Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning

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 Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning

Key Findings

  • All states are exercising policy leadership intended to improve teaching and learning.
  • State policy leadership for improved teaching and learning often predates, by a decade or more, the enactment of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.
  • Across the states, there is strong demand for increased leadership activity at the state level. The common pattern of demand, however, does not translate into similar policies among the states.
  • Policy instruments used to improve teaching and learning vary from state to state.
  • Because few states have adopted comprehensive approaches to reform, state policy provides agencies and school districts with general directions for improving teaching and learning, but guidance for more specific means of achieving the goals in question is limited.


We focus here on our first question: How do issues get defined and taken seriously as policy options at the state level?

Prior research on the states‘ role in education can be sorted, roughly, into two categories. In one category, researchers look at the degree to which state policies are coherent and clearly focused on the objective of improving teaching and learning. In the other, researchers emphasize the limitations of state leadership, looking at ways in which state policies are filtered through different processes arising from external events and constituent preferences. We take a slightly different approach, investigating (a) how state education policies are made, (b) whether the process of policymaking is related to the policies that are emphasized, and (c) how policies are used by, and affect, educators at the local level. In taking this approach, we have sought to combine two of the images described in the Preface to this Section. First, we have looked for evidence of rational choices made by state leaders, particularly governors and legislators, in response to changing public demands and new data, increasingly available to policy makers, about student achievement and school performance. Second, we have used a "naturalistic lens," looking at the way in which various actors influence the choices that are made.

Over the last 25 years, there has been a distinct shift in the locus of education policymaking from the local to state level. While there are differences in how states have exercised control over local decisions,248 this shift is observable everywhere.249 In particular, during the last decade or so, all states have become participants in the accountability movement that has led to state curricular standards and assessment programs, with requirements that local districts report their student-learning results. Some states, like Texas and North Carolina, have been particularly active in developing coherent systems of standards, tests, and positive or negative sanctions, while others, like Iowa and Nebraska, have preferred to emphasize voluntary collaboration. The new state activism and the NCLB have captured the attention of local leaders, who must now adjust their priorities to the priorities of policy makers in state capitols and elsewhere outside the local area. While some regard the NCLB Act as exemplifying a further, major shift in governance from the states to the federal government, the states to date have retained authority to determine implementation measures for fundamental elements of the Act. The resulting patchwork of responses has reinforced some important educational differences among states.250

We know today that states must demonstrate compliance with NCLB, but we know much less about particular ways in which states cope with their responsibility (some would say opportunity) to comply. We know even less about the states‘ approaches to the analysis and use of test scores and other sources of data at the school level. Thus, while many observers have pointed to the increased potency of the state as a political actor in educational policy,251 the role of states in interpreting national legislation has been treated less extensively. Most reports on differences among the states are descriptive, although some analysts suggest that rigorous state accountability systems can raise student achievement.252 How they might do this has not, however, been explored in detail. We lack detailed, comprehensive information about the ways in which states are interpreting federal legislation and exercising leadership in adapting legislation to specific circumstances and needs arising in their schools.

The following specific questions drove this part of our study:

  • Are there differences among states in the way in which legislative policy has evolved to address the broad goal of improving teaching and learning?
  • If differences exist, what implications do they have for the role of local school leaders and other stakeholders who have legitimate interests in shaping policies and practices that might foster improvement in teaching and learning?

Previous Research

To explore the role of state leadership, we draw on literature that examines state policy making. This includes studies of the states‘ role in promoting quality education, studies of state policy cultures, and studies of policy instruments available to states. We draw on two sets of research: one examines the role of political culture in determining the process and characteristics of state policy leadership; the other examines the policy instruments that are used to motivate change.

State Political Culture

As states work to develop policies to improve education, political culture plays a role in determining how they balance conflicting expectations and opportunities. Statespecific studies show that political culture and accumulated history help to predict the dynamics and outcomes of legislation.253 A state‘s political decisions are visibly affected by power, but decision outcomes, particularly in the case of complex policies, are only modestly predicted by the preferences of those with the deepest pockets and legislative majorities. Rather, culture affects outcomes by creating a context in which decisions are made.254

State political culture is more than the aggregation of individual preferences and values. It is reflected in social awareness, observable in repeated patterns of behavior during the policy-making process.255 We can "see" culture in the history of public discourse, repeated actions, and expressed preferences of groups—all of which form a context in which legislators and others act.256 Usually defined as the enduring political attitudes and behaviors associated with groups that live in a defined geographical context,257 political culture persists over time, influencing states as they address issues old and new.

