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Principals' strategies for improving students' academic achievement in rural Junior High Schools in Ghana

Erasmus K. Norviewu-Mortty
Edith Cowan University
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The academic performance of students in public basic schools in rural Ghana during the past two decades has declined significantly. Government efforts to remedy the situation have not yielded any sustainable result. The Saboba District Junior High Schools are mostly affected. Generally, inadequate funding and resourcing are blamed for poor academic achievement of rural and low socio-economic schools. My observation during eight years of teaching in Saboba is that the academic achievement of some students remains high while that of others in the same locality stays low. The purpose of this paper and presentation is to report the outcome of preliminary analysis and interpretation of my research data. Literature on school effectiveness, school improvement and professional learning communities has helped to identify important issues concerning the enhancement of students' academic performance. Innovative leadership practices that promote effective teaching, learning and student achievement in a rural disadvantaged school setting are emerging as I analyse my case study data on four effective and less effective junior high schools at Saboba, Ghana. 100 participants comprising principals, teachers, students, parents and local community leaders and education officers took part in this research. Effective collegial and community focus leadership of the principal in recruiting local resources appears as the essential difference between high and low performing rural disadvantaged schools.


Introduction

Many developing countries such as those in Africa, including Ghana have very low GDPs and their governments make great efforts to find the requisite funding and resourcing in developing their people and building better infrastructure and social support systems. As a result, the key education decision makers in these nations view low academic performance of students in deprived rural and low socio-economic communities as a direct result of inadequate funding and resourcing.

In view of the fact that the list of genuine socio-economic development priorities in these countries keep growing, one can imagine and posit that none of these developing countries would soon find the requisite funding and resourcing to equip effectively all their rural, low socio-economic schools. In the mean time, maybe something can be done to help improve teaching and learning and student academic achievement in those disadvantaged schools.

I personally worked as teacher of English Language and Religious and Moral Education for eight years (2000 to 2008) in the Saboba locality, a rural and deprived town and district in the Northern Region of Ghana where the prevalence of poor academic work by basic students in junior high schools is high. Personal observation in the Saboba District revealed that few deprived Junior High Schools have continuously improved the academic achievement of their students; and those schools were headed by principals who demonstrated effective leadership.

Consequently, one may ask what really explains the fact that students from some particular rural schools are doing well while others in the same deprived rural setting are not? What accounts for the difference between high achieving and low achieving rural disadvantaged Junior High Schools in Ghana, most specifically in the Saboba locality?

The argument of lack of funding and resourcing might no longer explain in totality, and in principle the fact that the academic achievement of some students remains high while that of others in similar setting stays low.

To what extent does the leadership of each rural school impact on high or low achievement of students? There seems to be a link between effective rural school leadership and higher student academic achievement and vice versa (Kadingdi, 2004). It is this link that I set out to examine.

What do successful principals of effective rural junior high schools know and do to create a positive learning environment for their students? What vision, attitudes, knowledge, beliefs about learning, actions, practices and skills of those principals lead to higher academic achievement of their students? Effective principalship in rural junior high schools of the Saboba District will therefore be the focus of this presentation.

Many governments have emphasised the role adequate funding and resourcing play in promoting educational excellence in schools. In fact, the Ghana Government is no exception to this as the following brief analysis of the various educational reforms undertaken will support. Some of these reforms emphasised "more funding and more resources", yet they have failed in improving student academic achievement in both rural and urban public schools as Ministers and other political leaders in Ghana have admitted.

To promote quality education and to resolve poor academic achievement of rural basic schools, the Ghana Government, through its Ministry of Education and the Ghana Education Service (GES) implemented a series of education reform schemes during the recent past two decades. Notable among these reforms were the 1987 education reform to improve access to basic and secondary education, and the introduction in 1996 of the policy of Free Compulsory Universal Basic Education (FCUBE) to address access to education and quality concerns in basic education (United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2007). Most of those reforms failed to highlight the specific role of the school principal, which was deemed to be crucial (Atta-Quayson, 2007; Peil, 1995; Scadding, 1989).

