Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning

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 Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning


An investigation of leadership for school improvement and student achievement would be incomplete if it did not attend to the role of the states. Over the past three decades, the states have played an increasingly active role in promulgating policies to promote change in the education systems for which they have constitutional responsibility. In addition, policy makers and educators have viewed policy initiatives in light of their obligation to foster economic growth and social goals. But in matters of K- 12 education, the United States has a long tradition of local autonomy, and muscular new efforts to launch systemic reform have not always been received with enthusiasm by schools and districts. Leadership at the state level entails dealing with policies and practices that may seem far removed from people whose interest in schools is immediate and concrete—individual students and parents, for example. State-level leaders are charged with formulating policies that will frame practice in districts and schools more broadly, according to the public interest, and to provide incentives and sanctions for local implementation of those policies. Tensions have been inevitable in these efforts, which have left no state untouched.

How might these efforts be characterized? Scholarship about the relationship between policy leadership and complex social change presents three main images.241 A technical policy perspective is found in most policy analysis texts; it is generally associated with rational choice models.242 Policy leaders should, according to this perspective, focus on rational choices to be made once a policy issue is on the agenda. Another image emphasizes a political perspective, focusing on a naturalistic explanation of how policies are made. The indeterminate nature of leadership in the course of policy making, and the slippage that occurs as policy refinements accrue during implementation, help to explain how policies succeed or fail.243 Particular instruments used to reformulate policy are less important, according to this perspective, than understanding how a particular policy issue got the governor‘s or the legislative committee‘s attention in the first place.244 A third image, the practitioner perspective, emerges from studies of publicsector administrators; it examines the tendency of administrators to seek flexibility and autonomy in interpreting policies, and ways in which this tendency affects the broader process of change. Professionals who will be affected by proposed changes often see new policies and regulations as distractions from or add-ons to their "real work," and therefore interpret those policies to fit their needs.245 Rather than being passive recipients of policy, they are actors in the process of making policy. Professionals in schools, for example, have opportunities to pick and choose among the inducements and constraints that are offered by policies to further their own interests246 as they orchestrate the local policy process.247

Each of these perspectives has validity—that is, each describes and explains certain aspects of policy work. But the perspectives are seldom integrated in studies of policy leadership. This observation has influenced us in our formulation of the following key questions about leading and managing educational change:

  1. How do issues get defined and taken seriously as policy options at the state level?
  2. How do clusters of policies—systemic efforts at shaping educational reform—get embedded in state agencies and transmitted to create a local impact?
  3. How does local autonomy on the part of district and school leaders shift the process of systems change?

In Part Three we examine variations among state legislative and gubernatorial leaders (Section 3.1), and state education agencies (Section 3.2), in how policy leadership is undertaken, and we examine consequences of the variations. We also describe, in the context of policy work, differences in the relationships found among schools, districts, and states (Section 3.3)—differences that range significantly in their apparent value for fostering improvement in teaching and learning.

Adopting a political science framework focused on policy cultures and policy levers in, we show in Section 3.1 how different policy cultures can be, from state to state, and how stable they can be over time. We also identify wide variations across a sample of states in the policy instruments they choose to employ. We conclude, in part, that few states develop comprehensive approaches to education reform, and that the quite general direction states provide to state education agencies (SEAs) and districts offers limited guidance for specific approaches to improving teaching and learning.

State-level leadership is not confined to legislative action. SEAs play an important role in interpreting policy and providing support and guidance to districts and schools. The evidence we present in Section 3.2 shows that SEAs serve as the primary agencies for translating state mandates into action. In their work, SEAs now are increasingly occupied with creating partnerships to deliver technical assistance to districts, especially districts with profiles of weak student achievement.

In Section 3.3 we provide accounts of how districts interact with state and federal policies. These policies, our evidence suggests, have modest but important effects on local districts‘ efforts at planning for improvement. Typically, district and school leaders agree with the general intentions expressed in state and federal policy, but they exercise considerable discretion in implementing policies, taking care to honor local priorities in the process. We provide a synthesis of implications for policy and practice in Section 3.4.

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241. Louis (2007a).

242. Ostrom (1999).

243. Kingdon (2003).

244. Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith (1993).

245. Weatherly & Lipsky (1977).

246. Honig & Hatch (2004).

247. Wallace (2003).