The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning
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The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning
Education research shows that most school variables, considered separately, have at most small effects on learning. The real payoff comes when individual variables combine to reach critical mass. Creating the conditions under which that can occur is the job of the principal.
For more than a decade, The Wallace Foundation has supported efforts to improve leadership in public schools. In addition to funding projects in 28 states and numerous school districts within them, Wallace has issued more than 70 research reports and other publications covering school leadership, on topics ranging from how principals are trained to how they are evaluated on the job. Through all this work, we have learned a great deal about the nature of the school principal's role, what makes for an effective principal and how to tie principal effectiveness to improved student achievement.
This Wallace Perspective is a culling of our lessons to describe what it is that effective principals do. In short, we believe they perform five key practices well:
- Shaping a vision of academic success for all students.
- Creating a climate hospitable to education.
- Cultivating leadership in others.
- Improving instruction.
- Managing people, data and processes to foster school improvement.
This Wallace Perspective is the first of a series looking at school leadership and how it is best developed and supported. In subsequent publications, we will look at the role of school districts, states and principal training programs in building good school leadership.
Ten years ago, school leadership was noticeably absent from most major school reform agendas, and even the people who saw leadership as important to turning around failing schools expressed uncertainty about how to proceed.
What a difference a decade makes.
Today, improving school leadership ranks high on the list of priorities for school reform. In a detailed 2010 survey, school and district administrators, policymakers and others declared principal leadership among the most pressing matters on a list of issues in public school education. Teacher quality stood above everything else, but principal leadership came next, outstripping matters including dropout rates, STEM (science, technology,engineering and math) education, student testing, and preparation for college and careers.1
A particularly noteworthy finding is the empirical link between school leadership and improved student achievement.
Meanwhile, education experts, through the updated (2008) Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium standards, have defined key aspects of leadership to guide state policy on everything from licensing to onthe-job training of principals. New tools are available for measuring principal performance in meaningful ways. And federal efforts such as Race to the Top are emphasizing the importance of effective principals in boosting teaching and learning. Paying attention to the principal's role has become all the more essential as the U.S. Department of Education and state education agencies embark on transforming the nation's 5,000 most troubled schools, a task that depends on the skills and abilities of thousands of current and future school leaders.
Since 2000, The Wallace Foundation has supported numerous research studies on school leadership and published more than 70 reports on the subject. It has also funded projects in some 28 states and numerous districts within them. Through that work, we now understand the complexities of school leadership in new and more meaningful ways.
A particularly noteworthy finding, reinforced in a major study by researchers at the universities of Minnesota and Toronto, is the empirical link between school leadership and improved student achievement.2 Drawing on both detailed case studies and large-scale quantitative analysis, the research shows that most school variables, considered separately, have at most small effects on learning. The real payoff comes when individual variables combine to reach critical mass. Creating the conditions under which that can occur is the job of the principal. Indeed, leadership is second only to classroom instruction among school-related factors that affect student learning in school. "Why is leadership crucial?" the Minnesota and Toronto researchers ask. "One explanation is that leaders have the potential to unleash latent capacities in organizations."3
A University of Washington study employed a musical metaphor to describe three different leadership approaches by principals.4 School leaders determined to do it all themselves were "one-man bands;" those inclined to delegate responsibilities to others operated like the leader of a "jazz combo;" and those who believed broadly in sharing leadership throughout the school could be thought of as "orchestral leaders," skilled in helping large teams produce a coherent sound, while encouraging soloists to shine. The point is that although in any school a range of leadership patterns exists - among principals, assistant principals, formal and informal teacher leaders, and parents - the principal remains the central source of leadership influence.
The principal remains the central source of leadership influence.
Traditionally, the principal resembled the middle manager suggested in William Whyte's 1950's classic The Organization Man - an overseer of buses, boilers and books. Today, in a rapidly changing era of standards-based reform and accountability, a different conception has emerged - one closer to the model suggested by Jim Collins' 2001 Good to Great, which draws lessons from contemporary corporate life to suggest leadership that focuses with great clarity on what is essential, what needs to be done and how to get it done.
This shift brings with it dramatic changes in what public education needs from principals. They can no longer function simply as building managers, tasked with adhering to district rules, carrying out regulations and avoiding mistakes. They have to be (or become) leaders of learning who can develop a team delivering effective instruction.
Wallace's work since 2000 suggests that this entails five key responsibilities:
- Shaping a vision of academic success for all students, one based on high standards.
- Creating a climate hospitable to education in order that safety, a cooperative spirit and other foundations of fruitful interaction prevail.
- Cultivating leadership in others so that teachers and other adults assume their parts in realizing the school vision.
- Improving instruction to enable teachers to teach at their best and students to learn to their utmost.
- Managing people, data and processes to foster school improvement
Each of these five tasks needs to interact with the other four for any part t.o succeed. It's hard to carry out a vision of student success, for example, if the school climate is characterized by student disengagement, or teachers don't know what instructional methods work best for their students, or test data are clumsily analyzed. When all five tasks are well carried out, however, leadership is at work.
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1. Linda Simkin, Ivan Charner, Eliana Saltares and Lesley Suss, Emerging Education Issues: Findings From The Wallace Foundation Survey, prepared for The Wallace Foundation by the Academy for Educational Development, unpublished, 2010, 9-10.
2. "In developing a starting point for this six-year study, we claimed, based on a preliminary review of research, that leadership is second only to classroom instruction as an influence on student learning. After six additional years of research, we are even more confident about this claim." Karen Seashore Louis, Kenneth Leithwood, Kyla L. Wahlstrom, Stephen E. Anderson, Learning from Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning: Final Report of Research to The Wallace Foundation, University of Minnesota and University of Toronto, 2010, 9.
3. Seashore Louis, Leithwood et al., 9.
4. Bradley Portin, Paul Schneider, Michael DeArmond and Lauren Gundlach. Making Sense of Leading Schools: A Study of the School Principalship, University of Washington, 2003, 25-26.