How Leadership Influences Student Learning

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How Leadership Influences Student Learning

A few of the major challenges for district and school leaders aiming to improve teaching and learning in their organizations are to identify which elements or conditions in schools and classrooms have a significant effect on student learning; to figure out which of those elements or conditions are relatively accessible to their intervention (directly or indirectly) and finally to determine what are the most productive forms for those interventions to take. Existing research tells us quite a bit about the first of these challenges but relatively little about the second and third; it is the second and third of these challenges that will be the focus of our research about how school and district leaders can improve student learning.

This section summarizes evidence about school conditions which have a significant impact on student learning and describes effective leadership practices, identified or inferred, by that evidence. By school conditions we mean policies and practices concerning the school’s structure, culture, instructional services and human resources, for a total of 14 more specific policies and practices within these categories.

School structures

School size. A considerable amount of evidence suggests that pupils benefit from being part of relatively small organizations (e.g., Lee, 2000). For elementary schools, the optimum size seems to be about 250 to 300 students, whereas 600 to 700 students appears to be optimal for secondary schools.

Especially for struggling students, smaller schools increase the chances of their attendance and schoolwork being monitored. Smaller schools also increase the likelihood of students having a close, ongoing relationship with at least one other significant adult in the school, an important antidote to dropping out. Smaller school organizations tend to have more constrained and focused academic programs. Typically, they are also more communal in nature, with teachers taking more personal responsibility for the learning of each pupil. Summarizing the rationale for smaller schools, Lee, Ready and Johnson (2001) argue that:

    Constructs such as social networks, social resources, caring, social support, social capital, cultural capital and communal school organization are bound by a common idea. Students and adults in schools should know one another better (p. 367).

There is, Lee et al., go on to claim,

    …general agreement on the importance of positive social relations for adolescents’ academic and social development. Such relations are much more likely to develop in smaller schools (p. 367).

School personnel are not often in a position to determine the total numbers of students assigned to their school buildings (district leaders do). But they do have some control over the internal social structures of those schools. Because secondary schools often range in size from 1,000 to 3,000 students in the same building, creating schools-within-schools has frequently been recommended as a practical means for realizing the benefits of small units. While promising, this solution has not been nearly as widely implemented as is generally believed. Where it has been implemented, it is typically a response to uncommitted pupils – pupils with low attendance rates, high dropout rates and generally low performance.

Decentralized governance. School councils with either advisory or decision making responsibilities have been widely implemented in most districts by now. Often, when decentralized governance of this sort is used in schools, one of its central aims is to increase the voice of those who are not heard, or at least not much listened to, in the context of typical school governance structures. When this is the goal, a community control form of site-based management (e.g., Wohlstetter and Mohrman, 1993) typically is the instrument used for its achievement, as in Chicago. The basic assumption giving rise to this form of site-based management is that the curriculum of the school ought to directly reflect the values and preferences of parents and the local community (Ornstein, 1983). School professionals, it is claimed, typically are not as responsive to such local values and preferences as they ought to be. Their responsiveness is greatly increased, however, when the power to make decisions about curriculum, budget and personnel is in the hands of the parent/community constituents of the school. School councils in which parent/community constituents have a majority of the membership are the primary vehicle through which to exercise such power. Other forms of sitebased management cede greater voice to teachers or school administrators.

Site-based management is widespread, and experience with it relatively longstanding since it was the core instrument of the restructuring movement during the 1990s. Considerable empirical evidence suggests, however, that by itself it has made a disappointing contribution to the improvement of teaching and learning (Leithwood and Menzies, 1999). In those exceptional cases where teaching and learning have benefi ted from this approach to accountability, school leaders have, for example, adopted a supportive leadership role themselves, nurtured leadership on the part of others and strongly encouraged councils to adopt a capacity-building agenda (Beck and Murphy, 1998). Leadership practices such as these help transform an otherwise impotent strategy into at least a modest force for improving teaching and learning.

