ICSEI Digest

The Study of Leadership for Learning Improvement

by: Michael S. Knapp, Michael A. Copland, Meredith I. Honig, Margaret L. Plecki, and Bradley S. Portin

University of Washington, Seattle

This multi-strand investigation shed light on the questions: What makes the leadership of urban districts and schools in the United States most likely to contribute to learning improvement? To what extent, and how, do different leadership activities, structures, and practices focus the district and schools within it on a learning improvement agenda and mobilize efforts in this pursuit? Who or what supports leaders who are working to improve the quality of teaching and learning? What does that ?leadership support? entail?

Our research was guided by an overarching set of ideas we refer to as ?learning-focused leadership,?1 and that others have described as ?learning-centered leadership? or ?leadership for learning.?   This way of characterizing leadership work focuses attention not only on student learning, but also that of professionals and the system as a whole. Defining ?leadership? as the shared work and commitments that shape the direction of a school or district, and that engage effort in pursuit of those directions, we distinguish ?leadership? from ?leaders? and ?roles? or ?positions,? though the latter are instrumental in achieving the former and, as such, figure prominently in our research.

Intentional efforts at all levels of an educational system to guide, direct, or support teachers as they seek to increase their repertoire of skills, gain professional knowledge, and ultimately improve their students? success?in other words,  instructional leadership (broadly defined)?were a special concern of our study. In this regard, we examined the full range of activities, carried out by various educators, that offer teachers ideas, assistance, or moral support and that urge or even compel teachers to try to improve. We further assumed this leadership work is inherently distributed among different staff within and across levels of the system?that is, more than one kind of individual or unit are potentially influencing teachers? work.

The Study of Leadership for Learning Improvement examined learning-focused leadership in urban systems, through three study strands, over a year and a half (the spring, 2007, through fall, 2008):

  • Strand 1 investigated the investment of staffing and other resources in support of equitable learning improvement.2
  • Strand 2 concentrated on the development and exercise of distributed instructional leadership within the school.3 
  • Strand 3 focused on the transformation of central office work practices and the district-school relationship to develop and sustain instructional leadership capacity.4

Relying on qualitative inquiry strategies, each strand pursued a multiple-case study design through repeated visits to overlapping samples of moderate- to large-sized urban districts and to selected schools within them. Together, the study sites offered a wide range of contexts, all prioritizing learning improvement, displaying promising practices and structures, and showing evidence of progress (locally defined) in educating a diverse, impoverished urban population. The research teams accumulated hundreds of interviews, many observations of leadership events, and numerous archival sources that shed light on the leadership issues under investigation from three vantage points:

The three study strands offer complementary insights into the exercise of learning-focused leadership and how it is guided and supported. Summarized by the authors in Learning-focused Leadership and Leadership Support: Meaning and Practice in Urban Systems5 and in longer, separate reports for each study strand, two sets of themes emerged from the study findings. The first concerned the practice of learning-focused leadership and what it meant to bring it to bear in a more compelling way on instructional improvement. The second concerned the ways in which learning-focused leadership was itself supported.

The Practice of Learning-focused Leadership

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 main 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 improving 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.

The Support of Learning-focused Leadership

Because their route for reaching teachers and instruction often lay through other leaders? work, school and district leaders in the systems we studied were simultaneously engaged in multiple forms of leadership support. 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. 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.  These steps included providing resources to enable leaders to sustain their instructional improvement efforts, creating and facilitating regular opportunities for other leaders? professional learning, and brokering relations between these leaders and colleagues engaged in similar work.  Supports also included responding in a prompt and coordinated way to the administrative, legal, or logistical issues that school administrators might encounter. Finally, explicit attempts to sponsor and legitimize learning-focused leadership provided an essential form of political and directional support for this work.

1. These ideas build on others? work using similar terms, for example, writing that has directed attention to ?learning- centered leadership??Murphy, J., Elliott, S. N., Goldring, E., & Porter, A. C. (2006). Learning-centered leadership: A conceptual foundation. New York: The Wallace Foundation?and ?leadership for learning??Resnick, L., & Glennan, T. (2002). Leadership for learning: A theory of action for urban school districts, in A. Hightower, M. S. Knapp, J. Marsh, & M. W. McLaughlin (Eds.), School districts and instructional renewal (pp. 160?172). New York: Teachers College Press; Stoll, L., Fink, D., & Earl, L. (2003). It?s about learning [and it?s about time]: What?s in it for schools? London & New York: Routledge Falmer; and Swaffield, S., & MacBeath , J. (2009). Leadership for learning, in Macbeath, J., & Dempster, N. (Eds.), Connecting leadership and learning: Principles for practice (pp. 32?52). London and New York: Routledge). We note also that others use similar terms, though not necessarily in all the ways that we do?for example, C. Glickman?s Leadership for learning (Alexandria VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2002) focuses primarily on the direct guidance that school principals (or others) offer their teaching staff; P. Schlechty?s Leading for learning (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009) concentrates instead on how schools can be transformed into learning organizations; and Learner-centered leadership (an edited volume by A. B. Danzig, K.M. Borman, B. A. Jones, and W. F. Wright, Mahway NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2009) emphasizes leadership training approaches that foster learning communities. Although these latter works do share some resemblances with our own, they were not central to the development of our thinking.

2. See Plecki, M., Knapp, M. S., Casta?eda, T., Halverson, T., LaSota, R., & Lochmiller, C. (2009). How leaders invest staffing resources for learning improvement. Seattle WA: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington

3. See Portin, B. S., Knapp, M. S., Dareff, S., Feldman, S., Russell, F. A., Samuelson, C., & Yeh, T. L. (2009). Leadership for learning improvement in urban schools. Seattle, WA: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington.

4. See Honig, M. I., Copland, M. A., Rainey, L., Lorton, J. A., & Newton, M. (2010). Central office transformation for district-wide teaching and learning improvement. Seattle WA: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington.

5. Knapp, M. S., Copland, M. A., Honig, M. I., Plecki, M. L., & Portin, B. S. (2010). Learning-focused leadership and leadership support: Meaning and practice in urban systems.  Seattle, WA: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington.


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