How Leadership Influences Student Learning

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How Leadership Influences Student Learning

This section of the review summarizes historical and current research on the district’s role in educational change. Here we identify challenges districts face in bringing about change, strategies that seem useful in improving student learning and evidence about the impact of the district on improving student achievement. Much of this research treats the district as an independent variable acting as an organizational entity without explicitly and systematically examining leadership practices and effects. Nonetheless, the research provides a rich foundation of knowledge about district-level policies and strategies associated with education change.

A history of research on the district role

A key difference between early and current research on the school district role in educational change relates to variation in the policy contexts in which the research was conducted. Research on the role of the district in educational change was initially undertaken in relation to what Fullan characterized as the “innovation implementation” era of change (Fullan, 1985). Research considered the role that districts played in supporting the implementation of specific government and district-sponsored programs and practices. Berman and McLaughlin (1978), for example, found that some school districts adopted programs for bureaucratic (i.e., compliance) or opportunistic motives (e.g., access to funds, to appear “innovative”) and were less successful in facilitating the implementation into practice of those programs than districts that adopted programs as a means of solving previously identified problems in student and school performance. Louis, Rosenblum and Molitor (1981) also associated higher degree of program implementation and continuation with problem-solving orientations and actions at the district level. Research on how school districts and schools manage the reality of multiple innovations and continuous improvement was in its infancy at this time (Fullan, Anderson and Newton, 1986; Fullan, 1985; Anderson 1991; Wallace, 1991). With a primary focus on teacher implementation of new programs and practices as the dependent variable, the linkage of leader actions to improvement in student learning remained hypothetical.

The innovation implementation era of educational change was followed by the effective schools paradigm and by interest in restructuring (e.g., site based management, comprehensive school reform). Researchers and policymakers idealized the “school as the unit of change.” Much of the effective schools’ research ignored the role of the district or identified districts as partly to blame for allowing ineffective schools to exist and persist along side a few so-called effective schools (e.g., Edmonds, 1979). Some reviewers of the effective schools research attempted to draw out implications for school districts to help replicate the characteristics more widely (e.g., Cuban, 1984; Purkey and Smith, 1985), though the suggestions were not actually based on studies of district efforts to do so. Research on the correlates of effective schools led to state and district policies and projects intended to replicate the characteristics of effective schools in other schools; this in turn led to research on the process and outcomes of the effective schools initiatives. Some of these studies did examine linkages between schools and school districts. Louis (1989), drawing upon a large-scale survey and case studies of effective schools initiatives in urban secondary schools (Louis and Miles, 1990) identified four district-level approaches to school improvement varying in terms of the uniformity of process and outcomes intended: implementation strategy; evolutionary planning; goal-based accountability; and professional investment. A key finding from this and similar research (e.g., Berman et al., 1981; Rosenholtz, 1989) is that districts vary in approach and that the variation is associated with district leader conceptions of the change process. The links between the policies and strategies enacted by district leaders and the quality of student learning and teaching however, remained vague.

Two research studies stand out in this era, one in the United States and the other in Canada. Both of these studies were designed to identify the characteristics of academically effective school districts. Murphy and Hallinger (1988) studied 12 high performing California school districts. They associated district effectiveness with:

  • strong instructionally-focused leadership from the superintendent and his/ her administrative team
  • an emphasis on student achievement and improvement in teaching and learning
  • the establishment and enforcement of district goals for improvement
  • district-wide curriculum and textbook adoption
  • district advocacy and support for use of specific instructional strategies
  • deliberate selection of principals with curriculum knowledge and interpersonal skills
  • systematic monitoring of the consistency between district goals and expectations and school goals and implementation through principal accountability processes
  • direct personal involvement of superintendents in monitoring performance through school visits and meetings with principals
  • alignment of district resources for professional development with district goals for curriculum and instruction
  • systematic use of student testing and other data for district planning
  • goal setting
  • tracking school performance
  • generally positive relations between the central office, the school board and local communities

LaRoque and Coleman (1990) reported similar findings from an investigation of 10 British Columbia school districts. Other studies from this time period suggested that strong district influence on instructional decisions and practices in the classroom was not typical in most districts. Floden et al. (1988) surveyed district policy influence on the instructional decisions of fourth grade mathematics teachers in 20 percent of the districts (eight schools per district) across five states. They compared teacher responses in districts that emphasized central priorities and control versus support for autonomous curriculum decision-making. Regardless of approach, district policy influence was weak.

Attention to the school district’s role in improving the quality of teaching and learning subsided in the context of policies that emphasized decentralization and school-based management as the engine for change. Meta-analysis of research on the impact of site-based management (SBM) on student outcomes and teaching quality found little evidence that SBM produces much if any improvement in the quality of education in the absence of both pressure and support from district and state levels of education (Leithwood and Menziers, 1998). Some recent case studies of improving school districts in the United States portray contemporary district reform activities partly as a response to a lack of coherence in program, student learning experiences and outcomes, and to school-based improvement efforts associated with periods of district investment in decentralization and site-based management (e.g., Togneri and Anderson, 2003; Hightower et al., 2002).

