Learning-Focused Leadership and Leadership Support: Meaning and Practice in Urban Systems

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 Learning-Focused Leadership and Leadership Support: Meaning and Practice in Urban Systems

Taken together, learning-focused leadership practice and leadership support, exercised by leaders at multiple levels of the system, constitute a major potential influence on learning improvement. In the districts we studied, this leadership work accomplished its purpose by engaging the attention and talents of a variety of staff in efforts to improve teaching and learning, while creating a web of support for instructional leaders’ work. In ways that were both overt and subtle, these actions offered a mutually reinforcing set of influences on educators’ daily practice and, ultimately, on student learning. Our data suggest two kinds of overall conclusions:

  1. The capacity of the educational system to enhance the practices that produce student learning depends on leadership that focuses on learning improvement for both students and professional staff and that mobilizes effort to that end.
  2. The power and sustainability of learning-focused leadership depends, in large measure, on the presence of a multi-level system of leadership support.

These broad conclusions come from looking carefully at schools that were making progress (by some local measures), at districts that were intentionally trying to transform their practice to support district-wide teaching and learning improvement, and at several other districts that had placed a priority on instructional improvement. Because our conclusions do not come from tracing the consequences of leadership actions all the way to student learning outcomes over time, and because we studied schools and districts that might be considered exceptional, at least not typical, two questions arise: Why should we believe that learning-focused leadership and leadership support matter for student learning? What continuing challenges will schools and districts face in attempting to act on these ideas?

Do Learning-focused Leadership and Leadership Support Matter for the Improvement of Student Learning?

Although these studies did not directly assess the relationship between either leadership practices or leadership support activities and the improvement of student learning, there are good reasons to believe that both learning-focused leadership and leadership support are contributing to this ultimate aim.

First of all, the schools and districts we studied are sites with histories of chronic low performance, and yet over recent years, continuing through our data collection window, measures of student performance were improving. While there is no way of demonstrating an unambiguous causal link between these trends and leadership or leadership support practices, there is nonetheless a strong likelihood that what leaders were doing and how they were supported were an important part of the story.

Take, for example, the way school principals approached their responsibilities and how they were supported. Research other than our own has increasingly demonstrated strong links between student learning measures and leadership activities at the school level, among them activities that (1) set direction, by articulating a vision for the school, fostering the acceptance of group goals, and creating high performance expectations; (2) develop people, by offering intellectual stimulation, providing individualized support, and setting examples for others to follow; and (3) redesign the organization, by strengthening school cultures, modifying organizational structures, and building collaborative processes.12 These are all activities that the school leaders we studied were engaged in extensively, as they fashioned and pursued their respective learning improvement agendas.

What is more, evidence from the Study of Leadership for Learning Improvement clearly demonstrates that school leaders were helped to set (and maintain) direction, develop people, and redesign their organizations through their interaction with their respective systems of leadership support. The school leaders’ visions were intimately linked to a larger vision of learning improvement projected by the district and state in which they worked. Interactions with others (e.g., central office staff or their peers in other schools) helped to establish and spread the high expectations. Through interactions with both central office staff and individuals in external reform support organizations, school principals themselves received intellectual stimulation and individualized support, including modeling of promising practices. They were both prompted and enabled to redesign their organizations by investment frameworks—overarching decisions about the discretion that was expected or allowed at different levels of the system and how initiative could be exercised—that offered flexibility and some discretionary resources, especially for increasing their instructional leadership capacity.

Our research also suggests more specific effects on instructional practice that are likely to be having a positive effect on student learning. As they engaged and responded to the expectations of the larger environments, principals and other supervisory leaders in these schools, as well as teacher leaders, were focusing teachers’ efforts on particular aspects of the curriculum (especially where student performance was weak), developing a vocabulary for approaching gaps and gains in students’ progress, and helping teachers differentiate their approach to students within their classrooms. There is good reason to believe that focused, differentiated instruction, which is responsive to particular needs and differences among students, is helping these schools and districts improve their learning measures over time.13

Continuing Challenges in the Crucible of Urban Education

Learning-focused leadership is hard work and, correspondingly, so is the work of supporting this leadership. Both are made harder by dynamics and conditions that typify urban educational settings. Our analyses underscore several aspects of the effort to exercise and support leadership for learning improvement that will continue to challenge educational leaders, especially given the conditions that prevail in many urban settings.

