Learning-Focused Leadership and Leadership Support: Meaning and Practice in Urban Systems
    1. Focusing on learning
    2. Investing in instructional leadership
    3. Reinventing leadership practice
    4. Establishing new working relationships
    5. Using evidence as a medium for leadership

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

In these districts and schools, focusing leadership on the improvement of learning— everyone’s learning—meant several things at once. First of all, almost by definition, the improvement of teaching and learning became the business of the school and district, and those exercising leadership in central office positions or within the schools were relentless in communicating this message. Second, to make this message more than a rhetorical exercise, they purposefully invested resources—all kinds of resources—not just money (and often not much money), but also time, materials, expertise, and even autonomy in this pursuit, with a special emphasis on instructional leadership as a primary target of investment. Third, they sought to reinvent leadership work practice so that teaching and learning improvement stayed at the center of everyone’s attention and efforts. Fourth, they created new kinds of relationships within and between levels that resulted in better coordination of effort and attended to particular improvement needs which differed from school to school, teacher to teacher, or leader to leader. And finally, they made evidence of many kinds a medium of leadership work and a constant reference point in their interactions with teachers, each other, and stakeholders. Next we briefly describe these facets of leadership practice, highlighted in Figure 3 below, in light of what the study strands learned.

Figure 3. Central Practices of Learning-focused Leadership


1. Learning-focused leadership means a persistent, public focus at all levels of the educational system on improving the quality of instruction.

Not surprisingly, given the way we selected study sites, the districts and schools we studied made the improvement of teaching and learning a major emphasis, but the degree to which learning improvement goals were owned and internalized by educational leaders at various levels of the system was striking. In turn, these leaders projected a persistent, public focus on learning improvement, which reinforced the ownership of the message.

First of all, it should be understood that in an era of high-stakes accountability, actors throughout the system would be paying close attention to measures of student achievement and to the consequences that flow from high and low performance on these measures. But doing so can become an exercise in compliance and regulation, more than a matter of professional commitment and daily practice, and educators can easily lose sight of learning goals. Here are some of the manifestations we saw of leaders communicating and internalizing a focus on learning improvement at school and district levels:

  • District leaders were communicating clear expectations for learning improvement. School leaders, on their part, were internalizing these messages, though often giving additional meaning to desired learning improvements (e.g., as more than the test-score improvements called for by the system).
  • School leaders were making use of the district’s (and state’s) commitment to learning improvement as a lever for accomplishing improvement goals in the school. Specifically, these leaders leveraged district or state accountability requirements as a tool in their pursuit of the school’s learning improvement agenda.
  • Learning improvement messages from both district and school were being further internalized in within-school accountability systems that held school staff jointly responsible for student learning.
  • Especially in the districts committed to central office transformation strategies, district reform initiatives were developing a different working culture across the central office (and often a different organization of units, roles, and work) that placed primary emphasis on improving teaching and learning in schools. On their part, district-level staff members in various positions were beginning to orient their daily work to this expectation.

In sum, across all levels in the sites we studied, it was clear that improving student learning was the main business of the school and district. School-based educators perceived the whole system, themselves included, to be about learning improvement. Recall the new third grade teacher with which this report began: Her understanding of the priorities for learning in her school, transmitted to her by her school leadership team and reinforced by district leaders’ explicit expectations, was a natural consequence of a persistent, public focus on learning improvement.

2. Learning-focused leadership means investing in people and positions within and across schools whose primary work is instructional leadership.

A priority on learning improvement is one thing to assert, and another to enact. A central aspect of leaders’ work at various levels of the systems we studied was decisions about staffing resources, as well as related resources (e.g., money, time, expertise), that put people in position to carry out instructional leadership work.

As they allocated staffing and other resources for learning improvement, leaders often thought of themselves as “investing” resources—that is, they took a longterm view of their efforts to support learning improvement and looked for returns on their investment over time. An elementary principal who had found a way to assign two certificated teachers to each of his kindergarten through second grade classrooms articulated this idea clearly:

    A lot of people think I’m crazy and ask: How can you possibly afford it? It’s a long-term investment. I really believe strongly that this is going to help those kids—that I don’t have to have after-school programs and Saturday programs and test prep programs and this or that program for 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders, which is really not going to merit much gain….I think by making the investment in the early grades, I’m making an investment that’s going to pay off in the long run, and I think I’ll see it on the other end….