In spite of those educational reforms, Ghana's rural, low socioeconomic basic schools regularly fail to produce knowledgeable graduates, capable of pursuing further education (Akyeampong, 2007; Karikari-Ababio, 2003, p. 3; Nsowah, 2003). In fact, the Ghana Ministry of Education recognised the enormity of academic underperformance by basic school students.

Despite the numerous interventions to improve education, achievement levels of school children, especially at the basic level, were low. The results of public schools in the Criterion Reference Tests (CRTs) conducted from 1992 to 1997 in English and Mathematics indicated an extremely low level of achievement in these subjects. (Ministry of Education Science and Sports, 2007, p. 3)
There is much evidence of the declining academic performance in rural disadvantaged junior high schools in Ghana.
Five Junior High Schools in the Twifo-Hemang-Lower-Denkyira District in the Central Region (of Ghana) scored zero percent in the 2008 Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE). (...) Mr Samuel Agyeibie-Kessie, the District Chief Executive, disclosed this at the assembly's general meeting at Twifo Praso on Friday. (Ghana News Agency, 2008)
The zero per cent score in the quotation refers to the fact that no individual student from the schools mentioned had an aggregate score of 30 or lower in the six core and elective subjects at the Basic Education Certificate Examinations which designate the end of basic or middle schooling. This comment by a political head underscores the present low standards of rural junior high schools.

In Ghana as in the entire Anglophone West Africa, these examinations are organised and conducted by the regional Anglophone West African Examinations Council. A student needs to obtain an aggregate of 30 or less to be eligible to enter a senior high school or technical vocational high school.

Another example of poor achievement of basic schools is captured by a popular FM Radio network called JOY FM in Accra, Ghana in August 2008. According to Joy FM online news, the results of the 2007/2008 Basic School Certificate Examinations (BECE) were poor as almost 40 percent of the total number of candidates who sat the examinations failed (Myjoyonline-News, 2008) and most of those who failed came from disadvantaged rural Junior High Schools.

No one will doubt the importance of quality human resource base for the effective social and economic development of a nation (Atta-Quayson, 2007). Consequently, as the education reforms undertaken by the Ghana Government, which in general, recommended and to some extent, helped to deploy more funding and resourcing; failed to reduce the incidence of low academic performance of students, and most especially, those in the Saboba locality; this study opts in principle and theory; to explore exclusively principals' leadership strategies, rather than funding and resourcing, in investigating solutions to low academic achievement in disadvantaged rural schools. To what extent do principals' leadership strategies serve as a key component in promoting effective schooling in low socio-economic communities?

This was what led me to study both effective and less effective rural junior high schools (JHSs) in the Saboba District of Ghana in order to identify leadership skills and management practices that enhance rural school effectiveness and student academic achievement in spite of inadequate funding and resourcing. As a result, this study addressed specifically the following research question:

Which leadership skills and practices of principals of deprived rural schools in the Saboba District of Ghana seem to create an environment that fosters high standards of students' achievement?
I divide the remainder of my paper into four sections, namely:
  1. Methodology
  2. Findings
  3. Conclusions, research significance and implications
  4. Final remark

Methodology: Four cases - Aarie, Baarie, Caarie and Daarie

In order to study effectively these principal-related strategies for improving academic achievement of students in disadvantaged rural schools, four different junior high schools representing two high achieving and two less achieving schools were selected from Saboba town. The four schools were selected on the basis of their location, and the fact that they all public schools and funded by the Government and have basically similar education infrastructure and resources. In Ghana, the average performance of students of each school in the Basic Education Certificate Examinations in comparison to other schools is the benchmark for measuring low or high academic performance of any Junior High School.

For the purpose of this research, I carried out an initial analysis of the results of Basic Education Certificate Examinations of students from all the junior high schools in Saboba and elsewhere in the District during the recent past five years; most specifically from 2005 to 2009. It was through this analysis that Aarie and Baarie were selected as high achieving schools while Caarie and Daarie were chosen as low achieving schools in the same locality and setting. None of the schools I studied knew whether or not its participation was based on the fact that it was a high or low performing school. They were made to understand that they were all contributing to finding effective means for improving student academic achievement.

