Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning

Click here to download the full report:
 Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning

Key Findings

  • Previous research has identified a set of core practices underlying the work of successful school- and district-level leaders. About 15 in total, these practices can be classified as Setting Directions, Developing People, Redesigning the Organization, and Managing the Instructional Program.
  • Almost all leadership practices considered instructionally helpful by principals and teachers were specific enactments of these core practices.
  • Teachers and principals were in substantial agreement about the leadership practices they considered to be instructionally helpful.
  • Teachers generally agreed with one another in identifying helpful leadership practices. Teachers varying widely in the sophistication of their classroom instruction nevertheless identified as helpful most of the same leadership practices.
  • School level (elementary, middle, high school) had a small effect on the importance teachers attached to a small number of leadership practices.
  • Teachers and principals agreed that the most instructionally helpful leadership practices were: Focusing the school on goals and expectations for student achievement; Keeping track of teachers’ professional development needs; and Creating structures and opportunities for teachers to collaborate.


In the context of prevailing accountability policies, claims about successful or effective leadership practices are considered most defensible when they are justified by quantitative evidence linking the practices to standardized measures of student achievement. While other sections of this report provide such evidence, this section emphasizes the insights of principals and teachers. In striking this emphasis, we mean to extend a line of leadership research113 that has generated many useful insights in the past, even though its influence on policy and practice is muted at present. Our main question for the research described in this section is, "What leadership practices on the part of school principals are considered, by principals and teachers, to be helpful in supporting and improving classroom instruction?"

Readers might wonder, reasonably, why we have chosen to pursue a line of research now diminished in influence. There are two closely associated reasons. First, hard, quantitative evidence cannot, by itself, provide the guidance for policy and practice that many educators and policy makers now expect of it. For example, the "grain size" of this evidence is almost always impractically large—that is, the leadership practices this sort of evidence tests are measured at a level of abstraction not directly implementable by real leaders in real organizational contexts. Furthermore, the data generated by these favored forms of research are far less conclusive than is sometimes claimed. The limitation is usually a function of the constraints on research designs which can be used in field settings, and the weak causal claims that can be made about data resulting from such designs.

Second, the line of inquiry we have chosen will enable us to reap certain benefits associated with mixed-methods research. Every style of research brings with it some important advantages but also some serious limitations. Synthesizing results across studies varying in research style offers potentially more robust justification for knowledge claims.114

Success in creating schools that contribute substantially to student learning depends in some measure on interaction with the specific social and organizational contexts in which school- and district-level leaders find themselves working. Nevertheless, evidence from district, school, and non-education organizations points to four broad categories of core leadership practices that appear to be effective across contexts.

We begin Section 1.4 with a summary of these core practices. Then we provide a synopsis of results from our research about leadership practices perceived by teachers and principals to be instructionally helpful. Finally, we compare the instructionally helpful practices identified in our research with the core leadership practices identified by prior research.

Prior Evidence

Four categories of core leadership practices have been identified by prior research. These categories are Setting Directions, Developing People, Redesigning the Organization, and Managing the Instructional Program. Each of these categories comprises from three to five more specific practices. Similar approaches to the classification of leadership practices are not difficult to find. Hallinger and Heck (1999) classify the practices in their instructional leadership model as "purposes," "people," and "structures and social systems." Conger and Kanungo (1998) speak about "visioning strategies," "efficacy-building strategies," and "context changing strategies." Robinson and her colleagues (2008) have generated the most recent set of categories, and they are quite compatible with those described here.

Because we provided a comprehensive description of core leadership practices in a review of literature prepared as the starting point for our larger project,115 we provide only a brief summary of the core practices here. Our claim that these practices ought to be considered essential for successful leaders is based on reviews of empirical research and on illustrative original studies carried out in educational contexts.116 We also rely on a synthesis of evidence about managerial skills, compiled by Yukl (2002).

Setting Directions

This category comprises four specific practices: Building a shared vision, Fostering the acceptance of group goals, Creating high performance expectations, and Communicating the direction. Overall, it is a category of practices intended to establish what Fullan (2003) and others call "moral purpose," a basic stimulant for the work in question. All of these practices are aimed at bringing a focus to the individual and collective work of staff members in the school or district.