To facilitate investment in learning improvement, districts established “investment frameworks” that specified where initiative for improvement activity lay and the degree of flexibility, responsibility, and discretion that resided at each level of the system. School leaders like the one speaking above operated within a framework that emphasized school-level autonomy; yet even his counterparts in other districts, operating under more centralizing investment frameworks, were nonetheless thinking and acting with a long-term approach to resources.

A broader set of investment decisions, made at the central office level, directed staffing and other resources to learning improvement goals and to the task of building human capacity for instructional leadership. An especially common first step in this regard was to build a cadre of people engaged in instructional leadership within and also across schools. Here, some districts allocated a category of positions serving multiple schools—for example, the 42 “Model Teacher Leaders” in Atlanta, each of whom worked with a particular network of schools.

Alternatively, other districts invested more indirectly in instructional leadership by creating a “market” for cross-school instructional leadership support, as in the New York City/Empowerment Schools arrangement, where principals purchased the support services of a Network Team, experienced administrators on call to assist the school with instructional and operational matters. The net effect of this latter arrangement was to put in place a cadre of staff positioned to exercise instructional leadership across schools.

An underlying commitment to equity prompted district and school leaders on numerous occasions to make differential investments, allocating a proportionately greater—hence, an unequal—share of staffing or other resources to students, classrooms, schools, or other units that exhibited greater needs. These equity-focused investments were of different types, but regardless of type, they often generated a predictable “pushback” from internal or external stakeholders who saw their advantages eroding or somehow compromised. To manage the politics of this pushback, leaders often needed to go to great lengths, engaging in equity-focused political work that played out across a long-term timeframe.

The net effect of these investments was to put in place staff who engaged solely or centrally in instructional leadership work, some within a single school, others across schools. Two patterns were especially noteworthy.

The proliferation of individuals engaged in within-school instructional leadership. 9 Within schools, a striking number and variety of individuals exercised instructional leadership, in addition to the school principal or any assistant principals whose work was explicitly instructionally focused, under arrangements that allocated some portion of their assignment to leadership work. While titles varied (e.g., literacy, math, or technology coach; instructional liaison specialist; demonstration teacher; assessment coordinator or data specialist), as did the proportion of their assignment devoted to instructional leadership and classroom teaching or other duties, these “learning-focused teacher leaders” provided the bulk of the within-house professional development, offered one-on-one instructional coaching to classroom teachers, and engaged in various forms of work with evidence and inquiry related to the school’s improvement goals. Typically more than one such person exercised instructional leadership within each school, and in the larger schools (e.g., elementary schools serving more than 1,000 students), eight or more individuals might comprise the school’s instructional leadership cadre.

The dedication of specific central office staff, sometimes supplemented by staff from third-party organizations, to help school leaders strengthen their instructional leadership. Investment in a cross-school instructional leadership cadre took several forms. Under some arrangements, district central office staff (e.g., specialists from other units concerned with curriculum or professional development) and an external organization working with the central office (e.g., consultants with expertise in a particular subject area such as literacy) offered group-based professional development for school administrators, teacher leaders, or classroom teachers, alongside some individual instructional coaching of teachers, often in demonstration mode, so that other teachers might learn, too.

Alternatively, and especially in the three districts seeking to transform their central offices, the district invested in new central office positions dedicated to strengthening principals’ instructional leadership though one-on-one partnership work with school principals or interaction with them in networked groups. In two of the three transforming districts we studied, this cadre of central office staff (who we collectively referred to as “Instructional Leadership Directors”)10 was supplemented by a small team of administrators (such as Atlanta’s Model Teacher Leaders, noted previously) who helped with the instructional leadership work.

3. Learning-focused leadership means reinventing leadership practice within schools and the central office.

The work of the instructional leadership cadre, both within and across schools, is often new, ambiguous, and difficult. It calls on a knowledge base and skill set that many educators, no matter how accomplished in teaching and administrative or support roles, have not fully developed or even conceived. In a fundamental sense, the school and district educators we studied had to reinvent their leadership practice, in varying degrees, to provide effective forms of instructional leadership. This process was most visible in the work of school-based teacher leaders and the central office administrators who interfaced most directly with schools and school principals, but it was also visible for many principals and other supervisory leaders, who came to a new understanding of what “instructional leadership” meant for their daily work.

