How Leadership Influences Student Learning

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How Leadership Influences Student Learning

Our framework nests district leadership within a larger set of district characteristics, conditions and practices (var. 2) while identifying school leadership as a separate set of variables (var. 4). At the district level, special attention is devoted to superintendent leadership and at the school level, to the leadership of the principal.

At both district and school levels, however, we assume leadership is also distributed among others in formal as well as informal leadership roles. The remainder of this section:

  • Briefly defines our concept of leadership;
  • reviews evidence about leadership effects on student learning;
  • summarizes research about successful leadership practices that are common across leadership roles and organizational contexts;
  • illustrates some of the practices demanded of successful superintendents and principals by the unique contexts in which they work;
  • clarifi es what we know about distributed leadership.

The concept of leadership

At the core of most definitions of leadership are two functions: "providing direction" and "exercising influence." Each of these functions can be carried out in different ways, and such differences distinguish many models of leadership from one another. As Yukl notes, leadership influences "...the interpretation of events for followers, the choice of objectives for the group or organization, the organization of work activities to accomplish objectives,the motivation of followers to achieve the objectives, the maintenance of cooperative relationships and teamwork and the enlistment of support and cooperation from people outside the group or organization" (1994, p. 3).

Some will argue that such a definition seems overly bureaucratic or hierarchical, although it need not be interpreted as such. Nor is it a very precise way of defining leadership and may be vulnerable to the occasional charge that such lack of precision severely hampers efforts to better understand the nature and effects of leadership. But leadership is a highly complex concept. Like health, law, beauty, excellence and countless other complex concepts, efforts to define leadership too narrowly are more likely to trivialize than clarify its meaning.

Evidence about leadership effects on students

Most of what we know empirically about leaders' effects on student learning concerns school leaders. District leadership effects on students have, until recently, been considered too indirect and complex to sort out. Below we review both past and recent studies of district-level policies and strategies associated with high performing and improving districts in terms of districtwide student performance on state tests (e.g., Murphy and Hallinger, 1988; LaRocque and Coleman, 1990; Cawelti and Protheroe, 2001; Togneri and Anderson, 2003). While providing insight into specific policies and actions at the district level, these studies have not typically been approached from the perspective of leadership theory. The results resemble lists of the characteristics of effective schools, only at the district level. They rarely specify how these characteristics and actions interact, and how they shape, enable and sustain high performance of teachers and students. Inquiry about leadership sources, interactions and effects linked to district policies and improvement strategies will be a major contribution of our study.

Claims about the effects of school leadership on student learning are justified by three different kinds of research. One source of evidence is the qualitative case study which is typically conducted in exceptional school settings (e.g., Gezi, 1990). These are settings believed to be contributing to student learning significantly above or below expectations. Such research, based on "outlier" designs, usually produces large leadership effects not only on student learning but on an array of school conditions as well (e.g., Mortimore, 1993; Scheurich, 1998). What is missing from these cases, however, is external validity, or generalizability. The qualitative portion of our research will address this limitation by (a) developing a relatively large number of cases of successful leadership, (b) reporting the results of systematic cross-case analyses and (c) carrying out quantitative tests of the results provided by the qualitative evidence.

A second source of research evidence about leadership effects is large-scale quantitative studies. Evidence of this type reported between 1980 and 1998 (approximately four dozen studies across all types of schools) has been reviewed in several papers by Hallinger and Heck (1996a, 1996b, 1998). These reviews conclude that the combined direct and indirect effects of school leadership on pupil outcomes are small but educationally significant. While leadership explains only three to five percent of the variation in student learning across schools, this is actually about one quarter of the total variation (10 to 20 percent) explained by all school-level variables (Creemers and Reezigt, 1996) after controlling for student intake factors. To put the magnitude of this leadership effect in perspective, quantitative school effectiveness studies (Hill, 1998) indicate that classroom factors explain only a slightly larger proportion of the variation in student achievement - about a third.