Another stream of inquiry in the late 1980s revisited the district role in response to increasing state policy interventions such as curricular standards, graduation requirements, standardized testing, teacher career ladders and new licensure requirements. Contrary to the hypothesis that growth in state policy would result in a loss of district control, researchers discovered that school district personnel continued to play an active role in interpreting and mediating school responses to state policy interventions (Fuhrman, Clune and Elmore, 1988; Fuhrman and Elmore, 1990). While this research did not explore the links between district interventions and student learning, it did reaffirm the influence of districts on educational change, and set the stage for contemporary research on the district role in education reform.

Contemporary research on the district role

The emergence of standards-based reforms and accountability systems at the state and district levels has led to renewed interest in and inquiry into the district role in educational change. Spillane’s (1996, 1998) case studies of school district and school responses to state education reforms in Michigan reaffirmed the active policy-shaping role of districts described earlier by Fuhrman and Elmore (1990). His analysis offered convincing evidence that school district personnel can exert a powerful influence on the kinds of instructional practices favored and supported across a district, and the degree of coherence in instructional guidance provided to teachers. The decentralization experience of the Chicago public school system also contributed to the current interest in the role of districts as a positive force for change. It was only after the district began to reassert its role in providing capacity building, accountability and innovation support to schools that improvements in learning began to emerge on a large scale (Bryk et al. 1998 cited in Fullan, 2001). Elmore and Burney’s (1997) case study of the transformation of New York City Community School District #2 from an average performing to one of the highest performing elementary school districts in the city brought the district role to the forefront as a potentially positive force for change (Stein and D’Amico, 2002). District #2 leaders articulated a strategy for improvement that emphasized instructionally-focused professional development, sustained system-wide focuses for improvement, leadership, networking of local and external expertise and decentralization of responsibility for implementation with high accountability for goal attainment by schools. These cases confirmed that at least some districts “matter” in powerfully positive ways for student learning in large numbers of schools and for students of all backgrounds.

These studies provide a foreground to the recent array of individual and multi-site qualitative case studies of high performing and improving school districts that explicitly set out to isolate what is happening at the district level that might account for the reported success. Much of this research has focused on districts serving communities with large numbers of students traditionally portrayed as low performing and hard-to-serve on the basis of ethno-cultural, socioeconomic and linguistic diversity. Much of the research has concentrated on large urban school districts. Key examples include Cawelti and Protheroe’s (2001) study of change in six school districts in four states; Snipes, Dolittle and Herlihy’s (2002) case studies of improvement in four urban school systems and states; Massell and Goertz’s (2002) investigation of standards-based reform in 23 school districts across eight states; McLaughlin and Talbert’s (2002) analysis of three urban or metropolitan area California districts; Togneri and Anderson’s (2003) investigation of five high poverty districts (four urban, one rural) from five states; and several single-site case studies of district success (e.g., Hightower, 2002; Snyder, 2002). These studies are complemented by other studies that are not limited to districts defined as high performing or improving on the basis of student results (e.g., Corcoran, Fuhrman and Belcher, 2001). Efforts to synthesize this research on the district role and effectiveness in creating the conditions for success in all schools for students in the current standards and accountability-driven reform context are also beginning to appear (e.g., Marsh, 2002; Hightower et al., 2002).

Here we draw upon this literature to illustrate findings on the district role in reform in three areas: the challenges confronting district efforts to implement system-wide improvements in student learning; district strategies for improving student learning; and evidence of impact on the nature and quality of teaching and learning.

Challenges faced by districts

Researchers identify a multiplicity of obstacles to system-wide improvement that form part of the initial landscape for reform and which have to be addressed in the process of reform. Snipes, Doolittle and Herlihy (2002), for example, identified seven challenges facing four large urban districts that had significantly improved the learning of their students:

  • unsatisfactory academic achievement, especially for minority and low income students
  • district histories of internal political conflict, factionalism, and a lack of focus on student achievement
  • schools staffed with a high proportion of inexperienced teachers compounded by frequent turnover and difficult working conditions, leading to disparity in the capacities of teaching staffs in schools serving different student populations
  • low expectations and a lack of demanding curricula for lower income and minority students on the part of school personnel
  • lack of program and instructional coherence within and across schools, contributing to fragmentation of district support and weak alignment with state standards
  • high student mobility with consequent challenges for continuity in student learning
  • unsatisfactory business operations, including difficulty for teachers and administrators getting the basic necessities to operate schools and classrooms, and traditions of promotion based more on seniority and politics than on evidence of skill and commitment to system efforts to improving education quality