In view of this, throughout the research I emphasised with the participants the effective means employed by their school in improving academic work. Consequently, all four schools were studied with the conviction that each was doing something positive to improve students' learning and academic achievement and I, the researcher was desirous of learning about those things, those efforts and strategies towards enhancing overall academic achievement.

Findings

In response to the research question: "Which leadership skills and practices of principals of deprived rural schools in the Saboba District of Ghana seem to create an environment that fosters high standards of students' achievement", all four schools provided a variety of scenarios. Even the low achieving schools, Caarie and Daarie did present some concrete activities that the principal does to promote teaching and learning and better student achievement.

One interesting discovery that was made in the course of the study is that most of the enduring school ethos and teaching and learning strategies that were helping the top achieving schools to continue to perform well were not only absent in the low performing schools but were identified by the latter as their top-wishes and dream.

A list of activities, strategies and attitudes that promoted an effective learning environment and student academic achievement, and set apart the top performing junior high schools from the low performing ones has been identified and summarised below.

Key Factors that set High Performing Disadvantaged Schools Apart from the Less Performing Disadvantaged Schools in rural Saboba, Ghana

These are grouped into five; namely:
  1. Principal's personal positive attributes enhancing collegiality and discipline in school.
    1. Principal's personal discipline, commitment to punctuality, his or her warm human relation skills, openness and accessibility to all; students, teachers and parents alike.
    2. Principal's personal humility, simplicity and openness for correction and advice from staff.
    3. Principal's personal vision and mission, commitment and engagement to maintaining school as top achieving school.
    4. Principal's personal positive negotiating and arbitration skills in prompt resolution of misunderstandings and conflicts.
    5. Principal's enthusiasm and drive in researching and recruiting relevant teaching materials to resource tailored-teaching towards enhancing exam-confident students.
    6. Principal's friendly but determined management and supervisory skills and love for the school.
    7. Principal's experience as subject teacher and as leader.

  2. Principal collegial and community focussed leadership for engaging teachers and students and recruiting local resources (for teaching and learning materials and teachers' welfare).
    1. Principal's respect for each teacher and his or her warm human relations with students and teachers alike.
    2. Principal's good relations with parents and the community and the involvement of parents in school affairs as well as in resourcing the school through levies for teaching and learning materials and welfare of teachers.
    3. Principal's positive engagement with local education officers for resolving school issues and resourcing school.
    4. Principal's transparency vis--vis the staff in the disbursement of school funds.
    5. Principal's open-door policy of administration which enables both teachers and students to air grievances without fear of intimidation.
    6. Principal's continuous consultation and direction of staff through regular staff meetings and of students through daily school assemblies.
    7. Principal's organisation of quarterly socials to motivate staff and exchange with them informally and use of school farm products to reward hard working teachers.
    8. Principal's ability to set goals and achieve them through team work. Principal's upholding of high level of discipline among teachers and students.

  3. Principal's instructional leadership and guidance mostly for less experienced teachers
    1. Principal's constant reminder and check on what works and what does not in terms of subject content, teaching methods and types of learning enhancing opportunities.
    2. Principal's efforts in checking at random not only what the teachers teach but also, students' assignments and feedback.
    3. Principal's empowering of subject departmental heads to research outside the locality any available practically useful teaching and learning resources including books, flyers and booklets, cassettes and discs that will facilitate their work; and then recommend them to be purchased by the school.
    4. Principal's regular meetings with subject departmental heads to evaluate academic progress of students and teaching of teachers.