The third type of research about leadership's effects, is, like the second type, also large-scale and quantitative in nature. But instead of examining overall leadership effects, these studies inquire about the effects of specific leadership practices. Evidence of this sort can be found sporadically in the research alluded to above, but a recent meta-analysis by Waters, Marzano and McNulty (2003) has significantly extended this type of research. Their study identifies 21 leadership "responsibilities" and calculates an average correlation between each responsibility and whatever measures of student achievement were used in the original studies. From these data, the researchers calculated a 10 percent increase in student test scores of an average principal who improved her "demonstrated abilities in all 21 responsibilities by one standard deviation" (p. 3).

While the analysis by Waters, Marzano and McNulty produced interesting data, extrapolations from their estimates to principal effects on student learning in real-world conditions must be made with considerable caution. First of all, the data are correlational in nature, but cause and effect assumptions are required to understand the effects of leadership improvement on student learning. Second, the estimated effects on student achievement described in the study depend on a leader's improving their capacities across all 21 practices at the same time. This is an extremely unlikely occurrence. Some of these practices are dispositional in nature (e.g., flexibility), or rooted in deeply held beliefs unlikely to change much, if at all, within adult populations (e.g., ideals). And just one of the 21 practices, increasing "the extent to which the principal is knowledgeable about current curriculum, instruction and assessment practices" is a major professional development challenge by itself. Nonetheless, this line of research is a useful addition to other lines of evidence which justify a strong belief in the contributions of successful leadership to student learning.

The first two sources of evidence of leadership effects, reviewed above, suggest effects of very different magnitudes; small but significant in the first case and large by any standard in the second. How can such differences be explained? Most qualitative case studies, by design, examine the effects of exceptional leadership in schools most in need of it. In contrast, large-scale quantitative studies, by design, report "average" leadership effects (that is, the effects of exceptionally talented to quite unsuccessful leadership) across schools which range from being very needy to already highly productive. So, while large-scale quantitative studies might seem to policymakers to be more reliable sources of evidence about leadership effects, such studies systematically underestimate leadership effects in schools where it is likely to be of greatest value.

Research about the forms and effects of leadership is becoming increasingly sensitive to the contexts in which leaders work and how, in order to be successful, leaders need to respond flexibly to their contexts. Such evidence argues for research aimed less at the development of particular leadership models and more at discovering how such flexibility is exercised by those in various leadership roles. Research is also urgently needed which unpacks, more specifically, how successful leaders create the conditions in their schools which promote student learning (Hallinger and Heck, 1996b). School-level factors other than leadership that explain variation in student achievement include school mission and goals, culture, participation in decision making and relationships with parents and the wider community. These are variables over which school leaders have considerable potential influence and we need to know more about how successful leaders exercise this influence. This is one of the main objectives of our research.

The basics of successful leadership

Much of the success of district and school leaders in building high performance organizations (organizations which make significantly greater than- expected contributions to student learning) depends on how well these leaders interact with the larger social and organizational context in which they find themselves. Nevertheless, evidence from district, school and non-education organizations points to three broad categories of successful leadership practices which are largely independent of such context. Such practices are "the basics" of good leadership and are necessary but not sufficient in almost all situations.

Hallinger and Heck (1999) label these categories of leader practices "purposes," "people" and "structures and social systems." Conger and Kanungo (1998) refer to "visioning strategies," "efficacy-building strategies" and "context changing strategies." Leithwood's (1996) categories are "setting directions," developing people" and "redesigning the organization." Within each of these similar categories of practice are numerous, more specific competencies, orientations and considerations; for example, most of the 21 specific leadership practices linked to student learning in Waters, Marzano and McNulty's (2003) review fit within these categories.

These categories of leadership practices closely reflect a transformational approach to leadership which Bass (1997) claims has proven to be useful in many different cultural and organizational contexts. This transformational approach has proven useful for educational organizations (as demonstrated in studies by Geijsel, Sleegers, Leithwood and Jantzi, 2003; Yu, Leithwood and Jantzi, 2002; Southworth, 1998; and Mullin and Keedy, 1998) and, specifically, for the success of some large-scale reform efforts in schools (such as Day et al., 2000).

