How Leadership Influences Student Learning

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How Leadership Influences Student Learning

Student learning is influenced most directly by classroom conditions which are a result of state, district and school conditions, as well as individual teacher preferences, capacities and motivations. Summarized in this section is evidence to suggest that at least eight areas of classroom policies and practices warrant the attention of leaders aiming to improve student learning. These policies and practices include opportunity to learn, class size, teaching loads, teaching subjects in which teachers have formal preparation, homework practices, classroom student grouping practices and curriculum and instruction.

Class size

By now, there is little debate in the research community over the contributions to student learning of smaller elementary school class sizes. Research on the matter is voluminous and continuing to grow at a fast rate. This body of evidence includes individual empirical studies, as well as good quality reviews of research.

Class size research suggests that reductions from a typical 22 to 30 student class, to an approximately 15 student class have the potential to significantly increase student achievement, provided that suitable changes are made in teacher practices which take advantage of fewer students. Evidence about class size effects not only identifies optimum sizes, it also suggests that the greatest benefits of reducing class size are found in the first two years of schooling when accompanied by appropriate adaptations to instruction (e.g., Finn, 2001). These benefits are most beneficial for students who are socially and economically disadvantaged. The effects realized by smaller classes in the primary grades appear to be maintained even three or four years later.

Among the explanations for small class effects are improved teacher morale, more time spent by teachers on individual instruction and less on classroom management, along with fewer disruptions and fewer discipline problems. Other explanations for small class size effects include greater engagement by students in instruction, more opportunities for better teaching to take place, reduced grade retention, reduced dropout rates in secondary schools and increased aspirations among students to attend college.

There are significant constraints or hurdles to be addressed if the impressive effects of smaller class sizes are to be realized on a large scale. As the California experience illustrates so painfully, smaller classes require additional qualified teachers and more safe playground areas and classroom space. Without considerable increases in education funding, smaller primary classes also mean larger classes in the later grades.

Formulas for calculating class size also have to be made explicit. By including non-teaching staff such as librarians into the student-teacher ratio, an inaccurate picture of the number of students is depicted by as much as six or seven students per classroom. The more accurate calculation required to realize the benefits reported in the class-size research entails counting the actual number of students in each classroom (Finn and Achilles, 1999).

Teaching loads

Evidence concerning teaching loads suggests that it is important to consider both the total numbers of students and subjects taught by teachers as well as the diversity of student needs. The total number of students per teacher over the course of an academic year is significant, especially in junior and senior high schools where, as a consequence of subject specialization, teachers typically see many different groups of students over the course of a week. This view is based on the premise that effective instruction depends on a deep understanding of the cognitive resources brought to class by individual students, along with opportunities to both assess and monitor their learning progress. The chances of meeting either of these conditions for effective instruction diminish with increased student diversity and total numbers of students taught. How districts communicate with schools and introduce, support and monitor changes in teaching loads has an impact on how those changes are received and implemented.

Evidence about teaching load argues for reductions in the typical numbers of students taught by senior teachers, in a semester or year, from a typical 125 to 200 to something fewer than 90. Beyond the research evidence, at least one major “whole school reform” initiative in the United States and several parts of Canada, The Coalition of Essential Schools (e.g., Sizer, 1992a, 1992b), advocates holding total numbers of secondary school students taught per teacher to about 90 as a central principle of its program. Additional evidence indicates that reductions in teaching loads may be achieved through the use of teaching assistants. For teachers to be able to contribute to the efforts of sustained development, it is important that they be able to devote their energies to the priority of teaching.

Teaching in areas of formal preparation

The evidence base on the effects of teaching in or out of one’s area of preparation is relatively small. Results of extant research suggest that assigning teachers to subjects or areas of the curriculum in which they have formal preparation and certification is important. There is a significant, positive relationship between formal preparation and quality of instruction and student achievement. Goldhaber and Brewer (2000) recently have reported such evidence in the areas of secondary school science and math, for example.


Our understandings about the forms and effects of homework is primarily informed by a series of extensive reviews of evidence carried out by Harris Cooper (1989, 2000, 2001). The corpus of individual studies included in these reviews runs in excess of 120. Harris’ reviews indicate that homework has both positive and negative effects. On the positive side, homework may contribute to immediate achievement in learning, long-term academic outcomes, independent problem-solving as well as less directly academic capacities such as greater self direction and greater self discipline. Parents also may become more involved in the schooling of their children, another positive effect.

Evidence concerning homework also suggests possible negative effects such as students’ loss of interest in academic material, fatigue, lack of opportunity for leisure and community activities, as well as pressure from parents. Homework sometimes exacerbates differences between high and low achievers. Evidence about both the positive and negative effects of homework by now is quite robust.

These homework effects vary by the age and grade level of students. Positive homework effects are greatest for secondary school students but diminish by about 50 percent for students in grades seven and eight. Homework appears not to foster additional learning among elementary students, although small amounts are sometimes advocated for their contribution to good work habits and the like.