Developing People

The practices in this category are Providing individualized support and consideration, Offering intellectual stimulation, and Modeling appropriate values and practices. Practices of this sort should communicate the leader‘s respect for his or her colleagues, as well as concerns about their personal feelings and needs (Podsakoff et al., 1990). Encompassed by this set of practices are the "supporting" and "recognizing and rewarding" managerial behaviors associated with Yukl‘s (1994) Multiple Linkages model, as well as Hallinger‘s (2003) model of instructional leadership and the Waters et al. (2003) meta-analysis. The primary aim of these practices is capacity building, understood to include not only of the knowledge and skills staff members need to accomplish organizational goals but also the disposition staff members need to persist in applying those knowledge and skills. One critically important disposition is individual teacher efficacy—also a source of motivation in Bandura's (1986) model.117People are motivated by what they are good at. And mastery experiences, according to Bandura, are the most powerful sources of efficacy. Building capacity that leads to a sense of mastery is therefore highly motivational.

Redesigning the Organization

The four practices comprised in this category—Building collaborative cultures, Restructuring the organization to support collaboration, Building productive relationships with families and communities, and Connecting the school to the wider community—are intended to establish workplace conditions that will allow staff members to make the most of their motivations and capacities. The organizational setting in which people work shapes much of what they do. There is little to be gained by increasing peoples‘ motivation and capacity if working conditions will not allow their effective application. According to Bandura‘s (1986) model, people‘s beliefs about their situation form a source of motivation; people are motivated when they believe the circumstances in which they find themselves are conducive to accomplishing the goals they hold to be personally important.

Managing the Instructional Program

This category includes practices that focus on teaching and learning. They are Staffing the program, Providing instructional support, Monitoring school activity, Buffering staff from distractions to their work, and Aligning resources.

New Evidence

In this component of our larger study we have sought to ground, illustrate, and (when warranted) elaborate our understanding of core leadership practices, based on the experience of teachers and principals. Evidence collected for this component also highlights certain differences, by school level and by level of teachers‘ instructional expertise, in the values participants assign to the core practices.


Sample. Evidence for this study derives from a sub-sample of 12 principals and 65 teachers in 12 schools. We selected the 12 schools initially based on one aspect of teachers‘ instructional practices, assessed during classroom observations collected in the first round of site visits. We selected six schools designated as High-Scoring Schools (HSS) from the larger sample because at least 60% of the teachers who had been observed received a high score on Standard 1 of Newmann's five standards for authentic instruction (described in more detail below). We selected six additional schools, designated Low-Scoring Schools (LSS), because at least 60% of their observed teachers received a low score on the same standard. We selected equal numbers of high- and lowscoring schools to represent elementary, middle, and secondary schools. To be absolutely clear, then, in this chapter, the meaning of a high (HSS) or low (LSS) scoring school is in reference to the ratings of the quality of teachers‘ instruction. One might expect that significant variations in teaching quality across schools would be reflected in significant differences in student achievement among the HSS and LSS. This was not the case in these 12 schools, however.

School size in those schools with a high proportion of teachers with highly rated instruction (HSS) ranged in size from 455 to 1,980 students, with an average of 924 students. There was greater variation in the sizes of schools with a high proportion of teachers with low ratings of instruction (LSS) (210 to 2,788 students), with an average enrollment of 1,081. In elementary and middle/ junior high schools, the average population of students was larger in the HSS than in the LSS (538 vs. 378 in elementary schools; 763 vs. 549 in middle schools). In the high schools, the average population of the LSS was much larger (2317) than that of the HSS (1,561). We used percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch as a proxy for socioeconomic status (SES). We reported results in three categories: low poverty (less than 18% free or reduced lunch); mid poverty (18 to 65% high poverty); high poverty (66% or higher free or reduced lunch). There was an even distribution of schools across the SES levels. When averaged, the SES for both high- and low-scoring schools was at the mid-poverty level.

We measured the degree of student diversity as the percentage of white students in a given school: low diversity level = 66% or more white students; mid diversity = more than 18% but less than 66% white students; high diversity = less than 18% white students. As with achievement and student SES, average levels of diversity were approximately the same for both HSS and LSS .

Teacher interviews. We asked teachers about their approach to teaching, the lessons we had observed, the principal‘s role in guiding and supporting their work, factors that have the greatest influence on student learning, district influences, professional development opportunities, the school community, the extent of parental involvement, and what they would tell a new teacher about what it is like to work at this school.

Principal interviews. We asked principals and vice principals about the principal‘s leadership in areas such as student achievement goals, vision for the school, and student learning; making decisions about instruction; leadership distribution in the school; professional development experiences for principals and teachers; curriculum and instruction; school culture; state and district influences on administrators‘ and teachers‘ work in the school; and the impact of parents and the wider school community.

