful academically and teachers thrive.

Principals across Howard County schools are involved in Principal Insights, a Gallup program that works to build talent in the following dimensions: achievement/drive, structure/planning, and relationships. Our district envisions schools in which every student experiences an appropriate level of challenge through engaging, authentic, hands-on learning.

At six model Howard County schools, building leaders have been trained as specialists who can help teachers and students develop their strengths. These elementary schools have incorporated Gallup’s Strengths ExplorerÑa strengths-identification assessmentÑfor students in fourth and fifth grade.

An additional aspect of the program at the elementary level is the use of a departmentalized curriculum that allows teachers to focus instruction on a strength or interest. Teachers have strengths listed on their ID badges, while students display their strengths proudly on their desks. When grouping students for discussion or projects, teachers are able to identify students’ various strengths and pull together a group that includes a leader, an organizer and a confident team player. This helps ensure each student contributes equally to the assignment.

How can this shift affect school culture?

From 2013 to 2014, Howard County schools has seen average levels of staff engagement increase from 34 percent to 40 percent. Engagement levels for students have continued to hover around 54 percent, but teachers report that students are referencing their strengths and latching onto their talents. Throughout the district in the 2014-15 school year, the focus on strengths became embedded into staff culture and made its way toward improving the overall well-being of staff and students.

We know it will take time for student-strengths initiativesÑespecially those introduced this year in elementary schoolsÑto impact engagement levels in middle and high school, but we are committed to this program.

I believe an inherent shift in school improvement efforts moves the focus from what is wrong to what is strong. That is what our strengths program does. It uses data to take a deep approach to understanding why engagement matters, how strengths can be developed and maximized, and what actions need to be taken to help students and staff achieve.

An investment in strengths and engagement provides support, motivation, and energy for achievement, and it takes into account the individual talents of staff and students. We’ve always known that students and teachers are more than test scores; now we’re changing the school culture in a way that reflects a more comprehensive vision for the future.

Renee A. Foose is superintendent of Howard County Public School System in Maryland.