Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning

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 Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning

We began this investigation of the links between leadership and student learning more than six years ago. Our work examined the multiple levels at which leadership can be exercised in education—from the classroom to the statehouse. In 2003, we wrote the following in our review of the literature which informed our study:

    [Leadership] efforts will be increasingly productive as research provides us with more robust understandings of how successful leaders make sense of and productively respond to both external policy initiatives and local needs and priorities. Such efforts will also benefit considerably from more fine grained understandings than we presently have of successful leadership practices, and from much richer appreciations of how those practices seep into the fabric of the education system, improving its overall quality and substantially adding value to our students‘ learning.305

Our research has uncovered many fine grained behaviors that are elements of being an effective leader and has pointed to the conditions that encourage or discourage these productive actions. Principal - teacher relationships, district leaders‘ interactions with principals, and policy decisions at the state level all are intertwined in a complex and changing environment. We found links between all elements of our theoretical framework, with some having a more direct relationship with student learning.

Principals, who are the formal leaders closest to the classroom, are most effective when they see themselves as working collaboratively towards clear, common goals with district personnel, other principals, and teachers. These leaders are more confident in their leadership and are experiencing greater efficacy. In addition, district support for shared leadership at the school level enhances the sense of efficacy among principals.

When principals and teachers share leadership, teachers‘ working relationships with one another are stronger and student achievement is higher. District support for shared leadership fosters the development of professional communities. Where teachers feel attached to a professional community, they are more likely to use instructional practices that are linked to improved student learning. Our results suggest that a particular, single best way to distribute or share leadership does not exist. Rather, leadership distribution patterns are affected by the goals that school personnel associate with certain tasks. The more encompassing the goal, the greater the likelihood that multiple sources of leadership will be appropriate.

We found that higher-performing schools generally ask for more input and engagement from a wider variety of stakeholders and provide more opportunities for influence by teacher teams, parents, and students. Finally, while principals and district leaders continue to exercise more influence than others in all schools, they do not lose influence as others gain it. Influence does not come in fixed quantities. Influential leaders wishing to retain their influence may share leadership confidently.

Expectations and accountability measures also emerged as a major focus for leadership activity throughout our investigation. In districts where levels of student learning are high, for example, district leaders are more likely to emphasize goals and initiatives that reach beyond minimum state expectations for student performance, while they continue to use state policy as a platform from which to challenge others to reach higher ground. In schools that are doing well, teachers and principals pay attention to multiple measures of student success.

Finally, we found that, overall, state initiatives matter. States, for all the variability in their approaches to policy making, are firmly focused on standards and accountability. Most make use of state mandates, and pay more limited attention to support and professional development for leaders. The translation of legislative and gubernatorial initiatives into support for schools falls to the state agencies, which are struggling to realize a significant change in their roles, shaped by the standards and accountability movement. Districts and schools generally view states as partners with limited vision and even fewer resources. They move forward as best they can with efforts to comply with the spirit of state discussions and agendas, or to take account of the meaning behind the prescribed state plans and to exceed the minimums.

Reform in the U.S educational system is both lively and messy but, as educators grapple with emerging demands, we found that leadership matters at all levels. Leaders in education provide direction for, and exercise influence over, policy and practice. Their contributions are crucial, our evidence shows, to initiatives aimed at improving student learning, and of course ultimately to the future in which we all share.

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305. Leithwood et al. (2004b), p. 12.