Learning-focused teacher leaders. Teachers who came to exercise instructional leadership in schools were uniquely positioned for this work. Though some schools had a history of using content-area coaches, in few instances did a school staff have a template for understanding what the teacher leaders were supposed to do and where they fit in the organization. Operating in between the school principal and the classrooms, teacher leaders developed their leadership practice on several fronts.

First of all, they became part of an instructional leadership team, and therein figured out how their different strengths might complement those of other team members in pursuit of the school’s learning improvement agenda. Then, in interaction with others in the school, they negotiated their middle ground position in which they often acted as a bridge between the classroom and the school’s supervisory leaders (though they were not part of the supervisory process), or even between the classroom and the larger learning improvement agenda of the district. Finally, assuming they were able to establish a good working relationship with classroom teachers—not a foregone conclusion, as they often faced resistance initially— they engaged classroom teachers in identifying and addressing problems of instructional practice.

Principals and other school-based supervisory leaders. Working in collaboration with the teacher leaders, but in different ways, the school principal and other supervisory leaders (e.g., assistant principals who took on instructional support as a central part of their practice) faced often unfamiliar aspects of their jobs as well, even though they might have engaged in instructional leadership in the past. In this regard, their leadership practice was exercised in somewhat different ways from the teacher leaders, in several arenas.

To begin with, supervisory leaders in the school had to lay the groundwork for learning improvement by assembling a high-quality staff, establishing and articulating a school-wide learning improvement agenda, and building school-wide trust and a culture among school staff that emphasized the need to join forces, work in teams, and develop collaborative solutions to the challenges facing the school. Though they did connect individually with teachers in a variety of ways, the capacity of supervisory leaders to “reach” classroom practice was greatly augmented to the extent they could forge, and work through, a viable instructional leadership team, rather than as a collection of individuals who exercised instructional leadership without knowledge of, or coordination with, each others’ efforts.

Central office staff who worked directly with school principals. Though not positioned in the school, the central office staff whose purpose was to help school principals improve their instructional leadership worked one-on-one with a small number of principals and with the same administrators in networked groups, while offering group-based assistance to these principals. Especially evident in the districts seeking to transform their central offices, the activities of these staff, in varying degrees, displayed leadership practices well established by theory and research in other sectors as likely to support professional learning, among them:11

  • Modeling ways of thinking and acting as an instructional leader, such as demonstrating how to have challenging conversations with teachers while reflecting on the demonstrations to help leaders see what was modeled and why.
  • Developing and using tools in one-on-one assistance relationships, such as teaching and learning frameworks or protocols that guide the use of data and evidence in instructional improvement.

Not all participants came ready to do this work, but regardless of their backgrounds, central office staff spent a great deal of time, individually and collectively, figuring out how to allocate and spend its time productively with school leaders.

Others in the system engaged in comparable efforts to discover or reinvent how their work could be oriented more specifically and directly toward the improvement of teaching and learning. Once again, in the districts emphasizing central office transformation, staff and units not involved in direct daily interaction with schools (e.g., the Human Resources department or units responsible for facilities) were mining the evidence emerging from the direct assistance relationships described previously, as well as from other sources, for insights into how they could improve their performance in relation to instructional improvement goals.

4. Learning-focused leadership means differentiated, responsive relationships within schools and between schools and the central office.

The new forms of leadership practice just described imply a pattern of connection among district, school, and classroom that differs from typical practice in large school districts in two respects. First, most of the districts we studied placed emphasis on differentiating their approach to particular schools and school leaders to maximize their ability to help each school leader improve his or her practice. Similarly, within schools, supervisory leaders were often seeking a more informal and tailored way of interacting with particular teachers or other school staff than would normally occur in supervisory relations. Second, the relationships within schools, and between them and the central office, were intended to be more twoway and more responsive than is often the case in school systems. This showed up in our sites in several ways.

More differentiated and responsive central office-school relationships. Most dramatically seen in districts committed to fundamental transformation of the central office, both the design and the practice of the relations between central office administrators and school principals featured a differentiated approach to each school’s unique needs, interests, and challenges, combined with increased access to central office resources. In the Atlanta Public Schools transformation design, for example, the newly created School Reform Team (SRT) offered a streamlined and accessible main point of contact between a designated network of schools and other central office units. On its part, the SRT targeted particular and often different learning improvement needs within each of the schools in its network.

