History and Overview
Independent School Management (ISM) has provided advice and counsel to private-independent schools since the mid-1970s. A data-driven organization, ISM launches research projects regularly in pursuit of various hypotheses.
This book is the result of two research projects spanning more than two decades (and more than 15 years of pertinent experience between the two). One of them was the seminal project in its examination of factors influencing student performance, student satisfaction, and student enthusiasm. The other was a partial replication and statistical strengthening of the original project. This book treats the findings of both.
The ISM International Model Schools Project ran for six years, from 1989 to 1995, and entailed ISM on-site data collection expeditions—usually three per year—to eight to nine private-independent schools annually. The project focused upon relevant factors in student performance, satisfaction, and enthusiasm and, secondarily, on teacher performance, satisfaction, and enthusiasm.
That project’s outcomes produced two books, numerous articles for ISM’s periodicals, and ISM’s Meaningful Faculty Evaluation system. Those building blocks served, in turn, as the foundation for later ISM studies of School Head leadership and Board President leadership. Finally, the original outcomes and subsequent research projects were layered systematically into the several iterations of the ISM Stability Markers and, more recently, the 20 ISM Success Predictors for the 21st Century.
In the school year 2010–11, ISM conducted a one-year partial replication of the original project, this time with strengthened statistical treatments, with eight private-independent schools. The mix of schools, as with the original project, included the full range of possible grade configurations, religiously affiliated and secular, single-sex and coed, and boarding and day.
Figure 1: Seasonal Means, Predictability/Supportiveness by GPA
In ISM’s research, a statistical correlation has been firmly established between teacher-determined classroom conditions called by ISM “predictability and supportiveness” (as perceived through the eyes of students) and student performance, student-perceived satisfaction, and student perceived enthusiasm. These classroom conditions are not a function of pedagogical “style,” teacher “personality,” or age of student. These conditions can be created by the application (by teachers) of a cluster of characteristics and principles.
This volume presents these characteristics and principles in workbook form. “ Predictability and supportiveness”—the paired set of critical classroom conditions and organizational ingredients—have been found in these studies in greatest strength in school environments in which students perceive that:
- the rule/reward structure is strong, but also intelligible and fair from the student perspective;
- faculty/administration/coaching responses are consistent, fair, and accurate from the student perspective, in regard to what is positively or negatively reinforced (both academically and behaviorally); and
- the faculty, administration, and coaching staffs appear to the students genuinely to desire their (the students’) success and work to elicit that success, but nonetheless provide accurate—not inflated—reinforcement (as implied by the first two items in this list).
(The measuring device for these characteristics, the Student Experience Profile II, may be seen in Appendix B of this book. This instrument is designed for use by students in grades 5–12.)
Figure 2: Seasonal Means, Predictability/Supportiveness by Student Satisfaction and Student Enthusiasm
A rapid-look summary of the research relationships is presented in Figures 1 and 2 following. In Figure 1, predictability and supportiveness levels (P&S) are shown as they were found in ISM’s most recent study for fall, winter, and spring grading periods. Shown in the same figure (with a different scale along the vertical axis) are the cumulative grade-point averages (GPA) of students in the study. GPAs, as expected (based on earlier ISM findings), were highest in fall, lowest in winter, and intermediate in spring. Measures of P&S, on the other hand, were highest in fall, dropped considerably in winter, and declined further in spring.
The correlation statistic showed a significant relationship between P&S and GPA in the fall, but at the lowest traditionally acceptable level of social-science “significance” (.1). The correlation strengthened throughout the year, reaching significance levels of .01 in both winter and spring. This is suggested graphically in Figure 1 by the decreasing gap between P&S measures and GPAs as the school year progresses.
See Table I in Appendix E for actual correlations and means, and for a fuller discussion of the most recent research project.
In Figure 2, predictability and supportiveness levels (P&S) are, as in Figure 1, shown as they were found in ISM’s most recent study for fall, winter, and spring grading periods. Shown in the same figure (with a different scale along the vertical axis) are student-perceived satisfaction (SAT) and student-perceived enthusiasm (ENTH) levels for each season. Measures for all six of these variables declined throughout the school year.
The correlation statistic showed a highly significant relationship between P&S and SAT and between P&S and ENTH in each season of the school year. The strength of this relationship (.001), already powerful in the fall, continued to strengthen in both winter and spring grading periods. This is suggested graphically in Figure 2 by the decreasing gap between measures for P&S and SAT and between measures for P&S and ENTH as the school year progresses.
See Table I in Appendix E for actual correlations and means, and for a fuller discussion of the most recent research project.
Predictability and Supportiveness: The ISM School Culture Matrix
A school culture strongly marked by “predictability” and “supportiveness” (“High P/High S”) in the environment can be expected to display specific organizational characteristics. This can be said, as well, regarding the other three possible culture-pairings: high predictability and low supportiveness (“High P/Low S”); low predictability and high supportiveness (“Low P/High S”); and low predictability and low supportiveness (“Low P/Low S”).
