Learning-Focused Leadership and Leadership Support: Meaning and Practice in Urban Systems

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 Learning-Focused Leadership and Leadership Support: Meaning and Practice in Urban Systems

The Study of Leadership for Learning Improvement was set up as a multicomponent investigation with three primary study strands addressing related facets of the practice of learning-focused leadership and its support in urban districts. (A separately reported line of investigation took place at the state level in the states within which the districts resided.14)

  • Resource Investment study strand. This investigation concentrated on the ways districts and school leaders (re)allocate staffing and other resources in relation to learning improvement goals and a commitment to improving equity within the school district.
  • School Leadership study strand. This investigation focused on the exercise of leadership in schools by the various individuals and groups who composed the school’s instructional leadership “cadre,” in response to environmental demands and conditions in district, community, and state.
  • Central Office Transformation study strand. This investigation captured the dynamics and contours of effort by study districts to fundamentally reform the work practices, organization, and working culture within the central office, while altering the working relationships between school and central office, so that the district focused more singularly and effectively on the improvement of teaching and learning.

Each operated, in effect, as a separate study, with a distinct research team and design, each undertook a separate line of analysis with somewhat different purposes, and the results of each have been reported separately. That said, the designs were intentionally coordinated in several ways, and they shared some study sites and data collection. What is more, all three shared some overarching design similarities: They were largely qualitative, multiple-case designs, featuring repeated visits across a year and a half; they triangulated findings and conclusions among interview, observational, and archival data sources; and they focused on leadership phenomena at the district and school levels, though their degree of emphasis on these levels differed.

Overlapping Study Samples

The overarching study design sought to link the three lines of investigation, in part, through overlapping samples. All three study strands used two sites in common, while adding one or two others that provided useful contrasts for the particular purposes of the study strand, as shown in Figure M-1 below.

Figure M-1. Study Samples for the Three Study Strands


Although the specific selection criteria differed somewhat by study strand, all three samples emphasized urban districts that were proactively pursuing a learning improvement agenda, with special emphasis on leadership development and the improvement of leadership practice. What is more, all seven sites displayed evidence, at the time of site selection, of improvement on measures of student learning, though the actual measures and timeframes for evidence differed by site and so they cannot be compared in any strictly comparable way. That said, comparable measures were available for the two common sites—Atlanta Public Schools and NYC/Department of Education—through the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Trial Urban District Assessment, and this source revealed clear evidence of progress from 2003 to 2007 in 4th and 8th grade mathematics and reading.15 By design, four of the seven sites had had an ongoing relationship with The Wallace Foundation prior to our research, and they had received grant support for pursuing leadership-related improvement work; all but one of the five states in which these districts sat also had received leadership-related grants from The Foundation.

Within these districts, three to five schools were selected for intensive study, chiefly for the school-level analyses that were a focus of the Resource Investment and School Leadership study strands (for a total of 21 schools across the two studies). Across all sites, other schools were visited, though less frequently, to add depth to the data collection for purposes of that study strand, as in the Central Office Transformation investigation, in which central office administrators were sometimes followed to school sites, to develop observational evidence of their school-based work. The 21 intensively studied schools were selected to demonstrate (1) progress on improving student learning for the full range of a diverse student population; (2) reconfigured leadership arrangements within the school designed to share the leadership work and maximize leaders’ attention to teaching and learning; and (3) experimentation with the allocation of staffing resources, to maximize attention to the equitable improvement of student learning. The resulting set of schools were at all levels—elementary (11) and middle and high (10)—and varied in other important respects: longevity of the principal, school size (from several hundred students to well over two thousand), neighborhood versus district-wide attendance area, and school of choice versus district-assigned student population.

Chief Differences in Design and Research Approach

Despite their considerable similarities, the three study strands differed in several important respects:

  • Resource Investment study strand. Unlike the other two, this investigation connected qualitative investigations with quantitative analyses of resource investment patterns, while de-emphasizing the observation of leadership practice and events. Overall, the study strand paid most attention to staffing resources and the decisions made at all levels to allocate or reallocate these resources. District- and school-level resource profiles were prepared as a preliminary step toward the cross-case analyses that underlie the study strand’s main conclusions. The bulk of the analytic work involved a systematic crosscase comparison of schools and districts, in relation to an inductively derived analytic template.
  • School Leadership study strand. This investigation concentrated effort on school-level events, including a limited amount of classroom observation, observation of the interaction between school-level leaders and others, and interviews with a range of educators cutting across the school staff (principal and assistant principals, teacher leaders, coaches, staff developers; data specialists and assessment coordinators; classroom teachers; and other support staff). Detailed individual analytic profiles were developed of each school as a first step toward a cross school-analysis that formed the basis of the study’s findings and conclusions, which were generated through an approximation of a grounded theory process.
  • Central Office Transformation study strand. This investigation concentrated effort on interviewing a wide range of central office staff, especially those who worked most directly and continuously with school principals, who were interviewed four times across the study. These data sources were supplemented by various archival records and an extensive observational record of meetings and other leadership activities in which central office staff participated. The analysis rested heavily on a theory-based conceptual framework and elaborate coding scheme linked to this framework.

Readers wishing a more complete discussion of the design, sample, data collection approach, or analytic work in each of the three study strands are referred to the respective methodological Appendices in the three main study reports:

  • Methodological appendix in: Plecki, M., Knapp, M. S., Castañeda, T., Halverson, T., LaSota, R., & Lochmiller, C. (2009). How leaders invest staffing resources for learning improvement (pp. 101–109). Seattle WA: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington.
  • Methodological appendix in: Portin, B. S., Knapp, M. S., Dareff, S., Feldman, S., Russell, F. A., Samuelson, C., & Yeh, T. L. (2009). Leadership for learning improvement in urban schools (pp. 110–120). Seattle, WA: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington.
  • Methodological appendix in: Honig, M. I., Copland, M. A., Rainey, L., Lorton, J. A., & Newton, M. (2010). Central office transformation for district-wide teaching and learning improvement (pp. 128–134). Seattle WA: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington.

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