More responsive supervisor-teacher relationships inside the school. Within the school, the attempts by supervisory leaders to redefine supervision indicated a shift toward greater responsiveness. This shift moved the relationship between the teacher and their supervisors from the annual formal, summative exercise to a more elaborated relationship involving various formal and informal interactions, mostly more formative than summative, intended to generate conversations about instruction and also to keep supervisory leaders well informed about what was happening in classrooms.

5. Learning-focused leaders use evidence of many kinds as a main medium of leadership work and a constant reference point in their interaction with teachers, each other, and stakeholders.

Data of various kinds, such as assessments, environmental surveys, student work, counts of work completion or behavioral issues, occupied a prominent place in the leadership practice and working relationships described above. A series of intentional actions by leaders at all levels sought to make evidence about instruction, learning, leadership, or surrounding conditions a medium of conversation concerning learning improvement, as well as a device for improving instruction itself. Naturally enough, the test score data featured by state and district accountability systems occupied a central place in the data use story, but the districts and schools we studied went beyond this evidence source to develop a far richer form of evidence-informed practice.

To actively encourage teaching and leadership that was informed by evidence, the states and districts we studied invested heavily in data infrastructure, data literacy, and new forms of data and evidence. Resources for this purpose were invested in various ways, among them, to set up online assessment systems that facilitated user access to assessment results, establish district- and school-level positions to help users learn how to understand and use data sources, institute survey measures for capturing feedback on school climate or leadership work, and create observational protocols and other data-focused tools to guide instructional leadership efforts in the schools.

The work of central office administrators with school principals both facilitated the principals’ use of evidence and, at the same time, became an evidence source for improving practice in other parts of the central office. In a straightforward way, the central office staff members who worked most directly with school principals to strengthen their instructional leadership were often in a good position to help school principals or others get smarter about what data might be saying about their schools’ performance. A principal comments on how useful this could be:

    There’s also benefit to the data work that we did in our network meetings that I immediately took…straight to my staff and had really meaningful conversations about data, about the benchmark assessments, about line item analysis, about looking at this data and how to use this data to inform what we’re doing and make decisions. And a lot of that is…easier to do as a result of the work that we’re doing in network meetings. We do it anyway, but it just helps get other protocols and other systems where they’re analyzing it and just approaching it differently with our staff. So I get professional development there.

This kind of teaching about evidence use also happened in the context of oneon- one assistance relationships, in relation to any problem of leadership practice that data potentially informed. At the same time that school leaders were gaining facility with data through these encounters, the resulting information about each school’s progress, struggles, and improvement work provided the rest of the central office with an important feedback source that it would not otherwise have had.

On their part, principals made use of the data furnished to them by the districts (and the new learning about how to work with it) to both focus and anchor their improvement work. Furthermore, in many instances, they took the matter one step further, by creating within-school data systems that provided continual feedback loops to teachers, teacher leaders, and the school’s supervisory leaders. A principal describes her version of such a system:

    We are a data-driven school….The data are used to drive the instruction, to make sure that students who are not performing are receiving remediation in order to get to where they should be. Now [the facilitator] and [my instructional liaison specialist] look more at the “target tracker” and our “red alert” forms that are turned in weekly, which show student progress….They’re assessment documents documenting where the children are, what interventions are being used to help move them, if they are performing [low], where they should be on certain standards….Red alerts alert us to see which students are having weaknesses, and as I stated, teachers are to provide interventions or strategies to help move them forward.

Not all schools created such elaborate data systems. In some instances, the “system” only consisted of a Scantron machine that enabled the school to get instant access to all the required assessments across the year, without having to wait for the sometimes lengthy processing by the district central office or outside vendors. But whatever the arrangement and routines, school principals tried in various ways to have data become a medium of school-based educators’ interactions over issues of learning improvement. That happened throughout the schools we studied, sometimes approximating an inquiry cycle (in some instances guided by central office staff), but other times consisting of an attempt to interrogate the data for clues about how to improve teaching and learning.

Teacher leaders found data to be a particularly useful entry point into instructional conversations with teachers, who were often reluctant initially to accept or engage in a relationship with a person occupying a middle-ground position in the school. Teacher leaders often found they could redirect teachers’ attention from a defensive posture or self-conscious worry about their inadequacies toward a problem-solving process that took specific student learning issues or hard-to-teach curricular topics as the starting point for conversation. Teacher leaders were also in a position to decipher assessment data results for teachers who didn’t understand what the district data system was sending them.

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