Decision making. Quite aside from the research on site-based management, there is a long line of research in organizations of many types, including schools, about the relationship between decision-making processes and organizational effectiveness. Much of the current literature in this area has been driven by a model of “high involvement” or “high performance” organizations (e.g., Lawler, Mohrman and Ledford, 1992). As applied to schools, there are at least four perspectives on why it is important for teachers to participate in decisions. From a bureaucratic perspective, these reasons include gaining teacher compliance with administrative decisions and building teacher loyalty to superordinates. From a perspective that views teachers as professionals, their participation in decision making is normative and is also seen as enhancing teachers’ organizational roles as professional decision-makers. A human relations perspective argues that teachers should be involved in decision making as a means of enhancing job satisfaction, morale and feelings of professional self-efficacy. From this perspective, teacher involvement is a means of avoiding feelings of powerlessness and workplace alienation, both of which can lead to stress and burnout. Finally, the newest of the perspectives, organizational learning, argues that teachers’ involvement in authentic forms of decision making is a central mechanism for making better use of the intellectual capacities distributed throughout the organization. This, in turn, results in better, and better coordinated, decisions (e.g., Dinham and Scott, 2000).

As the decision-making literature indicates, teachers may experience both traditional and newer forms of involvement in decision making. Traditional structures for decision making include staff meetings, department structures, committees and the like, whereas school-based management and school councils are among the newer structures for such involvement.

Whatever the form or structure, evidence suggests that teachers usually have the strongest desire to participate in decisions that most directly affect their work in the classroom, showing less need for involvement in policy or organizational decisions. This evidence also suggests that the most beneficial consequences of participation are achieved when teachers feel neither deprived nor saturated with opportunities for decisional participation. Such feelings of equilibrium are subject to considerable individual variation, however.

School culture

School-wide sense of community. The creation of a widely shared sense of community among all of a school’s stakeholders is important for several reasons. First, the affective bonds between students and teachers associated with a sense of community are crucial in engaging and motivating students to learn in schools of any type. A widely shared sense of community is also important as an antidote to the unstable, sometimes threatening and often insecure world inhabited by a significant proportion of the families and children served by especially challenging schools.

A collective sense of belonging for those living with these circumstances provides psychological identity with, and commitment to, others (Beck and Foster, 1999). Individuals who feel secure and purposeful as a result of these connections, identities and commitments are, in turn, less susceptible to the mindset of fatalism and disempowerment which often arises from repeated episodes of loss. Success at school depends on having goals for the academic, personal and vocational strands of one’s life, as well as a sense of self-efficacy about the achievement of those goals.

Antiracism. A growing body of evidence suggests that racism lies behind a significant proportion of the cultural “insensitivities” students from diverse backgrounds experience in school. Furthermore, this evidence calls into question multiculturalism, the most prevalent response to diversity in many schools and districts, because:

    …multiculturalism perpetuates a kind of color-blind relativism that implies that although people’s skin color may be different, they are regarded in our society…as equal and the same. This pretense both masks and denies the very real prejudice, conflict and differential achievement of students in most schools (Shields, LaRocque and Oberg, 2002, p. 117)

In place of multicultural policies and practices, school personnel are now encouraged to engage in “antiracism education” (Dei, 1996) in order to eliminate the marginalizing, oppressive and self-destructive impact of racism on people of color. Antiracism education works at several levels (Solomon, 2002). At the individual level, it attempts to eliminate behaviors that have a negative impact on people of color, while at the organizational level it critically examines and then alters the structures and policies that entrench and reproduce racism. As a general stance toward racism, teachers and administrators are encouraged “to analyze, challenge, and change power relations; advocate for equitable access of people of color to power and resources; and ensure their full participation in racially diverse societies” (Solomon, 2002, p. 176).

