Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning

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 Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning

Purposes for the Study

Education is widely held to be crucial for the survival and success of individuals and countries in the emerging global environment. U.S. politicians of all stripes have placed education at the center of their political platforms, and education has been at the center of many European and Asian policy agendas. Comparable agreement is also evident about the contributions of leadership to the implementation of virtually all initiatives aimed at improving student learning and the quality of schools. It is therefore difficult to imagine a focus for research with greater social justification than research about successful educational leadership. That was the broad focus for this six-year study funded by the Wallace Foundation: to identify the nature of successful educational leadership and to better understand how such leadership can improve educational practices and student learning.

More specifically, we sought to do the following:

  • Identify state, district, and school leadership practices that directly or indirectly foster the improvement of educational practices and student learning.
  • Clarify how successful leadership practices directly and indirectly influence the quality of teaching and learning.
  • Determine the extent to which individuals and groups at state, district, school, and classroom levels possess the will and skill required to improve student learning, and the extent to which their work settings allow and encourage them to act on those capacities and motivations.
  • Describe the ways in which, and the success with which, individuals and groups at the state, district, school, and classroom levels help others to acquire the will and skill required to improve student learning.
  • Identify the leadership and workplace characteristics of districts and schools that encourage the values, capacities, and use of practices that improve student learning.

The Educational Leadership Effect

Although leadership is widely thought to be a powerful force for school effectiveness, this popular belief needs to be justified by empirical evidence. There are five types of such evidence, each offering its own estimate of the size of leader effects.

One type is evidence from qualitative case studies. Studies providing this type of evidence typically are conducted in exceptional school settings, selected as exemplars of effectiveness.1 Some such studies report large leadership effects—on student learning and on an array of school conditions.Other qualitative studies focus on "typical" schools rather than outliers; these studies often produce complex pictures of how leadership operates in different settings.2 Many educators and scholars find the descriptions provided by case studies to be interesting and informative. But descriptions of a small number of cases do not yield explanations of leadership effects for a more general population of schools.3

The second type of evidence derives from large-scale quantitative studies of leadership effects on schools and students. Evidence of this type, as reported and reviewed since about 1980,4 suggests that the direct and indirect effects of school leadership on student learning are small but significant. Leadership explains five to seven percent of the variation in student learning across schools (not to be confused with the very large within-school effects that are likely). Five to seven percent, however, is about one quarter of the total across-school variation (12 to 20 percent) explained by all schoollevel variables, after controlling for student intake or background factors.5 (Classroom factors explain more than a third of the variation.) To date, however, research of this sort has done little to clarify how leaders achieve the effects in question, and its implications for leadership practice are, therefore, limited.

A third type of evidence derives from studies (also large-scale and quantitative) focused on the effects of specific leadership practices. Some evidence of this sort can be found in the research briefly summarized above. But a meta-analysis conducted by Waters, Marzano and McNulty (2003) extends our understanding of the explanatory potential of this type of research. Waters et al. identify 21 leadership "responsibilities" (behaviors); then they calculate an average correlation between each responsibility and the measures of student learning used in the original studies. From these data they calculate estimated effects of the respective responsibilities on student test scores. For example: there would be a 10 percentile point increase in student test scores resulting from the work of an average principal if she improved her "demonstrated abilities in all 21 responsibilities by one standard deviation" (2003, p. 3). Extending this line of inquiry, Marzano et al. (2005) provide a comparable analysis of research on district-level leadership, identifying five broad categories of superintendent leadership.

A fourth type of evidence derives from studies of leadership effects on student engagement, as distinct from effects on student learning. Some evidence suggests that student engagement is a strong predictor of student learning.6 Recently, at least 10 largescale, quantitative studies, similar in design, have assessed the effects of leadership behavior on student engagement; all have reported significant positive effects.7

Finally, a different but quite compelling sort of evidence about leadership effects derives from research on leadership succession. Unplanned principal succession, for example, is a common source of adverse effects on school performance, regardless of what teachers might do. Studies by Macmillan (2000) and Fink & Brayman (2006) demonstrate the devastating effects of rapid principal succession, especially on initiatives intended to increase student learning. And rapid succession is very common. Clearly, leadership matters.