The positive effects of homework for junior and senior secondary students are most likely to occur when homework material is not too complex or novel. Furthermore, homework effects peak for junior high school students after one to two hours a night. Secondary school students can expect effects over longer periods of time.

Student grouping

The grouping of students for instruction is influenced by decisions made at both the school and classroom levels, and decisions at both levels often require intervention by those assuming leadership roles. This is because both heterogeneous and homogeneous ability-grouping practices are advocated for the accomplishment of the same goals.

At any point over at least the last 50 years, a synthesis of available empirical evidence would have suggested, quite unambiguously, that students having difficulty at school, especially those disadvantaged by their socioeconomic backgrounds, learn more when they are working in heterogeneous rather than in homogeneous ability groups (e.g., Oakes, 1985; Yonezawa, Wells, and Serna, 2002). Relatively high expectations for learning, a faster pace of instruction, peer models of effective learning and curricula that are more challenging are among the reasons offered for this advantage.

In spite of this evidence, over this same period, the vast majority of teachers and administrators have enacted practices that separate students by ability; their argument is that homogeneous grouping produces greater learning by allowing for the concentration of instructional resources on the same set of learning problems. Many teachers have regarded implementing heterogeneous grouping practices in classrooms as very difficult. Nevertheless, this is one of the rare examples of professional “common sense” being just plain wrong.

Changing the common sense beliefs of teachers about heterogeneous grouping effects on the learning of struggling students requires those providing leadership to bring relevant evidence to the attention of their colleagues in accessible and convincing ways, to encourage actual trials with heterogeneous groupings under conditions which include opportunities for practice, feedback and coaching and to help teachers generate “the kind of assessment information that will make the impact of tracking and detracking more visible” (Riehl, 2000).

Curriculum and instruction

A considerable amount of evidence suggests that the best curriculum for socially, economically or culturally disadvantaged children will often be the rich curriculum typically experienced by relatively advantaged students. But this is not often the case. Rather, the typical curriculum experienced by such children is narrowly focused on basic skills and knowledge and lacks much meaning for these students. Why this should be the case has much to do with a widely mistaken understanding about what kind of curriculum these children will most benefit from. In a comprehensive synthesis of empirical evidence, Brophy (undated) touches on the main features of a “rich” curriculum, one similarly beneficial for most students no matter their background. This is a curriculum in which the instructional strategies, learning activities and assessment practices are clearly aligned and aimed at accomplishing the full array of knowledge, skills, attitudes and dispositions valued by society. The content of such a curriculum is organized in relation to a set of powerful ideas. These ideas are “internally coherent, well-connected to other meaningful learning and accessible for application” (p. 7). Skills are taught with a view to their application in particular settings and for particular purposes. In addition, these skills include general learning and study skills, as well as skills specific to subject domains. Such meta-cognitive skills are especially beneficial for less able students who might otherwise have difficulty monitoring and self-regulating their own learning.

In schools serving diverse student populations, instruction, as well as the curriculum, should meet the same standards of effectiveness that would be expected in schools serving relatively advantaged students. But such standards are not often met. A significant proportion of these schools lack minimally adequate instructional resources and are in physical disrepair. Many teachers do not find it satisfying to work with students in especially challenging schools; they move on to less demanding environments at the first opportunity (Englert, 1993) citing the lack of psychic rewards from seeing their students succeed. Teachers want to feel certain about their ability to meet the goals they have for students, and to know when they have done so. Rewards of this sort are more easily available to teachers in less challenging schools. Teachers in especially challenging schools often have low expectations for pupil performance and require their pupils to spend excessive time on drill and practice activities aimed almost exclusively at improving basic academic skills.

Brophy’s synthesis of research suggests that effective instruction is conducted in a highly supportive classroom environment that is embedded in a caring learning community. In this environment, most of the class time is spent on curriculum-related activities and the class is managed to maintain students’ engagement in those activities. In effective instruction, teachers pose questions aimed “to engage students in sustained discourse structured around powerful ideas,” and provide the assistance students need “to enable them to engage in learning activities productively” (pp. 8-9).

In contrast to the features of effective instruction identified by Brophy, Cummins’ (1986) research suggests that much of the instruction used with children designated as “at risk” places them in a passive role. Such children, he argues, need to be encouraged to become active generators of their own knowledge, to “assume greater control over setting their own learning goals and to collaborate actively with each other in achieving these goals” (p. 28).

At-risk children also may require “culturally responsive” teaching (Riehl, 2000; Jagers and Carroll, 2002). This is teaching based on the premise that culturally diverse students pose opportunities instead of problems for teachers. Teachers adopting this perspective identify the norms, values and practices associated with the often diverse cultures of their students and adapt their instruction to acknowledge, respect and build on them.

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