There is little empirical evidence about successful responses to racism in schools. Nonetheless, advocates of antiracism believe that teachers and administrators should establish antiracism as an ethical and moral imperative in their schools, and persistently and explicitly reject assumptions of cultural and racial deficiency (Wagstaff and Fusarelli, 1995). They argue, as well, that school leaders should expect all staff to work toward equity, democracy and social justice for all students and their families. With staff, these leaders should systematically examine the content and process of schooling to eliminate racism and to provide opportunities for racial minorities to express the negative impact of racism on their lives (Shields, LaRocque and Oberg, 2002).

For antiracism education to be effective, school staffs need to ensure that student racial and ethnic characteristics are reflected in the teaching and support personnel, because an ethnically diverse teaching staff has the potential to enrich the school’s teaching and learning, and to provide a voice for racial minority concerns (Solomon, 2002). School staffs will further antiracism education when they uphold antiracism principles and practices in the face of challenges from all stakeholders in the school. Shields, LaRocque and Oberg (2002) suggest that this might be accomplished by building a “community of difference” in the school, one which encourages respect, dialogue and understanding about differences rather than the shared norms, beliefs and values typically associated with the concept of community. Finally, advocates of antiracism argue that racism will be reduced as teachers and administrators build alliances and coalitions with other equity-conscious groups and agencies in the broader community.

Instructional policies and practices

Student retention and promotion. While retaining students by course has long been a common practice in secondary schools, social promotion by grade has been a common policy in elementary schools until quite recently. Over the past decade, conservative policymakers in many jurisdictions have enacted a “tough love” strategy for raising student performance which often includes retaining students at grade until they meet minimum passing standards often judged by the results of end-of-grade exams. Efforts to reform Chicago schools have been undertaken in two phases, the first focused on elementary schools, the second, beginning in 1995, on high schools (Allensworth and Miller, 2002). A major influence on high school reform outcomes to date has been the end of social promotion in elementary schools: students in the third, sixth and eighth grades who do not achieve a minimum score on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills are either retained or sent to academic preparatory centers. This policy has resulted in a substantial reduction in high school enrollments, partly by reducing the age at which students drop out of school. Dropouts now either do not enter, or spend fewer years in, high school. This means an overall improvement in the performance of students who do enter high school but may well mean less education for those who drop out.

Across all groups of elementary students, evidence strongly suggests that retention policies rarely produce improved learning and often have negative effects on learning as well as attitudes toward school and learning (McCoy and Reynolds, 1999; Westbury, 1994; Darling-Hammond, 1998). Some of this evidence seems contradictory, however, and this is because retention policies have dramatically different effects on different groups of pupils. For pupils with a relatively robust sense of academic selfefficacy, the raising of standards with clear sanctions for failure can be positively motivating. A robust sense of academic self- efficacy typically results in more work as a response to the threat of failure. So those who have traditionally done well at school, acquired high levels of academic self-efficacy in the process, but are not trying as hard as they could may well benefit from such policies. In contrast, those who have often struggled at school and frequently experienced failure are likely to have developed a low sense of academic self-efficacy. For them, the most likely response to the threat of being “held back” is to give up and, at the secondary level, to drop out of school altogether. Elementary schools serving diverse groups of students, this evidence suggests, should adopt a differentiated or contingent grade promotion policy, one that allows for either retention or social promotion based on careful diagnosis of the reasons for a student’s failure.

Instructional program coherence. While the amount of evidence about instructional program coherence is modest, an especially well-designed study by Newman, Smith, Allensworth and Bryk (2001) has reported impressive effects on pupils’ achievement in reading and mathematics in elementary schools serving communities experiencing high rates of poverty, social stress and racial diversity. For purposes of this study, instructional program coherence was defined as:

    …a set of interrelated programs for students and staff that are guided by a common framework for curriculum, instruction, assessment and learning climate and that are pursued over a sustained period (p. 297).