In developing a starting point for this six-year study, we claimed, based on a preliminary review of research,8 that leadership is second only to classroom instruction as an influence on student learning, After six additional years of research, we are even more confident about this claim. To date we have not found a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership. Why is leadership crucial? One explanation is that leaders have the potential to unleash latent capacities in organizations. Put somewhat differently: most school variables, considered separately, have only small effects on student learning9. To obtain large effects, educators need to create synergy across the relevant variables. Among all the parents, teachers, and policy makers who work hard to improve education, educators in leadership positions are uniquely well positioned to ensure the necessary synergy.

Meanings of Leadership

Leadership can be described by reference to two core functions. One function is providing direction; the other is exercising influence. Whatever else leaders do, they provide direction and exercise influence. This does not imply oversimplification. Each of these two leadership functions can be carried out in different ways, and the various modes of practice linked to the functions distinguish many "models" of leadership.

In carrying out these two functions, leaders act in environments marked variously by stability and change. These conditions interact in complementary relationships. While stability is often associated with resistance and maintenance of the status quo, it is in fact difficult for leaders and other educators to leap forward from a wobbly foundation. To be more precise, it is stability and improvement that have this symbiotic relationship. Leaping forward from a wobbly foundation may well produce change, but not change of the sort that most of us value—falling flat on your face is the image that comes to mind. Wobbly foundations and unwise leaping help to explain why the blizzard of changes adopted by our schools over the past half century have had little effect on the success of our students. School reform efforts have been most successful in those schools that have needed them least.10 These have been schools with well-established processes and capacities in place, providing foundations on which to build—in contrast to those schools, the ones most often of concern to reformers, short on essential infrastructure.

How do these concepts come together in a clarification of leadership? Leadership is all about organizational improvement; more specifically, it is about establishing agreed-upon and worthwhile directions for the organization in question, and doing whatever it takes to prod and support people to move in those directions. Our general definition of leadership highlights these points: it is about direction and influence. Stability is the goal of what is often called management. Improvement is the goal of leadership. But both are very important. One of the most serious threats to stability in a school district is frequent turnover in the ranks of superintendents, principals, and vice principals. Instability at the school level often reflects a failure of management at the district level.

Alternative Models of Leadership Reflected in the Literature

Leadership in non-school contexts. Research on leadership in non-school contexts is frequently driven by theory referred to by one of our colleagues as "adjectival leadership models." A recent review of such theory identified, for example, 21 leadership approaches that have been objects of considerable theoretical and empirical development.11 Seventeen have been especially attractive, and some of them have informed research in school contexts.12 Here are some examples.

  • Contingent leadership. Encompassing research on leadership styles, leader problem solving, and reflective leadership, this two-dimensional conception of leadership explains differences in leaders‘ effectiveness by reference to a task or relationship style and to the situations in which leaders find themselves. To be most effective, according to this model, leaders must match their styles to their settings.
  • Participative leadership. Addressing attention to leadership in groups, shared leadership,13 and teacher leadership,14 this model is concerned with how leaders involve others in organizational decisions. Research informed by the model has investigated autocratic, consultative, and collaborative sharing styles.
  • Transformational and charismatic leadership. This model focuses on ways in which leaders exercise influence over their colleagues and on the nature of leader-follower relations. Both forms of leadership emphasize communicating a compelling vision, conveying high performance expectations, projecting self confidence, modeling appropriate roles, expressing confidence in followers‘ ability to achieve goals, and emphasizing collective purpose.15

Leadership in education. Leadership research also has been informed by models developed specifically for use in school- and district-level settings. Of these, the instructional leadership model is perhaps the most well known. (It bears some resemblance to more general, task-oriented leadership theories.16) The instructional leadership concept implies a focus on classroom practice. Often, however, specific leadership practices required to establish and maintain that focus are poorly defined. The main underlying assumption is that instruction will improve if leaders provide detailed feedback to teachers, including suggestions for change. It follows that leaders must have the time, the knowledge, and the consultative skills needed to provide teachers—in all the relevant grade levels and subject areas—with valid, useful advice about their instructional practices. While these assumptions have an attractive ring to them, they rest on shaky ground, at best; the evidence to date suggests that few principals have made the time and demonstrated the ability to provide high quality instructional feedback to teachers.17 Importantly, the few well-developed models of instructional leadership posit a set of responsibilities for principals that go well beyond observing and intervening in classrooms—responsibilities touching on vision, organizational culture, and the like.18

In addition, studies of school leadership are replete with other adjectives purporting to capture something uniquely important about the object of inquiry—for example, learning leadership,19 constructivist leadership,20 and change leadership.21 Few of these efforts, however, have been products of a sustained line of inquiry yielding the sort of evidence needed to justify their claims. This observation influenced our approach as we began our study. Eschewing any particular model of leadership, we examined the actual practices, across models, for which there was significant evidence of desirable effects.

