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Leadership for learning

Leadership for Learning - the Importance of Instructional Leadership in School Improvement


In this newsletter we focus on instructional leadership. The articles and resources highlight the role that leaders play in improving the quality of teaching and learning and raising student achievement in their schools.
School leadership is now an education policy priority around the world (Ball, Goodson & Macguire, 2007). Effective school leadership is increasingly being viewed as key to large-scale education reform and to improved educational outcomes. As countries aim to transform their educational systems to prepare all young people with the knowledge and skills needed in a globalised economy, the roles and expectations of school leaders are changing radically.
What research tells us about the impact of leadership
There is now a consensus amongst researchers that leadership matters to improving both schools and student achievement, engagement and well-being. Research studies have shown that since 2004 not a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership has been found (Leithwood, Day, Sammons, Harris and Hopkins, 2006 and Day, Sammons, Hopkins, Harris, Leithwood, Gu and Brown, 2010).
In their review of research into the impact of leadership on student learning, Leithwood et al state that “successful leadership can play a highly significant – and frequently underestimated – role in improving student learning” (Leithwood, Seashore Louis, Anderson and Wahlstrom 2004). From their research, they conclude that the effects of successful leadership on student learning justify two important claims:

  1. Leadership is second only to classroom instruction among all school-related factors that contribute to what students learn at school. The total (direct and indirect) effects of leadership on student learning account for about a quarter of total school effects.

  2. Leadership effects are usually largest where and when they are needed most. The impact of effective leadership tends to be greatest in schools where the learning needs of students are most acute. (Leithwood, Seashore Louis, Anderson and Wahlstrom, 2004)


These findings underscore the powerful role of the school leader in helping to create the conditions for effective teaching and learning.
School leaders’ impact on student learning is largely mediated through other people, events and organisational factors such as teachers, classroom practices and school climate (Hallinger and Heck, 1998). Principals affect change by creating a professional culture that is driven by collaboration and internal accountability.  They influence the motivations, capacities and working conditions of teachers who, in turn, shape classroom practice and student learning (OECD, 2008, p.9). Therefore, the relationship between school leadership and student learning is mostly indirect.
Leithwood and Riehl argue that:
“…the impact of educational leadership on student achievement is demonstrable. Leadership effects are primarily indirect, and they appear primarily to work through the organizational variable of school mission or goals and through variables related to classroom curriculum and instruction” (2003).

High performing school systems are using this research to great effect.  From an analysis of a number of school systems, McKinsey & Co. found that:
“Top performing school systems leverage a substantial and growing knowledge about what constitutes effective school leadership to develop their principals into drivers of improvement in instruction” (Barber, Whelan & Clark, 2010).

Practices of successful leadership
This raises the question of what particular leadership practices constitute ‘successful leadership’.  Leithwood (2012) identified five major leadership practices of successful school leaders.  Successful leaders:

  • Set directions – build and communicate a shared vision; set short-term goals; create high expectations for high performance.

  • Build relationships and develop people – stimulate growth in the capacities of staff; model the school’s values and practices; build trust amongst and between students, staff and parents.

  • Develop the organisation to support desired practices – build collaborative cultures and distribute leadership; structure the organisation to facilitate collaboration; establish productive relationships with families and the wider community; allocate resources in support of the school’s vision.

  • Improve the instructional program – staff the instructional program; provide instructional support; monitor student learning and school improvement progress; buffer staff from distractions to their work.

  • Secure accountability – build staff members’ sense of internal accountability; support staff to meet external accountability requirements.


This research has also found that in addition to the practices found to be effective of school leaders, there are a small number of personal resources, which leaders and managers draw on in order to enact effective leadership practices.  These are:

  • Cognitive resources – problem-solving expertise; knowledge about school and classroom conditions with direct effects on student learning

  • Social resources – perceiving emotions; managing emotions; acting in emotionally appropriate ways

