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

Click here to download the full report:
 Learning-Focused Leadership and Leadership Support: Meaning and Practice in Urban Systems

Research is beginning to probe the kind of leadership revealed in the second scenario. This report summarizes what the authors learned from a multi-strand investigation, the Study of Leadership for Learning Improvement, that adds to the understanding of this realm of educational leadership. Together, the three study strands in our research shed light on the questions: What makes the leadership of urban districts and schools most likely to contribute to learning improvement? To what extent, and how, do different leadership activities, structures, and practices focus others on an improvement agenda and mobilize efforts in this pursuit? Who or what supports leaders who are working to improve the quality of teaching and learning? What does that “leadership support” entail?

In approaching these questions, our research was guided by an overarching set of ideas we refer to as “learning-focused leadership,” and that others have described as “learning-centered leadership” or “leadership for learning.”3 Our particular take on this way of characterizing leadership work focuses attention on powerful, equitable learning among students and professionals and within the system as a whole.4 And, as we show in Figure 1 on page 5, both are connected to the idea of leadership support.

“Leadership” we define as the shared work and commitments that shape the direction of a school or district and their learning improvement agendas, and that engage effort and energy in pursuit of those agendas. We distinguish “leadership” from “leaders” and from “roles” or “positions,” though the latter are instrumental in achieving the former and, as such, figure prominently in our research.

Across all, we paid special attention to what is generally referred to as “instructional leadership”—which we treat as intentional efforts at all levels of an educational system to guide, direct, or support teachers as they seek to increase their repertoire of skills, gain professional knowledge, and ultimately improve their students’ success. We thus subsume within this term much more than conventional images of instructional leadership that concentrate on individuals providing assistance or guidance to teachers, as in the school principal or literacy coach engaged in what amounts to “instructional coaching” or “clinical supervision.” Rather, we are concerned about the full range of activities, carried out by various educators, that offer teachers ideas, assistance, or moral support specifically directed at instruction and that urge or even compel teachers to try to improve. We further assume that instructional leadership is inherently distributed among different staff in the school building and across levels of the system—that is, more than one kind of individual or unit are influencing teachers’ work, whether or not they recognize and coordinate their respective efforts.

Figure 1. Three Connected Ideas


The Study of Leadership for Learning Improvement took a close look at three facets of learning-focused leadership in urban systems. The study strands all relied heavily on qualitative inquiry strategies conducted over a year and a half (the 2007–08 school year and the beginning of the following year) through repeated visits to seven moderate- to large-sized urban districts and to a selected set of 15 schools within them (see Methodological Notes, page 35, for a more detailed description of study methods and design). The research teams for the three study strands accumulated hundreds of interviews, many observations of leadership events, and numerous archival sources that shed light on the leadership issues under investigation. The study strands investigated learning-focused leadership and how it is supported from three vantage points:

  • The investment of staffing and other resources in support of equitable learning improvement. This study strand examined decisions made by district- and school-level leaders concerning the improvement of teaching and learning and the dynamics of doing so when increasing equity was a goal.5
  • The development and exercise of distributed instructional leadership within the school. This study strand profiled the activities of the full range of staff in the school engaged in leadership aimed at teaching and learning, both those in administrative positions (principals, assistant principals) and others exercising teacher leadership, either formally or informally, while also detailing the central role that principals play in this distributed leadership work.6
  • The transformation of central office work practices and the district-school relationship to develop and sustain instructional leadership capacity. This study strand concentrated on the daily work of administrators throughout the central office as they transformed their work practices to help build principals’ capacity for instructional leadership.7

The three study strands examined these matters within districts and schools where leaders were engaged in proactive attempts to address learning-focused leadership issues. All three study strands focused on two district sites (Atlanta Public Schools and the New York City/Empowerment Schools Organization)8 and selected schools within them. Each study strand added to these sites one or two others—Portland and Eugene, OR (for investment analyses); Springfield, MA, and Norwalk-La Mirada, CA (for school leadership analyses); and Oakland, CA (for central office transformation analyses). Together, the study sites offered a wide range of contexts, all of which were making learning improvement a high priority, displaying promising practices and structures, and showing some evidence of progress (locally defined) in educating a diverse, impoverished urban population.

Despite the differences in the samples and in our approaches to studying them, the three study strands offer complementary insights into the exercise of learningfocused leadership and how it is guided and supported. Two sets of themes emerged from the study findings. The first concerned the practice of learningfocused leadership and what it meant to bring it to bear in a more compelling way on instructional improvement. The second concerned the ways in which learningfocused leaders were themselves supported. And, as suggested schematically in Figure 2 below, leadership support was integrally connected to the practice of learning-focused leadership, and vice versa.

Figure 2. Learning-focused Leadership Practice and Leadership Support in the Service of Learning Improvement


< < Previous | Next > >