Elezar‘s early classification of the political cultures of U.S. states posited three global "types" that are still viewed as relevant in more recent studies: "moral" (emphasis on the importance of society and the role of the government in preserving the public good), "traditional" (emphasis on the importance of social and family ties with government see as an important means of preserving the existing social order), and "individualistic" (the role of government should be limited to areas that promote private initiative). Building on Elezar‘s types, later analyses of policy development, informed especially by Herzik (1985), reveal four dimensions of political culture that underlie the three types:

  1. Openness: broad political participation, as contrasted with constrained participation or elite dominance.
  2. Decentralism: distributed power sources (no one center), as contrasted with concentration of power in the legislature or governor‘s office.
  3. Rationalism: policies based on comprehensive and/or coherent solutions to social problems, as contrasted with multiple, unrelated initiatives or limited government activity.
  4. Egalitarianism: persistent policies to redistribute resources to minimize disparities, as contrasted with limited efforts in redistribution.

  5. Each dimension implies a corresponding pattern of political behavior. For example, in open political cultures the general public influences the operation of government entities and political processes; closed political cultures have more stringent requirements for participation, yielding less public influence. States tending toward rationalism enact comprehensive programs (for school reform, e.g.) to solve specific problems, while states tending toward decentralism place more emphasis on local control and choice.258 The long-term effects of culture may not be visible in every legislative session, because no government is entirely consistent. However, they become apparent over longer periods of time.

    Education research underscores the significance of Herzik‘s dimensions, and points to their relevance for understanding state education policy.259 Recent analyses also point to emerging norms and values that may be important for understanding how and why various issues dominate the education policy process.260 Accordingly, we add two dimensions to Herzik‘s formulation:

  6. Efficiency: an emphasis on cost-benefits analysis, the application of business models, and optimization of policy performance, as contrasted with limited attention to weighing benefits against cost.
  7. Quality: an emphasis on an elaborated state role in providing oversight and monitoring the quality of public services, as contrasted with a less systematic, laissezfaire approach to determining quality.

Policy Levers

An underlying problem—how policymakers can use blunt tools to achieve more subtle ends—has been noted by researchers in political science261 as well as education.262 The levers politicians choose are critical because legislation must be acceptable to the electorate at large ("No new taxes!"), but it must also provide appropriate incentives or tools to those who must implement them ("No unfunded mandates!"). The premise that there are multiple but limited ways to achieve the same end is critical to our way of thinking about political culture. States may differ from one another in the instruments they use to achieve a goal that they all espouse, such as equity in education. One example can be found in school finance. Variation in finance strategies persists as a result of enduring patterns of legislative politics, structural limitations, economic constraints, and legal contexts.263 Owing to political and economic pressures, policymakers typically use a narrow range of levers that they believe are likely to produce positive short-term results.264 States have struggled, therefore, with finding appropriate longer-term policy mechanisms to influence teaching and learning—the main focal point of education policy, but also the area most resistant to change from outside the school.

In our initial analysis, we made use of use four policy instruments described by McDonnell and Elmore (1987, p. 137):

  1. Mandates: enacting laws, regulations, and requirements, including sanctions.
  2. System change: legislating restructuring; changing governance or legal/financial relationships, including the provision of new alternatives.
  3. Capacity building: using professional development, providing access to new information or data, and developing leadership.
  4. Inducements: providing financial aid (targeted or general), special grants programs, and other investments in the human or physical infrastructure.

New Evidence

In investigating state legislative leadership, we focused on two questions:

  • Are there differences among states in the way in which legislative policy has evolved to address the broad goal of improving teaching and learning?
  • If differences exist, what implications do they have for the role of local school leaders and other stakeholders who have legitimate interests in shaping policies and practices that might foster improvement in teaching and learning?

To carry out this analysis we talked to people who are active in formal or informal policy leadership. We conducted interviews in the 10 states of our larger sample (including Mississippi for our state-level data collection). At the legislative level, we interviewed between eight and eleven people in each state, including the chairs of senate and house education committees, a representative of the governor‘s office, and various stakeholders, including business people and people representing professional associations, unions, higher education, and at least one "policy entrepreneur" who had a long history of observing and participating in policy discussions at the state level.

We analyzed our interview data to develop a "policy culture profile" for each state. The profiles include the following elements:

  • A list of key actors who influence education policy making over multiple policies that all respondents considered important.
  • The degree to which the state took an active role in setting directions for improvement at the local level.
  • The process by which key actors influence the content of educational policy, particularly policy relating to standards, accountability, and leadership for improvement.

