Learning-Focused Leadership and Leadership Support: Meaning and Practice in Urban Systems
    1. Providing resources to sustain learning-focused leadership
    2. Supporting leaders’ professional learning
    3. Brokering leaders relationships with peers
    4. Responding to leaders’ operational needs
    5. Sponsoring and legitimizing learning-focused leadership

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

In one sense, the five sets of learning-focused leadership practices discussed previously took teachers, teaching, and student learning as their primary reference point—after all, instructional leadership is about improving instruction. But the route for reaching teachers and instruction often lay through other leaders’ work. Because of this, school and district leaders in the systems we studied were simultaneously engaged in multiple forms of leadership support, alongside or as part of learning-focused leadership practice. In other words, they didn’t take for granted that teacher leaders, school principals, or central office staff would know how to lead effectively or would have the means and legitimacy to engage others in learning improvement. As a consequence, explicit and focused support for leadership work was intrinsic to learning-focused leadership. Most important, the steps taken to support learning-focused leadership were themselves leadership acts, essential dimensions of a leadership system that guided the improvement of teaching and learning.

“Support” meant different things to leaders who occupied varying positions within the educational system, and so the task of supporting learning-focused leadership reflected certain activities and arrangements, suggested schematically by Figure 4.

Figure 4. Activities and Arrangements for Supporting Learning-focused Leadership


New teacher leaders in a school, for example, faced challenges that were different from central office personnel managers; principals and instructional coaches, likewise, had different work to do, in the service of instructional improvement. That said, across the districts and schools we studied, some common sources and forms of leadership support were apparent, each attending to a different set of support needs. Five forms of leadership support, summarized in Table 1, were especially noticeable:

Table 1. Leadership Support Activities


These leadership support activities and the forms of support they provide interrelate in many ways—regular professional development meetings can also serve as a location for fostering peer networks; crisis management assistance can turn into an occasion for new professional learning; and so on. Nonetheless, it is helpful to consider one at a time what these different facets of leadership support entail and the forms they can take in practice.

1. Supporting learning-focused leadership means providing various resources to enable leaders to sustain their instructional improvement work.

Supporting learning-focused leadership means, among other things, providing leaders with the resources that enable sustained attention to instructional improvement. The initial investment in staff engaged in instructional leadership, mentioned previously, was only a first step. Beyond that, in the daily exercise of leadership, school and district leaders needed time, expertise related to particular problems of instructional practice, small amounts of funds for stipends or substitutes, and sufficient autonomy to experiment within a framework of agreed-upon expectations for results. The resource supports that our informants judged essential to their work varied by their positioning in the system, for example:

  • Resources provided to teacher leaders: Scheduled time in the work week to interact with others in the school building’s instructional leadership team or for organized engagement with groups of teachers; funds to support participation in courses or other outside events; or access to appropriate materials for coaching work.
  • Resources provided to supervisory leaders in schools: Funds and/or full-time equivalents to use in hiring instructional support staff or others needed to support classroom teachers’ work; autonomy or flexibility in using the school budget for instructional improvement purposes; data of various kinds on school performance, climate, participation; or observational tools (like walk-through protocols) to help focus and expand instructional supervision work.
  • Resources provided to central office staff who work most directly with the schools: Time for interaction among team members working with the same set of schools or instructional frameworks, cycle-of-inquiry protocols, and other data-based tools used in interactions with school principals.

The districts and schools we studied differed in how much they were able to provide leaders; some were in better financial shape than others, and resource requests were not always met. But the important thing was that the sites we studied made special efforts to attend to individual leaders’ varied resource needs at whatever level and, where possible, to respond to those needs on a differentiated basis.

2. Regular occasions for leaders to engage in their own professional learning are an essential support for learningfocused leadership.

The leaders we got to know in this study were learners, and they thought of themselves that way—in part, because the system in which they worked provided them with regular opportunities to enhance their learning about instruction itself and how it could be better and simultaneously about instructional leadership work. For example:

  • Teacher leaders and supervisory administrators in several schools used regular classroom walk-throughs as a way of sharpening each others’ capacity to grasp what was happening in classroom instruction and where it could be improved.
  • In several districts, regular one-on-one sessions with central office staff provided principals with opportunities for feedback and modeling of good instructional leadership practice.
  • Weekly meetings of central office staff members who worked directly with schools created a facilitated forum for examining their own work as districtbased leaders and considering ways to improve it.

These kinds of activities served as a source of ideas for alternative ways of approaching certain aspects of the leadership work, offered direct teaching of leadership techniques (e.g., through modeling of leadership practices and reflective debriefing of the observed modeling), and provided leaders with a regular opportunity to diagnose problems of their leadership practice. Various kinds of people could facilitate these forms of professional learning support, including experienced administrators from the central office, external consultants, and expert colleagues or administrators within a school building.

3. Facilitating relationships among peers and colleagues doing similar work provides support for learning-focused leadership..