A discussion of these four quadrants and a graphic display follows.
High Predictability/High Supportiveness (High P/High S)
- Predictability and supportiveness sustained over time
- Healthy student and faculty cultures
- Balanced leadership (both prescriptive and nonprescriptive)
- Consistent and constructive evaluation
In the “High P/High S” quadrant, each of these four items implies the other three, i.e., it is difficult to implement one of these extremely well without simultaneously doing extremely well with the others. In regard to faculty evaluation, for example, “balanced leadership” that is “both prescriptive and nonprescriptive” would often mean the administration chooses to dictate the structure, ground rules, and research base for the faculty evaluation system (thus, “prescriptive”). At the same time, the administration may choose to delegate the creation of the evaluation system’s specific criteria for excellence to a faculty task unit, subject to the administration’s final approval (“nonprescriptive”).
Outcomes of such an approach are likely to include (a) more consistent and constructive evaluation; (b) a healthier faculty culture; and (c) a more predictable and supportive environment, as seen through the eyes of the teachers themselves. This is but one among countless possible examples of the effects of leaders’ “balanced”—prescriptive and nonprescriptive—decisions on organizational process, culture, and performance.
High Predictability/Low Supportiveness (High P/Low S)
- Bureaucratic evaluation
- Rules, not reasons
- Authoritarian leadership
- Culture of fear and resentment
- Conformist environment
Figure 3: The ISM School Culture Matrix
The list above represents the (expected) major characteristics of an organization that is strong in predictability but weak in supportiveness. Such a school is weak in creating an environment in which the followers—teachers, in their relationship to administrators; and students, in their relationship to teachers/coaches/administrators—are confident that their leaders wish them success (whether they are as yet successful or not). While “High P/Low S” organizations tend to develop all five of the characteristics shown above, there may be exceptions.
For example, an authoritarian administrator who is perceived not as “mean,” but as goal-focused to the exclusion of all else, will perhaps be able to steer clear of the worst aspects of a “culture of fear and resentment” (just as an authoritarian teacher may not consistently produce fear or resentment in students). But, without leadership attentiveness to the “supportiveness” component (producing a settled confidence on the part of the followers that the leader truly wishes their success), fear and resentment will always be a heartbeat away.
Successful military combat units are “High P/Low S” with good reason, i.e., errors can result in death to the troops themselves and, beyond that, to those whom they endeavor to protect. In contrast, in teaching/learning organizations such as schools, experimentation (such as “action research” for teachers and electronic trial-and-correction software for students) has a necessary function. It is freedom-within-structure that tends to foster high levels of performance, satisfaction, and enthusiasm at both the teacher and student levels. Predictability is essential, but without supportiveness, predictability is ultimately self-defeating in school contexts.
Low Predictability/High Supportiveness (Low P/High S)
- Culture of uncertainty
- Supervision for praise, not purpose
- Consensus-based leadership
- Conflict-averse leadership and culture
This is the “natural” quadrant toward which educators—both teachers and administrators— tend to gravitate. This is the case because educators are usually most comfortable in environments characterized by intellectual give-and-take within an academic society of equals. Ideas predominate; the most worthy ideas prevail.
Effective PK–12 schools for children and adolescents, however, are not graduate seminars. Schools have missions, purposes, and outcomes, coupled with paying “customers.” The latter commit significant portions of their families’ resources to private-independent schools in order that their children may experience those missions, purposes, and outcomes.
And this implies hierarchy. Those at or near the top of those hierarchies determine the school mission, purposes, and desired outcomes. Thus, “predictability” is established by means of organizational structures that make the mission-specific “deliverables” likely to materialize.
When this “predictability” component is given little or no meaningful attention, “supportiveness”—teachers’ confidence that the administrators desire their success and students’ confidence that their teachers desire their success—may reach high levels. However, without “predictability,” it is likely that uncertainty, “false-positive” reinforcement, and a “franchise mentality” among teachers will eventually come to predominate. High (mission-specific) performance, high (mission-related) satisfaction, and high (mission-related) enthusiasm are the first casualties of the “Low P/High S” environment.
Low Predictability/Low Supportiveness (Low P/Low S)
- Gossip-ridden environment
- Culture of fear and uncertainty
- Leadership failure
- Ineffective evaluation
- Adult-centered culture
- Fragmented faculty culture
Where both “predictability” and “supportiveness” are in short supply, toxic environments develop, 11 even though there may be numerous individuals who manage to avoid the toxicity. The reverse of the familiar adage, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” comes inexorably into play. The prevailing “low tide” will frustrate these (often heroic) individual efforts to provide high levels of performance, satisfaction, and enthusiasm for the students.
Seldom can such toxicity be corrected without, in James Collins’s memorable metaphor, “getting the wrong people off the bus and the right people on the bus and in the right seats.” This does not mean that teachers should not challenge ideas or contribute their own thoughts and expertise to school discussions, which is part of a healthy school culture. It means, rather, that teachers must do this with student performance, student satisfaction, and student enthusiasm at the heart of their motivation.