How Leadership Influences Student Learning

Click here to download the full report:
How Leadership Influences Student Learning

Leadership is widely regarded as a key factor in accounting for differences in the success with which schools foster the learning of their students. Indeed, the contribution of effective leadership is largest when it is needed most; there are virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around in the absence of intervention by talented leaders. While other factors within the school also contribute to such turnarounds, leadership is the catalyst.

But there is much yet to be learned about who provides such leadership, how it is productively distributed across the school system (e.g., state, district, school and classroom) and what stimulates its development. We also have much to learn about which forms of leadership are most likely to foster student learning and how such successful forms of leadership, often exercised at a distance from students, eventually make a contribution to their learning. It was the importance of knowing more about these aspects of educational leadership that prompted the Wallace Foundation's call for, and support of, our study entitled Learning from District Efforts to Strengthen Education Leadership.​

Although we have much to learn about education leadership and how it contributes to student learning, there is considerable existing evidence on which to build. It would be foolish in the extreme for us not to "stand on the shoulders" of such evidence in undertaking our own research. So we began our study with a wide-ranging review of literature, the results of which are summarized in this paper.

This review is organized around a framework which has emerged from empirical research in sociology and in organizational and industrial psychology (Rowan, 1996). The framework assumes that variation in workplace performance (e.g., the effectiveness of teachers in their classrooms) is a function of the capacities (e.g., instructional skills), motivations and commitments of workplace personnel, the characteristics of the settings in which they work (e.g., schools, districts) and the external environment (shifting state policies and other demands). According to this framework, leaders play critical roles in identifying and supporting learning, structuring the social settings and mediating the external demands. Variations of this framework have been used in education contexts to understand better how schools and districts respond to state accountability policies and to explain variations in the success with which schools implement and incorporate new policies and practices.

​ A significantly expanded version of this framework, summarized in Figure 1, serves as the organizer for this review of literature. According to Figure 1, features of both state (var. 1) and district (var. 2) leadership, policies, practices and other characteristics interact with one another and exert a direct influence on what school leaders do (var. 4); they also exert influence on school (var. 6) and classroom (var. 8) conditions, as well as on teachers' professional community (var. 7). Other stakeholder groups (var. 5), such as the media, unions, professional associations and community and business groups, also have influence on school leadership practices, as do leaders' professional learning experiences (var. 9).

Student and family background factors (var. 3) have a significant bearing on most other variables and relationships in this framework. For example, they sometimes influence how school leaders do their work; the nature of classroom teaching and learning processes (through their effects on teachers' expectations); the financial resources available to districts and schools; and the nature of the "social capital" available to students.


Figure 1: Linking Leadership to Learning: The research framework features 10 interdependent variables. This figure cannot show the many complex relationships that actually exist among the 10 variables. The relationships depicted in the figure are illustrative only.


School leadership (var. 4) from both formal and informal sources helps to shape the nature of school conditions (var. 6) such as goals, culture, structure and classroom conditions (var. 8) - the content of instruction, the size of classrooms, the forms of pedagogy used by teachers, etc. A wide array of factors, including those in the school and classroom, help shape teachers sense of professional community (var. 7). School and classroom conditions, teachers' professional community and student/family background conditions are directly responsible for the learning of students (var. 10).


Our review of the research, guided by this framework, begins with leadership, since it appears both separately and as part of other components of the framework. Furthermore, our review focuses on the direct and indirect relationship between the variables in Figure 1 and student learning, without elaborating the meaning of student learning. Our study will use whatever measures of student learning are available from districts and schools, including state-collected data. We will also use proxy variables such as student attendance and retention rates.

<< Previous | Next >>