The potential of relationships with peers to offer various kinds of support for learning-focused leadership was amply demonstrated in the schools and districts we studied. Here, while the support was often formally arranged or encouraged, it also occurred as a natural by-product of regular interaction among people who faced the same problems of practice and were eager to pick each others’ brains, share frustrations, or otherwise stay in touch with new possibilities. Peer support through network arrangements in several districts linked sets of 20 to 25 schools together and convened principals, as well as other groups with similar roles (assistant principals, coaches) at regular intervals. Access to colleagues engaged in similar leadership work (specialists, coaches, instructionally oriented assistant principals) also happened within schools. In these instances, colleagues were often organized to provide a kind of mutual support system for each others’ instructional improvement efforts. Participants in these support systems offered willing ears to listen to the issues that inevitably arose in the difficult work of instructional leadership—but they also provided ideas, advice, and problemsolving as trusted colleagues who were not in a position of authority over the leader seeking support. As one of four instructional specialists in one school with Springfield, MA, explained to us:

    Well, as you see, we have a “dorm room” here—it’s all four of us sticking together, and actually when [one of us] was across the hallway at the beginning of the year, that made no sense…because we spent our time in the hallway trying to find each other…but I can just [call my colleague’s name] across the room versus being lazy and have to get up and walk across the hall….We all meet once a week for Leadership Team, which is tomorrow. It’s definitely a working team, and the whole cliché of there’s no “I”—there really is no “I” in team.…It’s easy for us because, there are bumps, but we talk through the bumps, if it doesn’t work.

In the most developed instances of this kind of arrangement, members of networked groups of principals were encouraged to see themselves as resources for each others’ work, by making known and available to each other their differing expertise as a potential source for future assistance or advice.

4. Support for learning-focused leadership means responsive attention to administrative or management issues facing the school.

Especially for the administrative leaders in a school (principals and assistant principals) but for others as well, the daily urgencies of urban education entail an enormous number of practical and logistical issues that demand time, attention, diplomacy, and often specialized skill to handle. On one end of a continuum, these matters concerned the management of personnel, supply orders, procurement of vendor services, and maintenance of the school facility, and on the other end, the management of crises, staff conflict, delicate student placement issues, or interactions with irate parents. In many cases, these issues required, or at least could benefit from, external assistance or intervention.

While urban education bureaucracies are notoriously unresponsive to such matters, the districts we studied had worked on attending to such operational needs in a responsive and streamlined manner as an essential means of maintaining an overall focus on teaching and learning. An SRT Executive Director in Atlanta described that district’s approach as follows:

    [T]he way I think it was intended is to streamline things for the principals and for the schools. Meaning I [as principal] have a question about something, it’s kind of a one-stop shop; meaning I bring my question to the SRT and the SRT will navigate [the central office] in the answer. So I’m not going through seven departments in Central Office to figure out the nitty-gritty of something. So I think it’s streamlining the supports.

In this spirit, the districts we studied employed one or more of the following approaches:

  • Developing regular, tailored assistance relationships with school principals designed to respond to the school leaders’ operational as well as instructional needs.
  • Instituting arrangements within the central office, to encourage coordinated, cross-functional follow-through on central office tasks, while discouraging the fragmentation of responsibility that so often slows down and dilutes the potency of central office response to school needs.
  • Establishing internal incentives and feedback systems within the central office to encourage all units and staff to see themselves as having a direct service relationship with the schools.

More to the point, the systems and leaders we studied did not treat these matters as separate from instructional improvement but rather intrinsically connected to it. Thus, helping school leaders deal with a leaky roof or rewire a school building in a timely way was part of maintaining an instructional program that kept teachers and their students focused on learning. Enabling prompt personnel transactions was part of getting good instructional staff in front of students who needed them, without loss of instructional days or weeks. Absent this kind of operational and crisis-management support, school administrators’ working days were at risk of being consumed by matters that did not necessarily enhance the instructional improvement work of the school.

5. Learning-focused leadership needs to be sponsored and legitimized within the school, district central office, and larger community.

Finally, a different yet essential kind of support resided in the efforts by leaders, often those in positions of supervisory authority, to proactively sponsor and legitimize learning-focused leadership work. This kind of support was necessary because, for reasons discussed earlier—its newness, ambiguity, lack of precedent, or lack of trust—learning-focused leadership can be organizationally fragile and easily abandoned, especially in the early stages of reorienting leadership toward learning improvement.

By championing the overall enterprise, reminding people what they were doing and why, and by normalizing new and unusual forms of leadership practice, leaders who acted as sponsors for learning-focused leadership communicated that it was a legitimate and expected part of the educational system, for both those occupying traditional and accepted positions and others in relatively new or unfamiliar roles. Sponsorship of learning-focused leadership showed up in three primary ways in our studies:

  • Normalizing teacher leaders’ work in schools. In many of the schools we studied in which teachers and others were assuming various middle-ground positions between the supervisory administrators and classroom teachers, conscious steps were taken by the school administrators to explain and legitimize the efforts of the new teacher leaders to staffs who were sometimes reluctant or resistant.
  • “Stewarding” central office transformation efforts. Transforming the central office in the sites we studied took relentless stewardship not just by superintendents but by various staff, including chiefs of staff, executive directors, and others throughout the central office. Stewardship involved developing and explaining the theory of action underlying transformation efforts, both within the districts and to external constituencies, and creating various opportunities for people inside and outside the school system to understand what the district was doing. It also involved strategically brokering external resources to support the ongoing effort to transform the system.
  • Shepherding the equity conversation in district-wide resource planning. Through a process that could last years, district leaders helped stakeholders identify the equity challenges facing a district or school and publicly built a community mission that prioritizes enhancing the equity of the educational system. Then, as specific actions were taken to enhance equity, the leaders engaged stakeholders in continuing conversation leading up to, and following, specific decisions to invest resources disproportionately, thereby trying to craft coherence and foster deeper commitment among the various parties.

These kinds of actions by educational leaders provide a kind of overall political support for learning-focused leaders’ efforts. At the same time, these actions clarify the direction of improvement work and the compelling reasons for it. In this sense, educational systems recognize that leadership is likely to face resistance and engender conflict and that leaders who pursue a learning improvement agenda need protection.

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