The challenges of assuming and maintaining a learning focus. What our investigation found about learning-focused leadership practice and leadership support underscores several things about this facet of the educational reform puzzle that will continue to challenge those who seek to lead for learning improvement. First, participants throughout the schools and districts that wish to go this route have a steep learning curve to ascend. Second, they need to be prepared for fundamental changes in practice and the organization of their work. And third, they will need to actively search for and prepare the right people to do this leadership work.

The first continuing challenge goes without saying: There is a lot of new professional learning to do—for teacher leaders negotiating the middle ground in schools, principals figuring out how to lead instructional leadership teams successfully, central office staff engaging in support work with school principals, or others in the system. This new professional learning would be a challenge in any school or district setting, but it is compounded in large urban districts, given the sheer number of actors and the high proportion of struggling schools. And for all of these educators, learning to do the work described in this report is a long-term prospect under the best of circumstances.

Among other things, the new professional learning is about fundamental changes in leadership practice, and systems must assess their readiness for it. The degree of change was most apparent for many of the teacher leaders we studied and also for the central office staff who worked directly with principals, most of whose positions didn’t exist five years ago. Are schools and district central offices ready to take this work on? The answer can reflect various issues, among them, whether the main decision makers have been engaged in a significant period of design work or development of an appropriate theory of action, and whether the new arrangements and approaches have been tried out on a pilot basis to de-bug them and fine-tune the plan for contingencies particular to each local context. Not the least of the factors in the readiness equation is the willingness of key constituencies to sign on. For example, in one of the districts we studied, detailed negotiations across four years with the teachers union were necessary before a new kind of school-based instructional leadership position could be created. Urban school districts typically face tight labor markets and complicated political force fields, which may signal a lack of readiness for the fundamental change work that substantial learning improvement requires.

Among the variables in the readiness equation is the identification and availability of people to exercise leadership in the ways this report describes. Finding and preparing leaders for learning-focused leadership work remains a central challenge, especially in urban systems, in which leadership roles are not always easily filled with well-qualified candidates. What will prepare new leaders for learningfocused work and help them continue to learn productively, once they are engaged in leadership practice? The sites we studied were often engaged in growing their own leaders in a variety of ways, most visibly in district-based certification programs that set up alternative pathways to the principalship. But these programs are just one step toward a much larger goal, which remains daunting in urban settings, in which the incentives and rewards for assuming leadership or leadership support work are not always substantial. The continuing challenge is to both create and inform these pathways to leadership in ways that motivate participation and guide promising candidates toward new conceptions of their practice.

The challenges posed by critical conditions in urban systems. However educators seek to prepare themselves for learning-focused work and engage in it over time, they do so in the face of pressures that at best will act as distractions but at worst will present major constraints or obstacles to learning-focused leadership. Our findings point to four such conditions that will have important implications in educational systems that are serious about learning improvement. First, educational leaders are currently working through a major economic downturn, with no immediate end in sight. Second, the shortage of resources will limit leaders’ capacity to address inequities, if not exacerbate the inequities themselves. Third, operational demands of urban schooling will persist and constantly threaten to divert attention from instructional improvement goals. And fourth, the chronic instability of top leadership in urban systems will make it harder to maintain a persistent public focus on learning, as well as overall sponsorship of reforms.

In the current economic climate, districts and schools face bleak prospects for maintaining many aspects of the educational program that are valued, not the least of which are the investments in instructional leadership detailed earlier in the report. That said, the schools and districts we studied had seen recent periods of retrenchment and/or declining enrollment, and notably, much of the investment in instructional leadership was achieved through the reallocation of existing funds rather than through additional resources. To be sure, anyone perceived as not doing the core work of the school or district is an easy target in times of budget cutting, and therefore the investments made in the leadership support system will continue to be challenged, and districts must articulate the importance of this central role in the improvement of learning.

Because contests over resource allocation are likely to intensify when times are tight, the differential allocation of staffing and other resources that are so central to addressing equity goals in learning improvement may be at risk. As our findings and others have demonstrated, ambitious learning improvement efforts anchored to equity principles that imply differential investment of resources will generate the predictable pushback from formerly advantaged interests. The sheer diversity of interests, and the stark gaps between advantaged and less advantaged segments of the community, no less competing interest groups within the district workforce, set the stage for major tensions regarding differential resource investments. To manage the dynamics of differential investment, district and school leaders must exercise as much foresight as possible in laying the groundwork for equity-focused conversations and shepherding these conversations over time.