  4. Principal and staff's ingenuous management of tailored teaching in an atmosphere of discipline and orderliness to enhance exam-confident students.
    1. Principal's concern for general discipline, maintenance of positive school atmosphere and speedy resolution of misunderstandings.
    2. Principal and teachers' engagement in promoting effective hands-on teaching, and regular supervision of individual student work.
    3. Principal's personal engagement with teachers to employ other learning enhancing academic activities such as debates and quizzes; regular class tests and multiple practice examinations to promote effective learning.
    4. Principal's collaborative effort with the education office, parents and selected Non Governmental Organisations in funding both the stationery for practice-exams and token prizes to motivate deserving students who excel in debates, quizzes and practice-examinations as well as in sports and cultural dances. These prizes consisted mainly of text books, note books, novels, pencils and pens.
    5. Through a judicious use of school funds and sometimes, in default; through personal finances of principal and teachers, the principal provides the appropriate textbooks for teachers' use and other materials to facilitate teaching and learning.
    6. The availability of the principal to teach either regularly as other teachers do or when the need arises in the absence of a subject teacher in order to ensure that students are always engaged during lessons.
    7. The continuous efforts of principal and staff to promote and sustain a clean and orderly school environment; disciplined and well behaved students as means of creating positive teaching and learning environment that enhances higher academic achievement.
    8. Principal's efforts to remind teachers of their duties and ensuring that these are carried out in a friendly but determined manner.
    9. Principal's ability to engage and supervise capable professionals (accountants, secretaries, statisticians and teachers from senior high and tertiary institutions) who are available in the locality to teach specific subject topics in which they are well versed. A token reward is offered sometimes for their services through the resourcing levies paid by parents.
    10. The use of specially crafted expert-team practice examinations as compensatory academic exercise to make up for the inadequacies in teaching probably caused by inexperienced and untrained teachers help in enhancing effective preparation of students for final examinations (BECE). These multiple practice exams are set, corrected and discussed with students through the help of a team of gifted and expert teachers from and outside the school.

  5. Principal, staff and students focus and pride in maintaining top academic standards, discipline and commitment
    1. Principal's personal vision and mission to maintain the top achievement record of the school in the district.
    2. Regular series of moral and motivational talks and admonitions for hard work.
    3. Principals and staff hold school assemblies daily to keep contact with students and also check for student absentees for appropriate sanction and assistance.
    4. The sense of pride and urgency on part of students, teachers and principal to remain a top school and to explore every avenue in preparing adequately every student to confidently sit the BECE.
    5. Teachers sense of solidarity with principal, readiness to forego certain comfort and privileges just to be able to teach and make their school a top achieving school.
    6. Teachers' peer rivalry to out-do each other in the number of best scores made by students in each one's respective subjects in the BECE.
    7. Teacher mentoring of colleagues in teaching skills, in researching and understanding subject content.
    8. Students' readiness and willingness to cooperate actively with teachers in their lessons by being present for all extra-tutorials even at the weekends.
    9. Students returning to school campus after supper to study in the few classrooms which had lights.
    10. Students forgo social activities at home (funerals and marriages) and in town, in order to spend more time for group learning activities in the evenings and weekends on campus.

What are their wishes?

  1. Sufficient textbooks for each student and for each subject.
  2. More trained teachers on the staff.
  3. Adequate number of subject teachers in all disciplines, especially French and ICT.
  4. More parental involvement and cooperation in school affairs and in disciplining of disobedient students.
  5. Effective engagement of District education officers and their speedy feedback on staff and student issues.
  6. More classroom furniture.
  7. Education officers and parents should accept the request for obligatory written entry examinations as criterion for admission into junior high schools in order to halt admission of poorly prepared upper primary school students to junior high school studies.
  8. Moral talks to students and staff by religious co-founders of the schools or others to encourage and admonish students on good behaviour and hard work.
  9. Collaboration between school head and Parent-Teacher-Association should be more pro-active and engaging in fund raising to support and subsidise some school needs.
  10. More infrastructure and resources. While the high performing schools are doing a variety of things to promote effective teaching and learning and better results, and have fewer ideas about what to do in future to sustain these efforts, the less performing schools rather have a lot of ideas as to what to do to promote effective teaching and learning but fewer activities and efforts directed currently to improving student achievement.

