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Theoretical Framework for the Program

How Leaders Improve Teaching, Learning and School Organizations: Developing a Research Based Framework for the Lansing Leadership Program

The decade leading up to the Aspiring Leaders Program (ALP) was a productive period of scholarship into successful school leadership. While studies from effective and improving schools research had long underscored the importance of principals, recent leadership development efforts have been greatly supported by a series of sustained studies and meta-analyses identifying and validating clear and specific school leader competencies, orientations and practices. The Wallace Foundation has played a critical role in these developments.

One of the first representations proposed and substantially investigated was Hallinger’s model of key leadership practices. Hallinger’s model organized leadership work into a triad emphasizing the importance of leadership that:

  • Effectively defined the school’s mission,
  • Managed the instructional program and
  • Promoted a positive learning climate.

Another seminal effort was that by Leithwood and Riehl (2005). This work also developed thoughtful and specific descriptions of critical leadership behaviors, highlighting a slightly different set of core practices. Now familiar, they included:

  • Setting directing- articulating vision, fostering shared meanings and expectation, monitoring performance
  • Developing people: offering intellectual stimulation, providing support, and modeling.
  • Developing the school organization: strengthening culture, modifying structures, and building collaborative processes.

A number of subsequent analyses followed this work, verifying but adding to it. Working with a group of U.S. researchers in one effort, and then a group of U.K. researchers in another, Leithwood facilitated further reviews that first produced Seven Strong Claims about School Leadership (2006), later expanded to Ten Strong Claims about School Leadership (2010), arguing that successful school leaders:

  • Define their values and vision to raise expectations, set direction and build trust
  • Reshape the conditions for teaching and learning
  • Restructure parts of the organization and redesign leadership roles and          responsibilities
  • Enrich the curriculum
  • Enhance teacher quality
  • Enhance the quality of teaching and learning
  • Build collaboration internally
  • Build strong relationships outside the school community

The literature attaches many, many important addendums and qualifications to these core ideas, of course. For example, leader’s skills to stimulate and motivate teachers and students to strive are recognized as vital. Capabilities to manage their work and the work of others in the school, in part by learning to distribute leadership, are another. Key to our understanding of distributed leadership is the importance of organizational routines that distribute responsibility for sets of tasks across individuals in a way that allows the formal leader – generally the principal – to stay connected to core instructional work (Spillane, 2006; MacBeth, 2008). Still another repeated finding is the influence of school context. While the above work underscored the fact that a core set of practices helped to explain successful leadership in almost all school contexts, it argued also that effective leadership is ultimately situational. A school’s context—its recent history, it socio-economic conditions, its size and type as well as its performance record, influences the form successful leadership takes in any particular school. This finding, and several in-depth analysis of leader effects, point in turn to the value of leader capabilities for conducting formal and informal diagnostic scans of their school to successfully engaging teachers and students and to selecting and implementing promising improvement strategies.

Creeping growth in the number of leadership behaviors seen as essential may be difficult to prevent. The lengthening of any list seems best viewed, however, as evidence of expanding understandings of the complexity and challenge of school leadership rather than significant disagreement or confusion among scholars and practitioners.

A Focus on Teaching and Learning
A core theme in the literature is the imperative that leaders see their main work as the improvement of teaching and learning. As a result, research has considered more seriously and methodologically the question of if, and more importantly, how the core practices listed above actually influence teaching and learning outcomes, particularly student achievement.

Several scholars have recently argued that past studies have underestimated the influence leaders can have on learning and achievement (Leithwood, Louis & Wahlstrom, 2006; Robinson, 2008). They have posited that leadership actions may account for up to a quarter of the variance found in student learning outcomes. This connection manifests mainly through the motivational influence leaders have on teachers that encourages them to take risks and try new things, as well as the influence leaders exert on the technical core of schooling, that is, on the quality of instructional content and instructional interactions among and between teachers and students (Marks & Printy, 2003).

