Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning

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 Learning From Leadership: Investigati​ng the Links to Improved Student Learning


With its focus on school-level leadership, Part One seeks to identify, elaborate, and clarify existing knowledge about successful leadership practices. Because leadership is enacted by many people in schools, we begin by addressing the nature, causes, and consequences of the alternative forms and patterns of leadership among school and district staff members. Our evidence about leadership distribution contributes to an ongoing conversation among researchers and practitioners aimed at determining implications for school improvement.26

To obtain evidence about leadership distribution and its effects, we conducted our examination through the use of distinctly different lenses. Our observations made by way of these lenses yield a richer understanding of leadership distribution than we could have attained via a narrower approach.

Section 1.1 is concerned with the influence various stakeholders (parents and other community members, for example) may have on school decisions. Our work in this section has some bearing on the definition of leadership. Many texts describe leadership as an ambiguous, evolving concept, yet to be clearly defined.27 Indeed, Stogdill argued many years ago that "there are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept" (1974, p. 259). Our own reading suggests, however, that Yukl is correct in claiming that almost all definitions assume leadership entails at least some form of social influence which might be "viewed as a property of an individual or a property of a social system" (1994, p. 3). Collective leadership, for our purposes, is defined by this minimalist but basic conception of leadership-as-influence—and as a property of the system rather than an individual.

Evidence about collective leadership reported in Section 1.1 reveals the extent of influence exercised by most stakeholders in and around schools on decisions in the school. This section also indicates that there is considerable variation across schools in the nature and extent of stakeholders‘ influence, and it suggests that student achievement benefits from relatively greater influence by all stakeholders in school decisions.

Section 1.2 adopts a "shared" conception of distributed leadership, one typically reflecting a group- or team-level approach in which all members share responsibility for leading contingent upon the task, the time required, and the expertise needed.28 In their recent text on shared leadership, Pearce and Conger (2003) trace the roots of this conception to two early studies. The first of these (Follett, 1924) essentially advocated leadership through expert rather than positional power, whereas the second (Bowers & Seashore, 1966) provided evidence that peer sources of leadership in large organizations could have significant effects on organizational outcomes.

We stipulated a narrower conception of shared leadership for the research reported in Section 1.2. This conception is oriented toward shared and contingent responsibility, but it focuses on leadership exercised by those most directly responsible for student learning—principals and teachers. Section 1.2 examines the effects on students of principals and teachers assuming shared responsibility for leadership; it also identifies some conditions that influence the emergence and mediate the effects of this approach to leadership in schools.

The examination of distributed leadership in Section 1.3 introduces explicit leadership practices. By reference to a qualitative data set, this section discloses who enacts which practices, how different patterns of leadership enactment emerge, and whether variation in such patterns makes a difference for schools and students. Viewed from a principal‘s perspective, this research also suggests implications for how leadership might be distributed more productively in schools.

Sections 1.4 and 1.5 identify the actual practices or behaviors, however distributed, giving rise to leadership influence on teaching and learning. Both sections report the perceptions of principals and teachers, selected according to quite different criteria, about the leadership practices they believe are helpful in improving classroom instruction. Section 1.4 is informed by a synthesis of results from a body of prior evidence about leadership practices demonstrably successful across organizational sectors and national cultures.29 Using qualitative evidence from principals and teachers, this section assesses the relevance of these practices across different school contexts and provides greater detail about how they are enacted in those contexts.

In Section 1.5, we take an additional step in our efforts to identify productive leadership practices. We adopt a grounded-theory approach to a different set of data, also collected from principals and teachers. This sub-study distinguishes between efforts by school leaders to create a vision and climate among staff members, on the one hand, and, on the other, the actions leaders take to realize that vision. Together, Sections 1.4 and 1.5 offer a detailed account of the leadership behaviors deemed by those closest to the action to be influential in shaping teachers‘ work with students. These sections also point to substantial differences in the extent to which these actions are enacted by formal leaders in elementary as compared to secondary schools.

Section 1.6, building on analyses from the previous two sections, demonstrates that leaders, to be successful, need to be highly sensitive to the contexts in which they work. From one perspective, such contexts moderate (enhance or mute) the influence of any given set of leadership practices. From a more practical perspective, different contexts call for quite different enactments of the same basic set of successful leadership practices.

Section 1.7 synthesizes implications for policy and practice arising from the six sections in Part One.

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26. Comprehensive overviews of this research can be found in Harris (2009), and Leithwood, Harris & Hopkins (2008), for example.

27. E.g., Rost (1991).

28. Yammarino et al. (2005).

29. For example, see Leithwood et al. (2006); Robinson et al. (2008); and Waters et al. (2003).