Classroom observations. We conducted observations in Grades 3, 5, 8, and 10, in language arts and mathematics classrooms. Each observation covered one instructional period (usually 30-40 minutes). Trained observers assessed the quality of instruction in the lessons they observed, based on four of Newmann's Five Standards for authentic instruction.118 This instrument helps observers to rate dimensions of instruction on a fivepoint scale, with 5 being the highest score. Observations focused particularly on the score teachers received on Standard 1: Higher-Order Thinking ("HOT" thinking), described as instruction that engages students in learning that goes beyond the recall of basic facts. Teachers received a high score on this standard when their whole lesson involved students in higher-order thinking (e.g., synthesizing, generalizing, explaining, hypothesizing, formulating conclusions that produce new understanding). For purposes of sampling, at least 60% of observed teachers in the six HSS scored either 4 or 5 on Standard 1. In the remaining six schools, 60% or more of observed teachers scored only 1 or 2 on this standard.

This method for sampling schools assumes that teachers are important sources of information about what their principals do and how their principals‘ actions affect their own classroom practice. The method also assumes that variation in the quality of teachers‘ instruction will be related to variation in the quality of the principals‘ instructional leadership. Apart from addressing our primary research questions, this study was also a test of the second of these assumptions.

Data analysis. We transcribed all teacher and principal interviews and coded the transcripts, using the framework for the larger study. Two researchers went through all the transcripts and cross-checked their analyses for reliability. Classroom observers recorded specific details about what they saw and heard on a classroom observation form. Each school‘s level of student achievement was represented by the percentages of students meeting or exceeding the proficiency level, usually established by the state, on language and mathematics tests. We averaged these percentages across grades and subjects in order to increase the stability of scores,119 producing a single achievement score for each school for each of three years. Our analysis also included an achievement change score, calculated as the gain in percentage of students attaining or exceeding the state-established proficiency level from the first to the third year for which we had evidence.

We begin our report of results by describing the specific principal leadership practices that both principals and teachers identified as helpful in teachers‘ efforts to improve their instruction. Then we report the relationship between those practices and the framework of core leadership practices with which we began.

Specific Leadership Practices Perceived to Help Improve Instruction

A large proportion of both principals and teachers agreed on the importance of three specific practices:

  • Focusing the school on goals and expectations for student achievement (100% principals, 66.7% teachers).
  • Keeping track of teachers’ professional development needs (100% principals, 84% teachers). Although professional development was often prescribed, designed, and delivered at the district level, principals were involved in managing teachers' attendance at workshops offered outside the school, as well as planning for, and sometimes providing, on-site professional development.
  • Creating structures and opportunities for teachers to collaborate (91.7% principals, 66.7% teachers). Principals supported collaboration among teachers by scheduling times for teachers to meet and discuss how they were working through the curriculum.

Other practices attracting support from a smaller but still sizeable number of principals and teachers included the following:

  • Monitoring teachers’ work in the classroom (83.3% principals, 37.7% teachers). Principals mentioned formal classroom observations carried out for teacher evaluation purposes; they also mentioned less formal ways of monitoring such as classroom visits and checking lesson plans.
  • Providing mentoring opportunities for new teachers (33.3% principals, 26% teachers). Some teachers and principals referred to programs initiated by the district or the school to support staff members who were new to teaching or new to the school.
  • Being easily accessible (50% principals, 27.5% teachers). Principals spoke about how they supported teachers' efforts in the classroom in a general way.
  • Providing backup for teachers with student discipline and with parents (25% principals, 23.1% teachers). School safety and the management of students‘ behavior were of concern to administrators and teachers. Teachers were particularly appreciative of administrators who could be relied on to back them up teachers when they faced challenging situations with parents.

Finally, most principals (83.3%) considered Staying current to be a very important part of instructional leadership, although only one teacher seemed to be aware of it.

Instructional Leadership Differences across School Levels

Do principals and teachers at different school levels differ in their assessments of principals‘ efforts to provide instructional leadership? To find out, we ran comparisons. Results for principals indicated almost no variation, by school level, in the number of leadership practices identified as valuable. More variation across school levels was evident in the teachers‘ responses:

  • Monitoring teachers’ classroom work was identified by only 30% of middle school teachers, by a slightly larger proportion of high school teachers (34.8%), and by 54.5% of elementary school teachers.
  • Creating structures and opportunities for teachers to collaborate was identified by 78.3% of high school teachers, 70% of middle school teachers, and 63.6% of elementary school teachers.
  • Allowing teachers flexibility regarding classroom instruction was identified by 55% of middle school teachers, 43.8% of high school teachers, and 40.9% of elementary school teachers.

Instructional Leadership Differences and Teaching Quality

Were the six principals in our HSS engaged in different instructional leadership practices than those in the LSS? This question prompted our study initially, and it led us to sample schools based on the proportion of teachers who were rated high or low on Standard 1 of the Newmann scale during classroom observations. While the observation guidelines and processes we used were of good quality, we observed only one lesson for each teacher, so our evidence here must be considered suggestive and exploratory.