Conclusions, research significance and implications

General remark

The research question of this study was "Which leadership skills and practices of principals of deprived rural schools in the Saboba District of Ghana seem to create an environment that fosters high standards of students' achievement?" To a large extent the research has provided some evidence in response to this research question. First and foremost evidence is the principal's effort to nurture a school community in which everyone feels the sense of belonging. Second, the principal's urge for rapid arbitration of misunderstandings and conflicts and the setting of clear academic goals for both teachers and students and provision of top supervision in achieving these goals. Third, the principal's genuine pursuit of team spirit and welfare of teachers and students in an atmosphere of discipline and punctuality are distinct strategies for providing a positive learning environment that fosters better student achievement. Fourth, the principal's communal and parental collaborative effort to research and provide to teachers and students appropriate syllabus and up to date tailored teaching-to-examination subject content, (past examination questions and experiments) as well as instructional support to some teachers make a lot of difference in improving academic work. Fifth, principal's general actions of motivation for both teachers and students and the vision of all to make the school a top school results in a school atmosphere of high enthusiasm, common sense of purpose and pride of students and teachers alike. Finally, the enthusiasm of teachers to teach their students and to ensure that all students, without exception, participate regularly in lessons, understand and perform class tests and assignments satisfactorily are the distinct strategies that brought academic success to these poor and low socio-economic schools of rural Ghana.

Research significance - In resonance with professional learning communities

Scholars such as DuFour (2004) and Fullan (2008) expounded variously the principle of team spirit, unified sense of purpose of teachers and adjusted teaching methodology and content of teaching subjects as well as a guarantee of helping every student to succeed as tenets for promoting academic achievement through professional learning communities. The research in rural, low socio-economic Junior High Schools of Saboba in Ghana makes a convincing argument for the principles of professional learning communities, which emphasise community focus and collegiality.

Research significance - In resonance with School effectiveness and School improvement characteristics and practices

Principal's collegial, instructional and managerial leadership, principal's community focus and engaging of parents in recruiting resources for teacher welfare, teaching and learning as well as principal's urge for discipline and commitment for training exam-confident students have been proved useful in improving and sustaining the top performance of Aarie and Baarie junior high schools at Saboba. Those leadership strategies employed by the principals of these rural, disadvantaged schools are in resonance with school effectiveness and improvement characteristics. For example, Leithwood and Mascall (2008) found that: "The influence of collective leadership was most strongly linked to student achievement through teacher motivation" (p. 554). PricewaterhouseCooper (2007) in an overview of the research of Marzano, Waters and McNulty (2005) reported that high quality leadership "... has a significant impact on both pupil academic and non-academic outcomes. In other words, good leadership and management lead to good teaching and learning, which in turn leads to higher standards for all pupils" (p. 1).

PricewaterhouseCooper quoting Leithwood and his colleague reported that: "... as far as we are aware, there is not a single documented case of a school successfully turning around its pupil achievement directly in the absence of talented leadership" (p. 1).

Lezotte and Levine (1990), and Corcoran and Wilson (1989) arguing for school effectiveness declared that effective schools must have competent principal leadership and committed teaching staff with a concise instructional focus on fundamental skills. Furthermore according to them, effective schools expect high academic standards for all students in a positive and caring atmosphere, supported by teachers, support staff and local community. Goodlad (1984) stressed the overall educational progress of students through the promotion of students' academic, intellectual, vocational, socio-civic, cultural and personal development as key measures of effective schools.

Hopkins (1994) described school improvement as internal school "strategies for improving the school's capacity for providing quality education". (p. 75) By enhancing the teaching-learning process and the conditions which support it" (p. 75), these internal school strategies improve students' achievement he emphasised. Aarie and Baarie through the collaborative efforts of teachers, students and Parent Teacher Association succeed in creating a favourable learning atmosphere, motivating commitment of students and teachers and providing scarce resources in support of tailored teaching. This collaboration between school and parents is also instrumental in the acquisition of learning materials, organisation of extra tutorials, welfare support and social activities, which all contribute to effective teaching and learning and the high success rate of students at the BECE.

Further, the principal's community focus leadership which expresses respect for local customs and traditions, and his or her engagement with the community in school affairs and in recruiting local resources for improving teaching, learning and students' achievement echoes with the work of Watson, Partington, Gray and Mack (2006). These scholars demonstrated the positive influence of effective integration of good instructional leadership with community cultural values on the academic achievement of Aboriginal students in Mathematics.

Research implications

Principal's leadership strategies in employing available scarce funding and resourcing more than additional funding and resourcing, is key to effective schooling and achievement in disadvantaged junior high schools in rural Ghana and possibly in other low socio-economic communities.