Significant Features of Our Research

The investigation reported here was among the largest of its kind at the time we conducted it. Its particularly noteworthy features, as against other educational leadership studies, include the size of the data base, the use of multiple theoretical and methodological approaches to the research, and the comprehensive sources of leadership examined.

Size of the data base. We collected data from a wide range of respondents in nine states, 43 school districts, and 180 elementary, middle, and secondary schools. At the state level, we conducted interviews with legislators, stakeholders, and members of state education agencies. In districts, we interviewed senior district leaders, elected board members, representatives of the media, and other informants. We used survey instruments and interviews with teachers and administrators, and we conducted classroom observations with most of the teachers we interviewed. We collected survey data in the first and fourth years of the study; we conducted interviews in districts and schools in three cycles over the five years of the project. These efforts yielded, by the end of the project, survey data from a total of 8,391 teachers and 471 school administrators; interview data from 581 teachers and administrators, 304 district level informants, and 124 state personnel; and observational data from 312 classrooms. Finally, we obtained student achievement data for literacy and mathematics in elementary and secondary grades, using scores on the states'tests for measuring Adequate Yearly Progress as mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. (For a detailed description of the data base, see the Methodological Appendix.)

Multiple methodological approaches. We used qualitative and quantitative methods to gain certain advantages associated with multiple-methods research. The advantages typically include "rich opportunities for cross-validating and crossfertilizing… procedures, findings, and theories" (Brewer & Hunter, 1989, p. 13). Our particular use of multiple methods offered opportunities that we had not fully appreciated in the early stages of our work. These included opportunities to discover significant patterns and relationships in our quantitative evidence, which we were then able to pursue in greater depth, thanks to our qualitative evidence. One example appears in Section 2.2. From the analysis of our first-round survey data we found that one of the most powerful sources of districts‘ influence on schools and students was through the development of school leaders‘ collective sense of efficacy about their jobs. With this connection well established quantitatively, we then mined principal-interview data to learn in greater detail what districts actually did to develop a sense of efficacy among principals. Similar examples of this approach to our data can be found in Sections 2.4, 2.5, and (taken as a whole) Sections 1.1 to 1.3.

Multiple theoretical perspectives. In collecting data and working to make sense of our results, we drew upon conceptual tools from sociology, socio-psychology, political science, and organizational theory. Sociological concepts informed our understanding of shared leadership (1.2), contexts for leadership (1.5), and community engagement (2.1). Socio-psychological perspectives helped us analyze leader efficacy (2.2) and (along with organizational theory) the nature of successful leadership practices (1.4), as well as the use of evidence in districts and schools (2.5), and leader succession (2.4). Political science concepts framed our research about state leadership (3.1).

Our goal with this seemingly eclectic approach was to draw on the theoretical perspectives best suited to the question at hand—an approach especially well suited to a project like ours with multiple principal investigators who had studied and used each strand of theory in their prior work. We shared the view that using multiple methods and theoretical perspectives can provide a powerful antidote to the unintended self-deceptions that sometimes arise from the use of more unitary approaches. Our approach, however, also challenged us to develop a valid and coherent storyline from the data. In that effort, inevitably, we have sacrificed some measure of coherence in order to present a rich account of our findings.

Comprehensiveness of sources of leadership. Most leadership studies in education focus on a single institutional role. The bulk of it focuses on the principals‘ role,22 with a growing but still modest body of attention to district-level leadership.23 Over the past decade, researchers have also begun to study leadership provided by teachers.24

The recent flurry of attention to a broader spectrum or distribution of leadership has begun to sensitize us to the remarkable array of people who exercise formal or informal leadership in schools and districts. Research of this sort also shows that the influence of leadership on organizational outcomes arises from the behaviors of these various people acting as leaders in either an "additive" or "holistic" manner (Gronn, 2009. We cannot push our understanding of leadership influence much further without considering the many sources of leadership in the education system and also the web of interaction created by these sources. To date, our study is one of only a few to have examined leadership at each organizational level in the school system as a whole—state, district, school, classroom, and community.