Principals and teachers concurred about differences in one leadership practice. Providing instructional resources and materials was identified as helpful by half of the principals and 25% of the teachers in LLS, whereas only one principal and 6% of the teachers in HSS identified this practice as helpful. We also note that teacher respondents in LSS (38%) attributed notably more importance to Providing Backup for teachers for student discipline and with parents than did teachers in HSS schools (18%). In short, it appears from this small sample that teachers in schools where our observation measures indicated less ambitious instructional practices were more likely to externalize their needs for instructional support (e.g., resources, backup for classroom management decisions) than to value support focused more directly on developing their instructional expertise.

Our separate analysis of principals‘ responses also requires acknowledgment of a sampling problem. The small size of the sample means that percentage differences in the principals‘ responses are deceptive. A difference of two principals between the high- and low-scoring samples is evident in the case of only two practices:

  • Participating in their own professional development (6 HSS vs. 4 LSS)
  • Supporting community involvement in student learning (2 HSS vs. 4 LSS )

Relatively large differences appeared in the identifications of HSS and LSS for the following practices:

  • Supporting teacher collaboration for purposes of instructional improvement (85% HSS vs. 56% LSS).
  • Helping to ensure consistent approaches to student discipline (18% HSS vs. 38% LSS).
  • Providing teachers with instructional resources and materials (6% HSS vs. 25% LSS).
  • Supporting parental involvement in student learning (88% HSS vs. 72% LSS scoring).

Principals' and Teachers' Judgments Compared with Core Leadership Practices

How do the practices identified as helpful by teachers and principals compare with our current formulation of core leadership practices? For an analysis pertaining to this question, we used, on one side of the comparison, only those practices identified by a sizeable number of respondents (the practices discussed above). Table 1.4.1 lists those practices in the right-hand column. The four sets of core leadership practices are listed in the left-hand column.

Two sets of identified practices are closely aligned with core practices related to Setting Directions. Focusing the schools’ and teachers’ attention on goals and expectations for instruction and student achievement is part of Building a shared vision, Fostering acceptance of group goals, and Creating high performance expectations. Four identified practices are part of the Providing individualized support component of Developing People: Keeping track of teachers’ professional development (PD) needs, Being easily accessible, Providing backup for teachers for student discipline and with parents, Providing mentoring opportunities for new teachers.

Only one set of identified practices matched up with Redesigning the organization. This was Creating structures and opportunities for teachers to collaborate. Similarly, only one set of identified practices—Monitoring teachers’ work—matched up with Managing the instructional program.

From these comparisons, two results stand out. First, for several core leadership practices, there were no analogues among the practices identified by our respondents. Of the 16 core leadership practices, 7 went unmentioned by teachers and principals in their identification of practices that are instructionally helpful. We cannot know exactly why this is the case. One possibility is that principals might have enacted certain leadership practices that were not visible to teachers. Another is that, in fact, only some of the core leadership practices have much influence on teachers‘ classroom practice. Still another is that the principals in our study worked with a relatively narrow repertoire of leadership practices. Nevertheless, of the leadership practices frequently identified as helpful, one or more are associated with one of the four categories of core leadership practices.


Implications for Policy and Practice

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

  1. Instructional improvement requires a school-wide focus on goals and expectations for student achievement.
  2. Principals play a key role in supporting and encouraging teachers‘ professional development needs. Leaders have a role to play in keeping track of those needs, as well as providing resources and materials to improve teachers‘ repertoire of instructional practices.
  3. Policy makers and practitioners should avoid promoting, endorsing, or being unduly influenced by conceptions of instructional leadership which adopt an excessively narrow focus on classroom instruction. Classroom practices occur within larger organizational systems which can vary enormously in the extent to which they support, reward, and nurture good instruction. School leaders who ignore or neglect the state of this larger context can easily find their direct efforts to improve instruction substantially frustrated.
  4. Principals must include careful attention to classroom instructional practices, but should not neglect many other issues that are critical to the ongoing health and welfare of school organizations.

< < Previous | Next > >


113. See, e.g., Blase (1987, 1989).

114. Brewer & Hunter (1989).

115. Leithwood et al. (2004a).

116. For example, Hallinger & Heck (1998); Leithwood & Jantzi (2005); Leithwood & Riehl (2005); Robinson et al. (2008); and Waters et al. (2003).

117. Bandura (1986).

118. Newmann, Secada, & Wehlage (1995).

119. Linn (2003).