We verified each analysis by checking facts, using the World Wide Web; in several cases, we also used an informant who, while not a policy actor, has studied state education policy. A sample of three states is shown in Table 3.1.1. We selected this sample from the larger set of ten cases because the three sample states illustrate diversity in state political culture.

Table 3.1.1
State Political Cultures and Policy Instruments Directed at Increasing Student Achievement





Political Culture


1. Openness

Very open

Very open

Very open

2. Decentralism




3. Rationalism

comprehensive for
development and

comprehensive for
accountability; limited
in leadership

Some movement
toward rationalism for
accountability; limited
in leadership

4. Egalitarianism

Moderate emphasis;
focus on withinschool

Moderate emphasis;
focus on schoolfinance

Limited emphasis on

5. Efficiency

Moderate emphasis on
efficiency; thematic
and not embedded in

Little emphasis on

Moderate emphasis on
efficiency; thematic
and not embedded in

6. Quality

High emphasis on
quality; many state
policies to promote
and assess quality

High emphasis on
quality; responsibility
shared between state
and districts

Moderate emphasis on
quality; responsibility
rests with districts

Policy Instruments


1. Mandates

Many mandates; most
with state funding

Moderate emphasis on
mandates; little state

Very limited

2. System Change


Modest initiatives

Limited initiatives

3. Capacity Building

Strong emphasis on
state-funded capacity

Limited state-funded
capacity building –

Limited state-funded
capacity building –

4. Inducements




State Leadership Patterns


1. The Key Actors

Inner: Governor,
General Assembly

Near: State Board of
Education, Education

Inner: SEA, Board of
Education, Oregon
Business Council,
Oregon Education
Association, State

Near: coalitions and
professional groups

Inner: Legislature,

Near: A variety of
business and farm
groups, professional
and community

2. Emphasis on
Setting Direction

High. Key role of
elected officials; state
agencies equally
involved; seen by all
as influential.

Moderate. Citizen
initiatives and
tradition of local input
place limits on role of

Low but increasing.
The state is not seen
as a source of
leadership for
innovation and

3. How Influence Is

Influence exercised
through centralized
but public discussion;
use of mandates with
funding. Incorporation
of educational and
business sector voices
leads to low conflict
over education policy

Influence exercised
through both central
and more localized
public discussion;
influence exercised by
many groups that are
not part of state
Networks of influence
are well connected,
but diffuse.

Only the
Commissioner of
Education is seen as a
consistent source of
state influence; other
actors move in-andout,
depending on the
issue. State influence
operates almost
exclusively through
discussion and
consensus building.


Comparisons across the states warrant five claims, which we elaborate below.

States Are Leaders

All the states in our sample take their legislative leadership role in improving teaching and learning seriously. All had enacted significant legislation related to setting standards and establishing school-improvement strategies well before NCLB. Top legislative priorities in these states include education finance, educational improvement, and curricular standards. In addition, except for respondents from one state, respondents believed that states, not the federal government, were driving leadership efforts aimed at improving teaching and learning. Respondents in almost all states argued that they were able to incorporate NCLB requirements into initiatives they had already put in place. Nebraska, which resisted efforts to develop a state test, is the only exception.

Differences in Leadership Patterns and Policy Processes Are Enduring

In spite of the widespread view that federal initiatives are undermining the states‘ role in education, there is still a great deal of variation in education policy and practice among the states. States differ from one another in the nature of specific reform policies they adopt and in ways in which policy proposals find their way on to the policy agenda and into legislation. There are well-established differences in processes of policy development, the specific levers used, and the ways in which states attempt to influence districts and schools. Moreover, state-level activity in support of leadership and accountability appears to reflect the distinctive political cultures of the respective states. States that appeared to be "traditional" in the 1970s continue to be so today, while those that were more "individualistic" have changed very little. Only one state in our sample (New Mexico) was engaged in an effort to challenge entrenched policy-making practices, and it is unclear whether that effort—led at the time by the governor and a legislator— will be successful.

States Vary in Whose Voices Are Most Prominent in Legislative Leadership

In some states, leadership reflects the preferences of "political elites," including the governor and legislators. In other states, the range of influential parties is broader. This is a difference that makes a difference. Where more voices are heard, state policies are more likely to provide leeway for districts to make decisions based on local needs and interests. The issue of power in policy formulation is important, but additional empirical research on how diverse voices are included in or excluded from policy deliberations during the policy formation process.

