Academically Optimistic? If Not, Why Not?

As it pertains to schools, what exactly does it mean to be “academically optimistic,” and do we have a choice whether a school is academically optimistic or pessimistic? How do student socioeconomics enter into the equation, and is it true when it comes to student achievement the proverbial apple doesn’t fall far from the tree? What about the rigors of school reform, Race to the Top, Common Core Learning Standards, and fragile school budgets? Why is there such variation in how teachers, administrators and school staff respond to these trying and unsettled times? Well, much can be attributed to the school environment–an environment greatly shaped by the building principal and a small cadre of teacher leaders.

Hoy, Tarter, and Hoy (2006) coined the term “Academic Optimism” to describe those schools that exude academic emphasis, efficacy, and trust within the halls, classrooms, and very fabric of their being. Such schools are vibrant vessels for learning where students are stretched academically and parents are valued for their role in student learning. If you’ve had the opportunity to visit different schools, you know from experience the contrast between “healthy” and “sick” ones. In the academically optimistic school, you’ll find teachers and students moving about with energy and purpose. When classes are in session, students are actively engaged in their learning as teachers guide on the side. In the faculty room, the banter is about events, student success, and programs. People are genuinely happy in their daily work. Academically optimistic schools are in stark contrast to pessimistic schools where there is much isolationism, finger-pointing at parents and administration, and a general sense of helplessness.

School environment factors are complicated, more so than the classroom environment, with many external elements impacting them. However, Hoy, Tarter, and Hoy (2006) suggest school leaders can create a more academically optimistic culture if they focus on academic emphasis, collective efficacy, and trust (p.441). Academic emphasis is cultivated by raising the bar and developing teachers’ sense of self-efficacy to positively impact students. Principals do this through modeling, providing targeted professional development, and celebrating student achievement. Collective efficacy is promoted by honoring Bandura’s (1997) antecedents of efficacy: mastery experiences, vicarious learning, positive feedback, and social emotional well-being. Last but not least, developing trust in parents and students is realized through frequent interactions among the various groups. Such interactions are purposefully planned to increase the comfort levels of all and to establish those important relationships desperately needed in our schools today.

A look at the history of education in this country shows we’ve been through many periods of discomfort and uncertainty, and we’ve somehow managed to get through each era of reform and emerge stronger than before. Race to the Top, Common Core Learning Standards, Next Generation Assessments,….are challenging us to rethink education in this country. We’ll manage, and it will be mostly due to the strong leadership of building principals and teacher leaders who cultivate in us all a sense of academic optimism encompassing academic rigor, collective efficacy, and trust for our students, parents, and communities. Meanwhile, let’s be sure we have the leaders capable of promoting academic optimism in schools by raising the bar on principal preparation programs and developing policies that recognize and promote teacher leadership.

Hoy, W. K., Tarter, C. J., & Hoy, W. (2006). Academic optimism in  schools: A force for student achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 43, 425-446.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

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