The comprehensive approach reminds us that every leader is at the same time constrained and enabled in some measure by the actions of others (including other leaders), and by the consequences of those actions. Without a better understanding of such antecedents and consequences, we are left with an impoverished appreciation of why leaders behave as they do. Invoking social theory, the more comprehensive perspective has the potential to shift the field of educational leadership research from a dominant preoccupation with "agency" (explaining leaders‘ behaviors as a function of individual capacities, motivations, and traits), toward a more balanced understanding of how the structures within which leaders work also shape the work that they do.

Framework Guiding the Study

The framework guiding our study emerged from a review of scholarship completed prior to our data collection and summarized in Figure 1.25 According to information summarized in this figure, features of state and district policies, practices, and other characteristics interact with one another and exert an influence on what school leaders do. These features also influence conditions in schools, classrooms, and the professional community of teachers (for the sake of simplicity, we do not connect these variables in Figure 1). Other stakeholder groups, including the media, unions, professional associations, and community and business groups also influence school leadership practices. And of course leaders are influenced by their own professional learning experiences and by student and family backgrounds.


Figure 1. Leadership Influences on Student Learning

School leadership, from formal and informal sources, helps to shape school conditions (including, for example, goals, culture, and structures) and classroom conditions (including the content of instruction, the size of classrooms, and the pedagogy used by teachers). Many factors within and outside schools and classrooms help to shape teachers‘ sense of professional community. School and classroom conditions, teachers‘ professional communities, and student/family background conditions are directly responsible for the learning of students.

Overview of the Report

The six-year study reported here focuses on leadership at the school, district, and state levels. The report is organized in three main parts, with one part dedicated to each leadership level. Within each part (following a preface) there are three to six sections describing the results of sub-studies conducted within the larger project, in pursuit of specific research goals.

Each section begins with an overview of the significant findings for that particular sub-study. We chose to provide the Key Findings at the beginning as a way to orient the reader‘s attention to the details that follow. Also, each section concludes with "Implications for Policy and Practice". Again, we wanted to direct the reader‘s thinking to what could or should be done in schools and districts to support or improve reform efforts. Our assertions for changes in policy and practice, as based on our findings, are not intended to be definitive, but rather as a starting place for the reader.

Part One focuses on school-level leadership. It summarizes three perspectives on the sources and distribution of school-level leadership practices; it identifies effects on students and features of the school that influence the size of those effects; and it describes successful leadership practices.

Part Two focuses on school district leadership. It describes ways in which districts engage parents and the community in their school-improvement efforts; it explores the impact of such engagement on students; it tells how districts develop school leaders‘ sense of efficacy; it explains what districts can do to ensure productive leader succession; and it describes ways in which typical and exemplary districts use school data. One section of Part Two paints a broad and integrated picture of district approaches to improving teaching and learning.

Part Three focuses on state-level leadership. Three sections describe variations in the forms of leadership exercised by states through the development and implementation of education policy. A fourth section describes the leadership provided by state education agencies and the quite different relationship districts develop with their states.

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1. See, e.g., Gezi (1990); Reitzug & Patterson (1998).

2. Spillane, Diamond, & Burch et al. (2002).

3. See, e.g., Mortimore (1993), and Scheurich (1998).

4. See, e.g., Hallinger & Heck (1996b); Leithwood & Jantzi (2005); Marzano, Waters & McNulty (2005); and Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe (2008).

5. Creemers & Reetzig (1996), and Townsend (1994).

6. See Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris (2004) for a review, especially at p. 70.

7. Leithwood & Jantzi (1999a, 1999b); Leithwood et al. (2004a); Silins & Mulford (2002b); and Silins, Mulford, & Zarins (2002).

8. Leithwood, Louis, Anderson & Wahlstrom (2004)

9. Creemers & Reetzigt, 1996

10. Elmore (1995)

11. Yammarino, Dionne, Chun, & Dansereau (2005).

12. Leithwood & Duke (1999).

13. E.g., Pearce & Conger (2003).

14. E.g., York-Barr & Duke (2004).

15. E.g., Leithwood & Jantzi (2006).

16. Dorfman & House (2004).

17. E.g., Nelson & Sassi (2005).

18. Andrews & Soder (1987), Duke (1987), and Hallinger (2003).

19. Reeves (2006).

20. Lambert et al. (1995).

21. E.g., Wagner et al. (2006).

22. E.g., Robinson et al. (2008).

23. Marzano, Waters & McNulty (2005).

24. York-Barr & Duke (2004).

25. Leithwood, Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom (2004).