Setting directions

A critical aspect of leadership is helping a group to develop shared understandings about the organization and its activities and goals that can undergird a sense of purpose or vision (Hallinger and Heck, 2002). The most fundamental theoretical explanations for the importance of leaders' direction-setting practices are goal-based theories of human motivation (e.g., Bandura, 1986; Ford, 1992; Locke, Latham and Eraz, 1988). According to such theory, people are motivated by goals which they find personally compelling, as well as challenging but achievable. Having such goals helps people make sense of their work and enables them to find a sense of identity for themselves within their work context.

Often cited as helping set directions are such specific practices as identifying and articulating a vision, fostering the acceptance of group goals and creating high performance expectations. Visioning and establishing purpose are also enhanced by monitoring organizational performance and promoting effective communication and collaboration.

Developing people

While clear and compelling organizational directions contribute significantly to members' work-related motivations, they are not the only conditions to do so. Nor do such directions contribute to the capacities members often need in order to productively move in those directions. Such capacities and motivations are influenced by the direct experiences organizational members have with those in leadership roles (Lord and Maher, 1993), as well as the organizational context within which people work (Rowan, 1996).

The ability to engage in practices that help develop people depends, in part, on leaders' knowledge of the "technical core" of schooling - what is required to improve the quality of teaching and learning - often invoked by the term "instructional leadership." But this ability also is part of what is now being referred to as leaders' emotional intelligence (Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee, 2002). Recent evidence suggests that emotional intelligence displayed, for example, through a leader's personal attention to an employee and through the utilization of the employee's capacities, increases the employee's enthusiasm and optimism, reduces frustration, transmits a sense of mission and indirectly increases performance (McColl-Kennedy and Anderson, 2002).

More specific leadership practices that signifi cantly and positively help develop people include offering intellectual stimulation, providing individualized support and providing an appropriate model.

Redesigning the organization

Successful educational leaders develop their districts and schools as effective organizations that support and sustain the performance of administrators and teachers as well as students. This category of leadership practices has emerged from recent evidence about the nature of learning organizations and professional learning communities and their contribution to staff work and student learning. Such practices assume that the purpose behind organizational cultures and structures is to facilitate the work of organizational members and that the malleability of structures should match the changing nature of the school's improvement agenda. Practices typically associated with this category include strengthening district and school cultures, modifying organizational structures and building collaborative processes.

Successful superintendent leadership

While there is a reasonable amount of evidence to support the value of superintendents exercising the basic leadership capacities described above, we know much less about what else successful superintendents do. Hart and Ogawa (1987) statistically estimated the influence of superintendents on the mathematics and reading achievement of students in grades six and 12 in 70 California school districts, while controlling for environmental and organizational variables. They concluded that superintendents do have an influence on student performance, but acknowledged that their investigation was not designed to identify the processes by which that influence is exercised.

Murphy and Hallinger (1986) interviewed superintendents from 12 California school districts identified as instructionally effective in order to ascertain district-level policies and practices employed by superintendents in carrying out their instructional leadership functions with principals. Their investigation revealed a core set of leadership functions reported by many of the superintendents, including: setting goals and establishing standards; selecting staff; supervising and evaluating staff; establishing an instructional and curricular focus; ensuring consistency in curriculum and instruction; and monitoring curriculum and instruction. Murphy and Hallinger note, however, that there was substantial variation among their small sample of superintendents in how these functions were enacted, and they caution about the absence of corroborating data from their interviews. We have found little further research that builds upon and extends these early studies in the evolving context of state education policies and standards-based reform. Filling this hole in our knowledge base will be an important contribution of our study.