The operational demands of running urban schools and school systems—including facility, accounting, personnel, procurement, compliance reporting, and other basic management tasks—are often complex and all-consuming, and they always threaten to distract leaders’ attention from instructional improvement. These demands may increase in times of acute resource shortage. This situation presents learning-focused leaders with the challenge of minimizing operational distractions related to the basic management of schools, and indeed a large system of schools, while helping to find ways in which operational and instructional matters can inform each other. Leadership support systems face a related challenge, as principals or others seek help with matters that have relatively little to do with instructional improvement or for which they are initially unable to see the instructional ramifications.

Leadership support systems, as well as the exercise of leadership for learning improvement in all its aspects, depend on continuity of leadership over time. In the sites we studied, this was especially obvious in the stewardship role that superintendents and executive-level staff performed in sustaining a transformation strategy or shepherding the development of an equity-focused learning improvement agenda. School principals who had long tenure in their buildings displayed a comparable capacity. Leaders such as these who are around for long periods of time are better able to make long-term investments and hold to them, not to mention develop and deepen work relationships. The nature of leadership support, as we have described it, depends utterly on sufficient consistency in leadership— that is, among leaders within the system who are committed to making learning improvement a centerpiece of their own and the system’s work—to allow people to learn over time. A sufficiently distributed leadership support system can weather the disappearance of one or another key player, and we found viable efforts at leadership support continuing, despite sudden changes or disruptions.

Nonetheless, the well-established pattern of instability in top leadership positions within urban educational systems will pose a continuing challenge to the sustainability of learning-focused leadership and the leadership support system. The challenge is to develop deep, distributed leadership roots that can help the system manage top leadership turnover at the same time that the system seeks greater continuity in top leadership—a state of affairs that is more and more likely, the more the system succeeds at learning improvement.

Fulfilling the Promise of Learning-focused Leadership

Even in the face of these challenges, learning-focused leadership is still a realizable goal for many, if not most, urban educational systems, though the pace and scope of the changes that are necessary for this to happen will vary considerably across settings. What will it take to get there? The following five requirements are worth considering.

  • Bedrock convictions. Learning-focused leadership work is anchored to the notion that learning improvement is possible at scale, that professionals and students are capable of much more than they have typically accomplished to date, and that leadership work will translate into demonstrable performance. From this and other studies, we know enough to have confidence in these convictions, but educational leaders will need to assert them loudly and often to keep convincing a diverse and sometimes contentious array of stakeholders that the changes they support are both possible and desirable.
  • Explicit focus on improving the quality and practice of leadership. While teaching and the nature of the student learning experience must remain the center of all improvement efforts, the quality and practice of leadership exercised from various vantage points around the system have an intrinsic and important relationship to teaching and learning, enabling it or constraining it in innumerable ways. To realize the promise of learning-focused leadership means, if nothing else, to intentionally include leadership practice as part of the learning improvement equation.
  • A learning stance. Improving teaching and leadership practice means new learning for teachers, administrators, and other staff, all of whom have much to understand and new skills to acquire to do their work effectively. But more to the point, a central part of the work is to adopt a learning stance, one that assumes that one never knows it all, nor has a sufficient understanding of newly arising problems of practice. The systems we have studied make abundantly clear the power of adopting a public learning stance to carry forward leadership work that seeks to improve learning of students and others.
  • Talent search and talent development. Especially where new or redefined positions are concerned, but also for the full range of positions from which leadership is exercised either formally or informally, the educational system needs committed, capable people to take on learning-focused leadership work. In some instances that means finding different people to do the job (as has been well illustrated in central office transformation efforts, but also at the school level). More often it means inviting existing staff to explore and expand their leadership capabilities, as investors, as instructional leaders, and as leadership support staff. School districts and schools can do much to encourage promising leaders to emerge and to develop their practice in ways that support learning improvement.
  • Systemic perspective. Finally, the whole is—or at least can be—greater than the sum of the parts. The challenge for reformers, system leaders, and practitioners at all levels is to visualize the interconnected whole of a functioning educational system that coherently brings ideas, energy, resources, and pressure to bear on the problem of educating a diverse student population equitably and effectively. Within this well-functioning whole, the exercise of learning-focused leadership entails different elements—public focus, investment in learning improvement, new work practice and relationships, and engagement with evidence—that are aligned and connect with one another. And surrounding that work, a system of interrelated and varied supports can greatly enhance the chances that this leadership work will continue and be able to have its intended effect.

Coherent connections among all of these things are more likely to be forged and maintained when the participants take a systemic view of the enterprise. Ultimately, we need educational systems in which the whole and the parts work together to the greater benefit of urban school children. That is a worthy, if difficult, goal. A new generation of educational leaders is emerging who can help realize it.

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