Comprehensive, Rationalized Policies for School Improvement Are the Exception Rather than the Rule

All states acknowledge responsibility for improving teaching and learning. In our sample, however, only three states had adopted an approach that could be categorized as systemic and comprehensive rather than incremental. In other words, in Table 3.1.1, Indiana represents the exception rather than the mainstream. In most states, support is strong for allowing multiple, local voices to shape the policy agenda, and efforts at systemic change are limited. State-level leadership has become increasingly important; at the same time, most states have been reluctant to make radical changes to systems that have historically been decentralized.

Mandates Are the Most Common Feature of Legislative Leadership; Inducements Are the Least Common

Mandates, largely unfunded, are the most common feature of state education policy, and this pattern predates the requirements of the No Child Left Behind national legislation. In all but one of the states, for example, state testing mandates and/or required state curriculum standards pre-dated NCLB. A small number of states have used levers intended to create modest system change.265 For example, Indiana adopted a 5 point educational quality indicator system in 2001, and merged its independent Teacher Professional Standards Board into the Department of Education in 2005. Only a few have made sustained efforts at capacity building (such as Missouri‘s 1993 Outstanding Schools Act provided funding for a state-wide teacher professional development system, or New Jersey‘s provision of significant additional resources to high poverty "Abbott" school districts). There has been little formal change in legislative attention to capacity building since the passage of NCLB. As we shall see in the next Section, however, capacity building has become prominent in efforts made by state education agencies as they respond to NCLB requirements. None of the states relies extensively on inducements.

Implications for Policy and Practice

Five implications for policy and practice emerged from this section of our study.

  1. Federal leadership, backed by new legislation and widespread demand for education reform, has not to date been sufficient to ensure across-the-board patterns of improvement in teaching and learning. The states have enacted a patchwork of standards and tests in their various efforts to improve teaching and learning. This variability pre-dated NCLB,266 but this study confirms the observation that federal legislation has not substantially diminished differences.267
  2. In formulating education policy, states continue to use practices deeply embedded in their particular traditions and political cultures. History and culture will continue to play a mediating role in efforts to rationalize education policy.

  3. State leaders respond to longstanding preferences about how policy decisions should be made. It is unlikely, even given federal efforts to coordinate education policy, that state legislative or gubernatorial leadership will become more rationalized. A state‘s political culture does not preclude adjustment in policies based on broad social preferences, but these adjustments will continue to be filtered through, for example, interest-group lobbying, elite preferences, and broad public discussion in efforts to reach consensus.

  4. We will continue to see variation across states in levels of student learning for some time. Many states operate with a limited set of instruments to bring to bear on the task of improving and strengthening education policy. Given that states tend not to change governance practices easily or rapidly, current patterns of variation are likely to persist.
  5. As long as states play the lead role in education policy making, their actions will have significant implications for other actors with greater access to levers for change. These actors include, of course, the local districts that must incorporate state and local laws into their own sets of policies; they also include state education agencies (SEAs).

  6. Most SEAs play a significant role in adjudicating increasing demands from state and federal legislation for accountability and testing; many also assist districts in shaping standards and curriculum, while local schools districts are responsible for adapting to legislation and regulations from state and national levels. The way in which SEAs and local educators have adapted to state initiatives will be the focus of the next two chapters.

  7. Districts respond to state leadership initiatives, but districts are also actors in the legislative process, usually indirectly through professional associations. In interaction with legislators, often through professional associations, district leaders may shape policy by emphasizing points of interest that condition how they incorporate state policy into their districts‘ agendas. (This issue is explored in more detail in Section 3.3.)

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248. Timar (1997); Tyack & James (1986).

249. Clune & White (1992); Reeves (1990); Timar & Kirp (1988).

250. Stecher et al. (2008).

251. Clune (1987); Reeves (1990); Timar & Kirp (1988).

252. Carnoy & Loeb (2002).

253. Lee (1997); Mazzoni (1993); Sacken & Medina (1990).

254. Berezin (1997).

255. Chilton (1988).

256. Wirt et al. (1988).

257. Elazar (1970); Lieske (1993).

258. Timar & Kirp (1988).

259. Amrein & Berliner (2005); Febey & Louis (2009); Stecher et al. (2008); and Wong (1989).

260. Wirt et al. (1988); Wood & Theobald (2003).

261. Woodside (1986).

262. McDonnell & Elmore (1987); Woodside (1986).

263. Wong (1989).

264. Elmore & Fuhrman (1995).

265. We exclude charter school authorization from our analysis of system change levers. In 1991 Minnesota passed the first charter school law in the United States.

266. McDermott (2003).

267. LeFloche et al. (2007).