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

Picture the challenge of urban education from the vantage point of a new school principal, committed to making education work for the students in his charge. This account describes a principal’s own reflections years afterward on the struggles he faced in working with his staff to improve instruction:

    …Early on, [the new principal] tried to address the isolation and lack of teamwork among teachers. He tried to focus staff meetings on instruction, published a school newsletter that was largely about teaching, and revised the schedule so the teachers teaching the same grade level had the same preparation time and, later, a weekly 90-minute team meeting. [But as the principal later reflected] “Morale never seemed to get out of the basement. Staff meetings gravitated to student discipline problems.” In team meetings, “there was a strong tendency for the agendas to be dominated by field trips, war stories about troubled students, and other management issues, with little attention to using student work and data to fine-tune teaching.” Almost inevitably, teacher pessimism was a significant barrier. “Discouraged by the visible results of poverty and having never seen an urban school that produces very high student achievement, many teachers found it hard to believe that it could be done. They regarded themselves as hardworking martyrs in a hopeless cause….”1

The staff in question composed hardworking, largely veteran professionals, caught up in a cycle of demoralization and ineffective practice that their circumstances had fostered for many years. Above all, the school was unable to focus on the core matters of teaching and learning. One committed, energetic principal walking in the door was not about to change these circumstances. Though describing events that transpired more than a decade ago, this account speaks for many contemporary schools and many well-meaning school leaders, as they struggle to improve the quality of education for young people in urban schools.

Now add to the scenario the heightened expectations of high-stakes accountability, along with calls for educational practice that is data-based, the prospect of diminished resources, and an increasingly diverse population of students, many of whom enter school speaking a first language other than English. We visited a setting such as this in the course of our research and asked a new third-grade teacher, barely two months into her first year of teaching in a challenging inner city elementary school, to talk about where she and others in the school were focusing their efforts at learning improvement. Without hesitation, she answered as follows:

    Okay, the priorities for learning. I believe that, well, first of all, in terms of subject, I believe reading, writing, and math are the utmost importance for the school. I believe that [the leadership team] speaks about differentiating our instruction to reach all kinds of learners, no matter what level they are at and no matter how they learn, what modality they learn by. We really want to collect data, make sure that everything is assessment-based so that we can see where they stand and what progress, if any, they are making. That is pretty much what I have been told by the school, which I think is exactly what we need to do….2

Her answer communicates a wholly different image of the working ethos of the school she is in. Instead of demoralization, she communicates hope, clarity of purpose, and confidence. Her words express a sense of school-wide commitment and direction. It is clear that a leadership team has consistently communicated to her a productive way to think about her work and that of others in the school. This teacher’s emerging view of the work ahead attends to the differences among school children and to a finely tuned way of teaching them, based in evidence about their progress. In short, she owns the goal of learning improvement and she has a sense of how to get there. Her response and other things we learned about this school give further clues about the sources of her view of her responsibilities, among them:

  • The school’s leadership team placed priority on knowing the students as individuals— as both learners and members of a cultural community.
  • A school-wide learning improvement “agenda” was in place—a set of improvement goals generated and communicated by a leadership team, led by the principal and including assistant principals and several teacher leaders.
  • Regular instructional support was available to all teachers, especially novices, offered by administrative leaders and several others in the school who had assumed newly reconfigured roles that offer instructional leadership.
  • The school had devised its own system for tracking students’ progress and for making regular adjustments in their learning experiences, based on measures of their progress, that incorporated district tracking measures and other data the school found useful.
  • School staff shared responsibility for student progress, reflected in a set of agreements as well as unspoken norms among school staff, to assume such responsibility and to accept that all will be answerable for their efforts to accomplish this goal.

Digging a little deeper takes one beyond this school’s leadership, norms, and data systems to the larger district and state system in which the school sits. Several features of that environment further explain what has happened at this school:

  • The district central office had placed priority on assisting school principals in becoming strong instructional leaders, while also helping the principal attend to other aspects of the management of the school.
  • The district reform plan granted the principal significant discretion (and some additional discretionary resources) to define and deploy staff in ways that optimally support instruction and to access resources for professional development. The principal had made use of this discretion to configure her leadership team and engage several external partners to help address particular instructional improvement issues.
  • Clear system-wide improvement expectations had been communicated from both the district and state that set direction and lent urgency to the school’s efforts on behalf of its students, an urgency this principal accepts and leverages in her dealings with her staff.

This school’s scenario differs from the first image of demoralized school staff unable to engage questions of improving teaching and learning. Not surprisingly, the second school showed clear evidence of student learning growth, where the first did not.

The second scenario raises numerous questions about what is at work and how it got to be that way. While many things are involved, at the root of them is the exercise of leadership—by many people at different levels of the system—that brings focus, resources, and effort to the task of learning improvement. At first glance, it is tempting to conclude that the committed, energetic principal of the second school is the primary explanation for the difference in the two schools, but to do so would miss the point (after all, the first school had one such leader as well). Such an assumption would miss, among other things, that others inside the school share in the leadership work, some more visibly than others. And it would miss leadership at other levels of the system that empowers and guides the work of educators in the school. Finally, it would miss the distinction that all these leaders are themselves supported and led in ways that focus their energy and attention productively on the improvement of teaching and learning.

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