  • Psychological resources – optimism; self-efficacy; resilience


The sets of personal resources begin to identify some of the underlying explanations for differences in what leaders do, and account for variation among leaders and how well they are able to enact the effective leadership practices. For most the acquisition of the resources takes place over a long period of time.  Developing personal resources is a much more complex undertaking than developing effective leadership practices.
Focusing on teaching and learning for greatest impact
Research has shown that different types of leadership have differing impacts on outcomes. Research carried out in New Zealand found that in order to have a significant influence on student outcomes the best school leaders ensure their relationships, their work, and their learning are focused on the core business of teaching and learning: “the more leaders focus their relationships, their work, and their learning on the core business of teaching and learning, the greater their influence on student outcomes” (Robinson, 2007).
This research has identified five dimensions of student centered leadership practice and their effect sizes:
Five dimensions of student centered leadership practice and their effect sizes
Source: Robinson 2011
While there is a high degree of integration, reciprocity and dependency in each of the dimensions identified above, this evidence supports the widespread agreement that the primary role of the principal is to align all aspects of schooling to support the goal of improving instruction so that all children are successful.
Leadership for learning in practice
If the role of principals is to create the conditions for quality teaching, then the question is how to undertake this work. Elmore (2004) argues that you can only improve performance by focusing on the instructional core defined as the relationship of the teacher and the student in the presence of content.
Elmore advises that there are only three ways you can increase learning and performance. The first is to increase the level of knowledge and skill that the teacher brings to the instructional process. The second is to increase the level and complexity of the content that students are asked to learn. And the third is to change the role of the student in the instructional process. Elmore argues that “if you are not doing one of these three things, you are not improving instruction and learning” (City, Elmore, Fiarman and Teitel, 2009).
Elmore highlights the inter-relationship of these three elements stating:
"You can't alter the skill and knowledge of the teacher when you stay in a low-level curriculum. If you alter the content without changing the skill and knowledge of teachers, you are asking teachers to teach to a level that they don't have the skill and knowledge to teach to. If you do either one of those things without changing the role of the student in the instructional process, the likelihood that students will ever take control of their own learning is pretty remote." (Elmore, 2004, p.1)

He also underscores that improvement is a discipline, a practice that requires focus, knowledge, persistence and consistency overtime (Elmore, 2002).
In summary, educational effectiveness for all students is crucially dependent on the provision of quality teaching by competent teachers who are equipped with effective, evidence-based teaching strategies that work. Teachers must be supported by instructional leadership that focuses on teacher capacity-building towards the maintenance of high teaching standards via strategic professional development at all levels of schooling.
Resources for further reading:
Ball, Goodson & Macguire, 2007, Education, Globalisation and New Times: 21 Years of the Journal of Education Policy, Routledge, UK
Barber, M., Whelan., F. & Clark, M. (2010) Capturing the leadership premium: How the world’s top school systems are building leadership capacity for the future, McKinsey & Company, London, accessed online at: http://mckinseyonsociety.com/downloads/reports/Education/schoolleadership_final.pdf
City, D., Elmore, F., Fiarman, S., and Teitel, L., 2009, Instructional Rounds in Education A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning, Harvard Education Press, Cambridge
Day, Sammons, Hopkins, Harris, Leithwood, Gu and Brown, 2010, 10 Strong Claims about Successful School Leadership, National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services, accessed online at: http://www.almaharris.co.uk/files/10strongclaims.pdf
Elmore 2000, Building a New Structure for School Leadership, The Albert Shanker Institute
Elmore, 2002, Bridging the Gap Between Standards and Achievement: The Imperative for Professional Development in Education, The Albert Shanker Institute
Elmore, 2004, The (only) three ways to improve performance in schools, Harvard Graduate School of Education, accessed online at: http://www.uknow.gse.harvard.edu/leadership/leadership001a.html
Hallinger, P., & Heck, R. H. 1998, ‘Exploring the principal’s contribution to school effectiveness: 1980–1995’, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 9, pp.157–191
Leithwood, K., 2012, The Ontario Leadership Framework 2012: With a discussion of the research foundations, Ontario Institute for Education Leadership, Ontario, accessed online at: http://iel.immix.ca/storage/6/1345688978/Final_Research_Report_-_EN.pdf
Leithwood, K., Day, C., Sammons, P., Harris, A., & Hopkins, D., 2006, Seven Strong Claims about School Leadership, National College for School Leadership, accessed online at: http://iel.immix.ca/storage/6/1307461574/seven-claims-about-successful-school-leadership.pdf
Leithwood, K., Seashore Louis, K., Anderson, S., & Wahlstrom, K., September 2004, How Leadership Influences Student Learning: A Review of Research for the Learning from Leadership Project, New York: The Wallace Foundation
Peterson, K. D., 2002, ‘The professional development of principals: Innovations and opportunities’, Educational Administration Quarterly. 38(2), pp.213-232
Robinson, 2007, ‘The Impact of Leadership on Student Outcomes: Making Sense of the Evidence’, keynote paper presented at The Leadership Challenge: Improving learning in schools: Research Conference 2007, accessed online at: http://www.acer.edu.au/documents/rc2007_robinson-impactofleadershiponstudents.pdf
Robinson, 2011, Student-Centered Leadership, Jossey Bass Leadership Library in Education, San Francisco