In contrast to excessive numbers of unrelated, unsustained improvement initiatives in a school, instructional coherence contributes to learning by connecting students’ experiences and building on them over time. As pupils see themselves becoming more competent, their motivation to learn is likely to increase also. Similar effects can be expected for teachers as they work collaboratively toward implementing a common instructional framework.

Developing instructional program coherence requires strong leadership which fosters teachers’ professional community and a shared commitment to the program. Leadership behaviors include: the decision to adopt or develop a common framework and to make it a priority for the school; to insist that the framework be used by all teachers; to strongly encourage teachers to work with their colleagues to implement the framework; and to provide sustained training for staff in the use of the framework (Newman et al., 2001).

Extracurricular activities. Extracurricular or “co-curricular” activities play an important role in students’ total development (Holland and Andre, 1987). Participation in extracurricular activities has been related to improved selfesteem, improved race relations in schools and greater involvement by students in social and political activities. Extracurricular activities also appear to contribute to better academic grades, higher educational aspirations, greater feelings of control over one’s life and reduced incidences of delinquency. “Good” high schools, this literature suggests, typically offer a signifi cant range of extracurricular activities. And smaller schools generally have higher levels of participation in these activities than do larger schools.

Human resources

Allocation of teacher time. Evidence about the use of teacher time (e.g., Hargreaves, 1990, 1992, 1994) acknowledges that it is a finite and valuable resource that is sometimes squandered by competing demands and conflicting priorities. Many school reform and restructuring initiatives, especially those which decentralize more decision making to the school, increase the hours that teachers work. These increases are greater in smaller schools and for those teachers who volunteer for or are assigned more responsibilities as curriculum developers, mentors, staff developers and the like.

Additional time spent working by teachers, especially on major school improvement initiatives, may contribute to greater professionalization of the role. Alternatively, such work may intensify the demands placed on teachers, particularly given current conditions of the changing composition of classes, mainstreaming, reduced classroom support, increased expectations for what schools should accomplish and a greatly expanded definition of the teacher’s role in many educational jurisdictions.

The professional work ethic of teachers, a product of their well-documented commitment to students (Lortie, 1975; Waugh, 2000), in combination with the factors mentioned above, contributes to relatively long hours of work for many teachers. Although one response to long working hours is to establish, in teacher contracts, designated amounts of preparation time, this response has mixed results. It allows some teachers to feel less stressed, better organized and more effective instructionally. But it sometimes contributes to teachers’ isolation from one another and to contrived collegiality. Some teachers also worry that such time reduces continuity of instruction with their students.

Teacher working conditions. Research evidence identifies conditions which enhance teachers’ work by affecting such variables as teacher commitment, effort and job satisfaction. The amount of evidence in support of any one of these conditions varies, but in most cases is best described as moderate. These conditions include:

  • visible student outcomes
  • relatively high levels of student achievement
  • opportunities to teach academic subjects
  • powerful and salient feedback about teacher efforts to influence student learning
  • low levels of student disruptions and misbehavior
  • opportunities for teacher leadership in the school
  • visibility of new roles
  • high levels of perceived support by school administrators
  • broader participation in school decisions
  • clear links between change initiatives and student welfare
  • avoidance of excessive emphases on evaluation and accountability, especially
    with simplistic performance assessment techniques
  • opportunities to be rewarded with more pay and career opportunities
  • teacher incentive structures
  • peer assistance, especially for new teachers
  • teaming with other teachers
  • adequate equipment and other resources in the classroom
  • high levels of classroom autonomy
  • increased program coordination
  • increased teacher leadership opportunities
  • opportunities for professional development
  • relatively high maximum end-of-career salaries

Variability, complexity and uncertainty in the workplace reduce teachers’ commitment, effort and satisfaction. Conditions associated with these qualities of the workplace include the number of periods taught, the number of different preparations required, the proportion of a teacher’s classes that he/ she feels competent to teach, the total number of students in classes and the average achievement levels of students in class.

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