Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning

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 Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning


Much like an obscure actor cast in a television series that suddenly becomes wildly popular, school districts and their leaders have recently been rediscovered in the ongoing drama of school reform. Today the specter of "Desperate Superintendents" lights up the education screen wherever a child has been left behind. This development stands in stark contrast to scenarios played out across the United States not much more than a decade ago, when districts were pretty much "restructured" out of the leadership game by the attraction of site-based management. In an effort to rid education of its "stifling bureaucracies," policy makers in many areas devolved authority for school governance increasingly to principals (and sometimes to teachers and parents) in regular as well as charter schools, and these newly empowered authorities gained a dubious opportunity to spend time dealing with bricks, buses, and budgets. Such restructuring did not do much to improve the quality of students‘ experience.143 Now districts and their leaders have reemerged, thanks in part to responsibilities assigned to them by legislators. The federal No Child Left Behind Act, for example, extends accountability for student learning beyond the school house to the organizations that, in all states, continue to make crucial decisions about the use of resources for school improvement. The Act also specifies new roles for school districts in reform activity.

In Part Two, our investigation of leadership and student achievement examines in further detail certain characteristics of school districts (some previously identified—see Section 2.3; others introduced here) as they shape the role districts play in initiatives aimed at change. We also examine how these characteristics interact to yield productive consequences for students.

In prior research we found some support for bolstering the role of school districts in reform activity; we also found that the research base for many confident assertions about that role was relatively thin, consisting primarily of outlier case studies and examinations of larger data bases that are not representative of U.S. districts as a whole. In particular, prior research fails to provide consistent evidence that links district actions to student learning. Given the central role school districts play in American education, this is a serious gap. Taking note of it, we made the link between district action and student learning a main focus. Our design focuses on providing evidence, direct or indirect, about the effects of district policies and practices on schools, classrooms, and student learning.

Section 2.1 extends the analysis of collective leadership presented in Section 1.1 to include district efforts to involve community members and parents. Sections 2.2 and 2.3 also build on earlier sections, examining ways in which districts contribute to the development of individual and collective efficacy, which we show to be important predictors of student achievement. In section 2.4, we move to a topic that has rarely been examined, looking at principal turnover and its effects on teachers and students. In section 2.5 we examine ways in which districts use data to improve student learning. In section 2.6 we examine district policies and practices as they foster or do not foster improvement in curriculum and instructional programs across districts and within the individual schools.

Although we will take up the question of how our findings can be translated into recommendations for policy and practice in subsequent sections, we can state our overall finding here: School districts matter. District policies and practices affect student achievement. Our elaboration follows.

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143. (Borman et al., 2003).