Developing shared understandings of these connections, often summed up under concepts such as “leadership for learning” has been a central thread in research on the mechanisms of leadership influences. We know that leaders who successfully improve student outcomes have strong orientation to the craft of teaching and the value of learning. They are visible members of life in classrooms, continue to develop subject and pedagogical knowledge and involve themselves directly in the design and coordination of coherent instructional programs. Recent research has pointed to “leadership content knowledge” as a key component of ability to improve systems of instruction (Stein & Nelson, 2003). Said simply, leaders need to understand how students learn particular content and they also need to understand how teachers learn to teach that content. Thus, adult learning is a critical pre-condition for students’ learning in classrooms. Hence, a central goal for leadership development programs is the cultivation of leaders willing and able to maintain an unrelenting focus on the quality of teaching and learning, in part by building tighter linkages between essential elements of the school organization (structure, culture, professional development and evaluation, budgeting, etc.) and the school’s instructional vision and priorities.

Overall, three themes emerge in explorations of leadership for learning: developing teachers, developing instructional programs, and giving careful attention to the overall conditions of teaching and learning.

Developing Teachers
Leaders stimulate improved teaching and learning by positively contributing to the motivation, learning and well-being of teachers (and other school staff.) A key foundation to this is the development of high levels of trust. Developing a strong culture of trust can positively shape how teachers perceive themselves, promote their commitment to the difficult work of school improvement and raise their sense of efficacy (Bryk & Schneider, 2002). Positive trust and relations among adults is shown to positively influence interactions between teachers and students as well (Donaldson, 2006). In all, a strong culture of trust is common in schools that raise expectation and successfully focus their efforts on improving student experiences and outcomes.

A second strong theme is the development of collaboration and a sense of professional learning community. Leaders develop professional learning communities by encouraging teachers to apply their professional experience and insights to the processes of school improvement and by fostering a strong spirit of collaborative inquiry, analysis and reflection. Schools characterized by strong professional learning communities are found to have more success constructing and delivering effective instructional programs. They do so by nurturing open sharing of teaching practices, interest in new ideas, and more sophisticated problem search and solving behaviors in relationship to the instructional challenges they face.

The third theme underscores the importance of professional knowledge and expertise. While building norms of trust and collaboration can be critical, they cannot be confused with the core craft knowledge and capabilities of teachers. A growing body of evidence suggests, for example, that teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge is central to their effectiveness. Teachers’ capabilities for employing assessment for learning, and for identifying engaging and appropriate interventions and differentiations for their students are crucial to student advancement and achievement. In all, to best serve the learning needs of students, successful leaders require and support professional learning activities that, while affirming teachers’ experience, challenge their assumptions and expand and refine their repertoire of instructional knowledge and practices.

Developing Instructional Programs
Many efforts to improve schools have failed to alter teaching and learning because they failed to keep teachers focused on a clear and coordinated set of developments for a sustained period of time. Research argues that teaching practice and student learning are most likely to improve when the components of a school’s instructional program are coherent and positively reinforcing (Newman, Smith, Allensworth, & Bryk, 2003). The importance of building clear relationships within the system of resources that structure and support the collaborative improvement of instruction has been central to recent comprehensive school reform models and school development designs.

Key resources, structures, and support have emerged in the literature. First is a well-developed, coherent curriculum that sequences learning activities appropriately across all grade levels and meets the Michigan standards and grade level content expectations. Such a curriculum needs to be accompanied by appropriate materials for learning, including text, material, and web-based resources. Second, is the existence of organizational routines that foster tighter linkages among key supports for teaching and learning, including time allocation (e.g., common planning time during the school day, early release or late start time, or other embedded professional development structures). However, time allocation itself will not change much without some guidance for use of the time to the extent that shared understandings of continual, collaborative work become normative – to the point that autonomous teachers’ work becomes rare. Third, the school (and preferably the district) should have a balanced assessment system in place, with expectations and resources for collecting and using data to inform the professional work of teachers. Policies and processes for gathering, analyzing, displaying, and communicating information drawn from standardized tests, interim common assessments, and continual formative assessments can significantly shape teachers’ collective work.

Other research has documented that leaders who view student achievement as the totality of their social, emotional, behavioral and cognitive developments boost student outcomes by working to integrate rather than separate supports for these distinct dimensions of growth.

Attending to the Conditions of Teaching and Learning
It is firmly established that successful school leaders protect the primacy of teaching and learning by creating safe, stable school environments. Emerging research in to how we learn (as children and as adults) has drawn attention to how the qualities of our physical surroundings affect our readiness and capacities to learn. By renewing and updating classrooms and other school spaces, leaders affirm connections between high expectations for teaching and student well-being and achievement.