At the present time, a small number of studies describes how superintendents and their staffs work with state policies and regulations to ensure authentic reflection of such reform efforts while, at the same time, doing justice to local district and school priorities. For example, based on evidence from a successful Illinois district, Leithwood and Prestine (2002) identified three sets of leadership practices which seem to be successful responses to this challenge.

Capturing the attention of school personnel: Students and teachers are not often initially attentive to initiatives from the district or state nor are they much aware of the changes such initiatives imply for their own practices. So district leaders need to capture the attention of teachers and students in a variety of ways. When the changes are driven, as is often the case at this time, by new standards,one of the most successful initiatives that district leaders can take is to use formative and summative student assessments aligned to the new standards. This strategy typically engages the attention of parents and principals.

  • Capacity building: While assessments capture people's attention, productive change requires a powerful response to the dilemmas and conflicts they create. For district leaders, an effective response is to develop a strong, in-house, systematically aligned, professional development program.
  • Pushing the implications of state policies into schools and classrooms: Depending on the specific nature of state policy, this may entail, for example, fostering widespread participation of school and district staffs in efforts to implement the changes.

The five superintendents in Togneri and Anderson's (2003) study were both "data savvy" and "data users": they understood performance data on students and schools and they could address the shortcomings of state data by, for example, collecting longitudinal data when the state only provided snapshots of student performance. These superintendents supported and even insisted that school leaders use student performance and stakeholder satisfaction data to identify needs, set goals and plan and track improvements. They also worked with their school boards to increase their comfort and effectiveness in using data for policy development and governance. Our proposed research will provide a much more comprehensive account of the leadership practices of successful superintendents and other district leaders.

Successful principal leadership

Like every district, every school is in some fashion unique. Responding well to such uniqueness, in addition to providing the leadership basics, is crucial for the success of school leaders. But large numbers of schools share two challenges that demand responses by all or many educational leaders if they are to be successful in improving teaching and learning. One common impetus to change faced by almost all educational leaders in the United States is the extensive set of state policies designed to hold schools more accountable (Leithwood, 2001). The second challenge, faced by fewer, but still large numbers of leaders, is the conditions associated with diverse student populations (Riehl, in press).

To be successful in highly accountable policy contexts, school leaders need to:

  • Create and sustain a competitive school. This set of practices is important for district and school leaders when they find themselves in competition for students in education "markets" which feature alternatives to existing public schools such as charter, magnet and private schools perhaps supported through tuition tax credits.
  • Empower others to make significant decisions. This is a key set of leadership practices, particularly when accountability mechanisms include giving a greater voice to community stakeholders as in the case of parent-controlled school councils.
  • Provide instructional guidance.While this is an important set of leadership practices in almost all districts and schools aiming to improve student learning, it takes on a special character in the context of more explicit grounds for assessing the work of educators, as for example, the setting of professional standards and their use for purposes of ongoing professional development and personnel evaluation.
  • Develop and implement strategic school improvement plans. When schools are required to have school improvement plans, as most districts now demand, school leaders need to master skills associated with productive planning and the implementation of such plans. Virtually all district leaders need to be proficient in large-scale strategic planning processes.

Successful leadership in diverse cultural and socioeconomic contexts calls for the integrated use of two distinct approaches to leadership. The first approach includes implementing policies and initiatives which, according to the best evidence available, serve well those populations of children about which we have been concerned. Such practices might include providing parent education programs, reducing class sizes and building rich curricula delivered through sustained discourse structured around powerful ideas.

The second approach to leadership aims to ensure, at minimum, that those policies and other initiatives which were identified are implemented equitably. This usually means building on the forms of social capital that students do possess rather than being restricted by the social capital they do not possess. Such an approach to leadership is referred to variously as emancipatory leadership (e.g., Corson, 1996), leadership for social justice (e.g., Larson and Murtadha, 2002) and critical leadership (e.g., Foster, 1989). Examples of strategies associated with this approach, beyond those described to this point, include: heightening the awareness of school community members to unjust situations which they may encounter and how such situations affect students’ lives; providing members of the school community the capacities needed to avoid situations that generate inequities; and providing opportunities to become involved in political action aimed at reducing inequities (Ryan, 1998).