These findings have proved that the crucial element in nurturing an effective learning environment that promotes higher student academic performance is the strategic leadership role of the principal and teachers more than adequate funding and resourcing alone. None of the schools studied has a decent library with appropriate space and furniture for students to sit and read. For example, some students can only borrow books to read during lunch break. Usually, they will sit under the shade of trees on the premises or on the classroom veranda to read and return the books before lessons resume after the break.

None of the schools studied has enough sets of books for students to borrow and send home to read; that would have been a luxury according to some teachers. No subsidised lunch or snack is provided in any of these schools. Students have to fend for their own lunch and snack, and since some parents cannot even afford regular lunch for their wards, some students go hungry sometimes. In spite of all these hurdles, these students are punctual in class; they study hard and are able to pass with good grades their final external examinations, the Basic Education Certificate Examinations.

The principal's local community-focussed leadership for recruiting resources and his or her ingenuous management of tailored teaching in an effective setting that enhances exam-confident students were the crucial tools that promoted an effective learning environment and better student academic achievement. Every activity in the high performing junior high schools was geared towards creating and sustaining a learning environment that enables students' effective academic preparation for their final examinations.

Final remark

Creating a school climate of urgency and tailored teaching and supervision just to help students pass effectively their final external examinations may not be a best educational strategy for holistic education of the person, nevertheless, it does make a difference between high achievers and low achievers in low socio-economic rural Ghana. Consequently, those leadership strategies, employed by rural and disadvantaged Aarie and Baarie and to some extent by Caarie and Daarie for improving student academic performance may be studied and considered by other deprived schools, be they in the urban or rural areas, if they are desirous of improving their students' academic achievement.

The development of a strategic list and explanation of those specific leadership strategies, which positively account for the effective teaching and learning atmosphere that helps rural and deprived Aarie and Baarie schools to sustain top academic performance despite funding and resourcing challenges is still in progress. It is being studied and perfected for the final thesis on this research.

References

Akyeampong, K. (2007). 50 years of educational progress and challenge in Ghana. Paper presented at the Educational Expansion and Access in Ghana: A review of fifty years of challenge and progress, Parliament offices, Westminster, London. [verified 25 Sep 2010] http://www.cecomm.org.uk/attachments/Paper%2050%20Yrs%20Ed%20Progress%20Ghana.doc

Atta-Quayson, J. (2007, February 21). Education: A total failure?, Daily Graphic, Ghana, pp. 16, 33-34

Corcoran, T., & Wilson, B. (1989). Successful Secondary Schools. Lewes: Falmer Press.

DuFour, R. (2004). What is professional learning community? Educational Leadership, 61(8).

Fullan, M. (2008). What's Worth Fighting For in the Principalship? New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Ghana News Agency. (2008, November 24). Five schools score zero percent in 2008 BECE, Daily Graphic, p. 3.

Goodlad, J. I. (1984). A place called school. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hopkins, D. (1994). School improvement in an era of change. In P. Ribbins & E. Burridge (Eds.), Improving Education: Promoting quality in schools (pp. 74-91). London: Cassell.

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Karikari-Ababio, M. (2003, December 23). GES Records Significant Improvement, Ghana News Agency, pp. 3-4.

Leithwood, K., & Mascall, B. (2008). Collective leadership effects on student achievement. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44(4), 529-561.

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Watson, P., Partington, G., Gray, J., & Mack, L. (2006). Aboriginal students and numeracy. Perth, WA: Aboriginal Education and Training Council.

Author: Erasmus K. Norviewu-Mortty BTh, MA, PGDE is completing a PhD at Edith Cowan University on Principals' strategies for improving students' academic achievement in rural junior high schools in Ghana. Proficient in French and English, he completed Bachelors and Masters in Practical Christian Theology and religious studies at Université de Montréal, Canada and a Postgraduate Diploma in Education at University of Cape Coast, Ghana. He taught for eight years English language, Religious and Moral Education at a rural Technical Senior High School in Saboba, Ghana and now serves as SOAR Ambassador at ECU Graduate Research School assisting Higher Degrees by Research candidates in research proposals. Email: e.norviewu-mortty@ecu.edu.au

Please cite as: Norviewu-Mortty, E. K. (2010). Principals' strategies for improving students' academic achievement in rural Junior High Schools in Ghana. In Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2010. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2010/norviewu-mortty.html


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