Beyond the physical and technological conditions of the school, successful leaders foster positive learning climates based on formal rules but continual school wide expectations for caring and respectful behavior. Social supports for effort and achievement are made audible and visible through coaching and celebration. Additionally, leaders strive to cultivate a strong sense of school membership and belonging for every student by structuring more personal ties between teachers and students. Providing opportunities for students to exercise personal voice, choice and responsibility for their learning and learning environment also has a marked influence on the conditions of teaching and learning.

Keeping “leadership for learning” at the forefront is an enormous challenge for present day leaders confronting unrelenting streams of operational and managerial demands. Leaders themselves admit that, while the sheer quantity of day to day demands pulls them away from the instructional core, many feel ill prepared for the complex web of tasks involved. Leadership for learning requires knowledge, skills and wisdoms about curriculum, instruction, assessment, and about how students and teachers learn and develop, that past conceptions of effective school leadership have not emphasized or fostered.

Theories of school improvement

Contemporary theories of school improvement interact heavily with evolving theories of successful school leadership. Both emphasize the importance of setting goals, pressing for high expectations, developing teachers, forging coherent instructional programs and linking key supports more tightly to the improvement of teaching and learning. Three themes salient to the development of the Lansing Leadership Program are a bit more developed in the school improvement literatures however.

The first theme is the growing role of data and information in school operations and improvement. Research in education and other sectors argues that high performing and improving organizations have rich data use routines. Certainly the policy environment in which school leaders now work increasingly obliges them to base key decisions on thoughtfully analyzed data. This calls on leaders to grow and exercise a set of interrelated capabilities. One is to gain personal knowledge and skills for selecting, analyzing and interpreting data. Another is assisting teachers and others to become ‘data wise’ – to nurture their skills for collaborative data-based inquiry, analysis and action planning of instructional processes and outcomes. Still another is developing organizational systems and routines in which varied indicators and sources of data provide feedback on core processes and help to identify systemic problems undermining progress or achievement of valued goals

A second theme underscored findings in the leadership literature on the positive effects of coordinated school supports and structures. The organization of core systems shapes the social and behavior context within which teachers and students carry out their work. Highly aligned and coordinated structures can support and extend their efforts and outcomes, whereas poorly aligned or disconnected structures can frustrate them. Successful school leaders are organizational tinkerers… they constantly seek ways to link core arrangements to improvements in teaching and learning. This means they consider as malleable the organization of time, the assignment of roles and responsibility, the use of space, the range of programs and initiatives adopted, the acquisition and deployment of resources and all manner of daily operating procedures and routines. In short, successful school leaders actively forge structural arrangements that establish favorable conditions for teaching and learning.

A third theme, that we embrace as central to our program, is that improvement efforts should be aligned to the Instructional Core, by which we refer to classrooms interactions among teacher and students in the presence of content. Elmore and associates (City, et al., 2010) claims that improvement efforts must show up on the Core; if they don’t they aren’t going to have any effect on the quality of instruction, how well students learn, and ultimately, on measures of student achievement. Figure 1 on the following page displays a representation of the Instructional Core.

Figure 1: The Instructional Core (City et al., 2010)

Having the instructional core as a key component of our school administrator preparation program signals that the quality of interactions within classrooms is paramount, as suggested by the double-headed arrows. How teachers interact with students, how teachers relate to and represent the content, and how students perceive and understand the content are points of equal consideration and importance. Viewed this way, teaching is not a performance. Teachers do not simply deliver the content. Students do not receive the content. The classroom is an active space in which content is manifest in multiple ways, placing high level demands on both teachers and students. Teachers need to plan carefully so that they orchestrate the learning interactions among students working with various materials. Students need to be guided in developing appropriate cognitive and non-cognitive skills so that they can engage the content in deep ways.

With the instructional core at the center of all school activity and concern, the school leader is met with new demands for how to create the organizational conditions that support high quality teaching and learning. We can be certain that, as research, policy and practice moves forward, new leadership demands and tasks will continually present themselves. Raised standards and expectations, new thinking about what a high quality 21st century education involves, along with new and varied models of schools and schooling— all will bring new demands to leadership knowledge, skill and role.