Distributed leadership in districts and schools

Neither superintendents nor principals can carry out the leadership role by themselves. Highly successful leaders develop and count on leadership contributions from many others in their organizations. Principals typically count on key teachers for such leadership, along with their local administrative colleagues (Hord, Steigelbauer and Hall, 1984). In site-based management contexts, parent leaders are often crucial to the school's success (Parker and Leithwood, 2000). Superintendents rely on the leadership of many central office and school-based people, along with elected board members.

The nature and impact of distributed leadership has become the object of recent research, although inquiry about the concept dates back almost 70 years (Gronn, 2002). At its root, the concept of distributed leadership is quite simple: initiatives or practices used to influence members of the organization are exercised by more than a single person. Distributed leadership does not reside solely in people, however. Non-person sources of influence may include Jermier and Kerr's (1997) "substitutes for leadership", which arise out of a view of leadership as an organization-wide phenomenon (Pounder, Ogawa and Adams, 1995). Leadership influence is exercised through actions or tasks that are enacted to accomplish functions for the organization (Spillane et al, 2000).

The concept of distributed leadership overlaps substantially with shared, collaborative, democratic and participative leadership concepts. Distributed leadership assumes a set of practices that "are enacted by people at all levels rather than a set of personal characteristics and attributes located in people at the top" (Fletcher and Kaufer, 2003, p. 22).

Gronn (2002, p. 679) distinguishes two basic forms of distributed leadership, additive and holistic. Additive forms entail the dispersal of leadership tasks among members across an organization without explicit consideration of interactions by those members; this is the most common meaning of the term and is the form which those advocating that "everyone is a leader" (e.g., Manz and Sims, 1980) have in mind. Holistic forms of distributed leadership include attention to the interdependence of those providing leadership. These holistic forms assume that the totality of leaders' work adds up to more than the sum of the parts and that there are high levels of interdependence among those providing leadership. Holistic forms of distributed leadership produce leadership activities which emerge from dynamic, multidirectional, social processes which, at their best, lead to learning for the individuals involved, as well as for their organizations. The extent and nature of coordination in the exercise of influence across members of the organization is a critical challenge from a holistic perspective. Interdependence between two or more organizational members may be based on role overlap or complementarity of skills and knowledge (Gronn, 2002).

A number of individual and organizational benefits have been associated with distributed leadership. As compared with exclusively hierarchical forms of leadership, distributed leadership more accurately reflects the division of labor which is experienced in the organization on a daily basis and reduces the chances of error arising from decisions based on the limited information available to a single leader. Distributed leadership also increases opportunities for the organization to benefit from the capacities of more of its members, permits members to capitalize on the range of their individual strengths and develops, among organizational members, a fuller appreciation of interdependence and how one's behavior affects the organization as a whole. Elmore (2000) characterizes this as comparative advantage, where individuals and groups in different positions within an organization contribute to leadership functions in areas of organizational activity over which they have the greatest influence. Resnick and Glennan (2002) emphasize the importance of mutual or two-way accountability between leaders and participants in different roles and levels of an organization (e.g., principals are accountable to superintendents for performance, but superintendents are also accountable to inputs and needs of principals).

Especially in the context of teamwork, some argue, distributed leadership provides greater opportunities for members to learn from one another. Through increased participation in decision making, greater commitment to organizational goals and strategies may develop. Distributed leadership has the potential to increase on-the-job leadership development experiences, and the increased self-determination arising from distributed leadership may improve members' experience of work. Such leadership allows members to better anticipate and respond to the demands of the organization's environment. With holistic forms of distributed leadership (Gronn, 2002), solutions are possible which would be unlikely to emerge from individual sources. Finally, overlapping actions that occur in distributed leadership contexts provide further reinforcement of leadership influence.

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