Many of the basic challenges described by Snipes and company are reported in other case study investigations of district-wide improvement initiatives (e.g., Massell and Goertz, 2002). Togneri and Anderson (2003) identified several other major systemic challenges that had to be overcome through the process of change over time, including:

  • The capacity of many principals appointed under pre-reform regimes to carry out new expectations for instructional leadership in high-accountability contexts;
  • how to finance the reform efforts (e.g., reconfiguring existing organizational structures and budgets, granting policy waivers, doing away with programs peripheral to the district reform priorities, raising funds through local bond elections and community contributions, competing for government and foundation grants);
  • traditional organizational structures, policies and professional norms that created obstacles to restructuring of working conditions and support systems.

One thrust of our study of district and school leader reform roles and development will be to clearly identify the major systemic challenges they confront and the actual strategies they use to address those challenges to varying effect. In addition, our research will be designed to identify the challenges that emerge as the reforms proceed, not simply those that characterize the reforms at the beginning (cf Corcoran, Fuhrman and Belcher, 2001).

District strategies for improving student learning

There are at least 12 common focuses of district-level strategic action identified in the literature on district efforts to improve student learning.

1. District-wide sense of efficacy. Superintendents and other district-level leaders in academically successful school districts convey a strong belief in the capacity of school system personnel to achieve high standards of learning for all students, and high standards of teaching and leadership from all instructional and support personnel. This is marked by a willingness to identify poor performance (student, teacher, school) and other obstacles to success, to accept responsibility and to seek solutions.

2. District-wide focuses on student achievement and the quality of instruction. Evidence of district-wide improvement and success for all categories of students and schools is more likely in districts that establish a clear focus on attaining high standards of student achievement (with explicit goals and targets for student performance). Academically successful districts also tend to emphasize instructional quality as one of the keys to improvement in student learning.

3. Adoption and commitment to district-wide performance standards. High performing districts pay serious attention to state-mandated standards for curriculum content, student achievement and school performance. The pervasiveness of the standards movement extends beyond curriculum, school and student results in some districts to other dimensions of reform efforts, such as standards for instruction, principal leadership and professional development (Togneri and Anderson, 2003). Standards are key features of district performance monitoring and accountability systems as described below.

4. Development/adoption of district-wide curricula and approaches to instruction. Lack of consistency in curriculum hinders sharing of experiences between classrooms and schools, makes it difficult for students transferring among schools and fragments district professional development efforts, all of which interfere with improvement in student learning. Effective districts typically make efforts to establish greater coherence in curriculum content and materials. The emphasis on curriculum coherence often extends to support for the use of specific instructional strategies said to work well with the content, learning outcomes and learners.


5. Alignment of curriculum, teaching and learning materials and assessment with relevant standards. The development or adoption of district-wide curricula and instructional materials takes place in the context of state/district standards for curriculum and learning. Alignment of curriculum at the school and district level with these standards, and with district and state assessment programs (standardized tests) is a major focus of attention.


6. Multi-measure accountability systems and system-wide use of data to inform practice, to hold school and the district leaders accountable for results and to monitor progress. Successful districts invest considerable resources in developing their capacity to assess the performance of students, teachers and schools, and to utilize these assessments to inform decision-making about needs and strategies for improvement and progress towards goals at the classroom, school and district levels. Commitment to data-informed decision-making linked to district standards translates into supports for local educators to develop the capacity to use data and use it well (e.g., training, tools and consultants to help with data analysis, timely data feedback). In developing their accountability systems, these districts often attempt to compensate for deficits in state accountability systems (e.g., insufficient data on student progress from year to year, narrow measures of school performance). Finally, the accountability systems are created not only to gather and provide information on student, teacher, school and district performance for planning, but also to hold educators at all levels of the system accountable for progress towards district and school goals aligned with the standards.


7. Targeted and phased focuses of improvement. Case studies of successful and improving districts reveal reform efforts that are system-wide in the sense of affecting all schools, teachers and students. Initially these efforts are typically targeted on specific curriculum content areas, such as reading, writing and mathematics, and support for reform typically begins in the elementary schools. Additional help is often targeted towards lower performing schools and classrooms. Analysts and practitioners emphasize the importance of having a concrete focus and goals for improvement embedded in the local learning milieu, and of sustaining this focus over a number of years in order to ensure that improvements have time to take hold and have an impact in the classroom over the long term.


8. Investment in instructional leadership development at the school and district levels. One of the hallmarks of districts that have succeeded in moving from low to high performing is an intensive long-term investment in developing instructional leadership capacity at the school and district levels. At the school level these efforts focus at least on principals. Togneri and Anderson (2003) and other researchers report that many successful districts favor in-house principal leadership development programs over the generic licensure-oriented principal training programs. District reform efforts often include the establishment of new school-based teacher leader positions (e.g., literacy coaches) to work with principals and with district consultants to provide professional development assistance (e.g., demonstrations, in-class coaching, school professional development, or PD, arrangements) to individual teachers and teams of teachers in the targeted focuses of reform. Professional development is also provided to teacher leaders in the content areas that local reforms focus on, as well as in change process strategies.


9. District-wide job-embedded professional development focuses and supports for teachers. Districts that believe that the quality of student learning is highly dependent on the quality of instruction organize themselves to support instructionally-focused professional learning for teachers. These districts provide intensive off-campus and school-based professional development experiences for practicing teachers. Such experiences combine input from external and local experts, are focused on school and district priorities for improvement and are justified by evidence of need (e.g., student data). Learning experiences go beyond the workshop format to include such things as teacher inter-visitations, demonstration lessons, in-class coaching and teams of teachers doing lesson study, curriculum planning and analysis of assessment data. Teacher development involves multi-year goals for instructional improvement (e.g., reading, mathematics)and increased school control over professional development (PD) decisions and resources in the context of district goals for improvement.


10. District-wide and school-level emphasis on teamwork and professional community. Collegial work groups (e.g., grade level teams, school improvement teams), sharing of expertise, networking of teachers and principals across schools, cross-role leadership and school improvement teams at school and district levels – all these and many other configurations of professional educators collaborating with one another on student achievement-focused district reform initiatives are indicative of a common emphasis on teamwork and professional community as one of the keys to continuous improvement. The literature is relatively silent about the participation of other stakeholder groups in reform planning and implementation. Togneri and Anderson (2003) highlight positive relations and collaboration between school boards and superintendents, and between teacher unions and district officials in some of the districts they studied, but not all. Several studies mention the role of business and civic leaders in pressuring and mobilizing the initiation of serious reforms, however, the participation of these external stakeholders is less well documented during the actual implementation of reform plans. The role of parents in district-wide reform is understudied and not well understood.


11. New approaches to board-district and in district-school relations. Togneri and Anderson (2003) associate more successful districts with school boards that have adopted a policy governance role that emphasizes policy development, goal and standards setting, strategic planning and monitoring of system/school progress in relation to district plans, priorities and accountability systems. Boards operating in this mode hold the superintendent responsible for implementation of system plans but avoid direct involvement in managing the school system. Stability in membership and constructive long-term relations with the district administration are also characteristic of these boards. School boards are often among the key instigators for reform and are instrumental in getting reform-minded superintendents into place.


Most analysts of the contemporary role of school districts in education reform comment on the dynamic tension between district-wide goals for reform and the need for educators at the school-level to plan and organize in ways that fit the needs and characteristics of their specific contexts (Elmore and Burney, 1997; Marsh, 2002; Massell and Goertz, 2002; McLaughlin and Talbert, 2002; Togneri and Anderson, 2003). More-successful district reform initiatives decentralize considerable authority to schools to define student learning needs and to structure the use of professional development resources. The trick is for schools to do this in ways that do not fragment the coherence of overall reform efforts across the district. More research is needed to clarify the district policy and strategy dynamics that enable this bottom-up/top-down approach to reform.


12. Strategic engagement with state reform policies and resources. Educators at the district and school levels actively interpret external reform initiatives in light of their own beliefs, preferences and experiences, and they mobilize resources to fit local reform agendas (Spillane, 1996, 1998, 2002; Corcoran, Fuhrman, and Belcher, 2001). Successful districts more actively engage with the external policy and resource context in order to leverage those influences to strengthen support for the district reform initiatives, and to influence the external context in favor of the local reform agenda (Fuhrman and Elmore 1990; Spillane 1996; Togneri and Anderson, 2003).

The impact of district-wide reforms on teaching and learning

The recent case study literature provides illuminating accounts of change at the level of district ethos, goals for improvement and restructured organizational infrastructures to support reforms. The empirical linkages between district-level policies and actions and actual changes at the classroom level, however, are more hypothetically than empirically demonstrated. The case for impact on student learning outcomes is correlational but stronger than the case for impact on instructional activities in the classroom. If test results show significant widespread gains in student results temporally associated with district reform plans, if these trends are generalized across all or most schools, and if the performance gaps between previous groups of low and high performing students and schools are seen to be diminishing over time, the argument is made that district reform efforts are having a positive impact on student learning. The empirical links between district policies and the actions of district leaders to teachers’ activities in the classroom and from there to gains in student learning at the classroom and school levels, however, remain vague. Furthermore, apart from anecdotal and non-systematic observations, teacher self report and the interview accounts of local leaders whose vested interest is at stake, evidence of the extent and scope of teacher change in the classroom is generally wanting.

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