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Learning-Focused Leadership: Keeping an Eye on the Ball

Eye on the Ball graphic

When the district superintendent showed up at a school at 7:30 a.m., everyone knew what to expect. First she gathered five students, picked at random, then she sat down and spent an hour talking with them about their work, their life in school, and what it meant for them to be learners in their classroom environment. This block of time was reserved on the superintendent's calendar and nothing got in the way of it: not breakdowns in the bus barn, not urgent calls from board members, not budget crises in the finance department.

This was serious work, priority work and, through her actions, she let everyone know it.

Educators knew, too, that she would share what she learned from the students, leverage the information into discussions on effective instruction, tie it to existing and incoming data, and relate it to the district's agenda to improve learning for all students—a system-wide mission that wasn't empty rhetoric, but a roll-up-the-sleeves plan of action that this leader had clearly articulated to the entire educational community.

"This is a leader who says, publicly, in her own work, this is what we're all about, this learning improvement is what we do," says University of Washington Professor Mike Knapp, director of the College of Education's Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy. "When leaders do this, it spreads throughout the system. It becomes everybody's business. Everyone proceeds with the same goals in mind."

With grants from The Wallace Foundation aimed at improving education leadership nationwide, Knapp and research colleagues from the Center undertook The Study of Leadership for Learning Improvement, a three-year, multi-strand investigation of selected school, district, and state systems that were working to maximize powerful, equitable learning for all students.

The researchers examined the demands leaders faced and their evolving strategies for dealing with them through three coordinated studies, described in Research That Matters. These studies examined the exercise of learning-focused leadership by administrators and teacher leaders in schools, central office support for learning improvement, and the investment of staffing resources in learning improvement.

"The field is moving toward a more complicated notion of who leads, and our research really takes that on," says College of Education Associate Professor Marge Plecki, who led the sub-study on the allocation of staffing resources.

The UW leadership research concentrates largely on urban schools, which are typically harder to staff than their wealthier suburban counterparts and have disproportionate numbers of disadvantaged students caught in what U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calls "the opportunity gap."

With government mandates to close the other gap—the achievement gap—the job of 21st-century leadership has grown increasingly knotty, with demands to find differentiated means of meeting diverse student needs at a time of dwindling budgets, strict accountability systems, and keen political scrutiny.

One measure of the current pressures is the looming leadership vacuum in top educational positions, especially in high-poverty schools. Baby boomers are retiring—the National Association of Elementary School Principals reports that almost 60 percent of K-8 principals are age 50 or older—and many teachers and other educators who would traditionally step into their shoes are not stepping up to the principalship.

Even those who take top jobs may not stick with them. In the largest U.S. cities, the typical tenure of a superintendent is now two to three years, and the American Association of School Administrators reports there will not be enough candidates to fill all the superintendent openings in the future. "Administrative jobs are less sought after in recent years than in decades past," says Knapp. "It's a very disturbing trend."

At the same time, the need for effective leadership has never been more critical. Some researchers suggest strong, transformational leadership is second only to classroom instruction in boosting student learning—and may have even greater impact in the lowest-performing schools.

That kind of impact, the UW research shows, only happens when leaders keep their "eye on the ball" of student learning, holding tight to their mission to improve outcomes for every student in their charge. "If you believe that, as a society, we are going to benefit from a well-performing public education system that serves all children, especially children who have been historically under-served, you need people who can lead intentionally, in a focused way, for learning improvement—people who can build sets of routines and norms and practices into all levels of schooling that make that improvement the main work they do. And they can't get sidetracked," says Knapp.

In a world of relentless distractions, such efforts require intense concentration. "It's so much easier to run a school by managing its details and its crises, and to run a district by worrying about budgets, union contracts, what the chamber of commerce thinks, or how to respond to a federal special education law—all those things that become the work of administering a complex educational system," says Knapp. "It's always easier to slip into the daily urgencies than to keep the focus on learning and teaching."

The UW researchers identify critical steps for leaders working to establish and maintain successful learning-improvement frameworks. These include designing a clear plan for improving instruction, a plan that can be fine-tuned regularly. This includes the leaders' picture of how and why their actions and reform strategy can cause change, debugging and fine-tuning this plan, clearly articulating goals, and making sure the right people are in place to enact them.

At the school level, many principals in the study found that the only way to make their "impossible" job possible was by distributing the hard work of leadership. They mobilized collaborative leadership cadres within the school, calling on multiple actors with multiple talents from inside the school as well as the central office to work on instructional improvement. "I don't think teachers can take on leadership in the way we saw unless the principal is really enabling and guiding the work those teacher leaders do to support classroom practice,"says doctoral student Felice Russell, a member of the UW research team.

At the state level, some leaders began shifting from hierarchical chains of command to a new, more responsive, high-support relationship with districts and schools. "We had to be service-oriented and we had to be willing and open to change, and we needed to change our reputation as an agency that said 'No!' all the time, to an agency that helped people find solutions," said one state agency official.
At the district level, some leaders took a hard look at their own work practices, and reimagined them in ways that would focus everyone's attention on learning improvement. They looked at central office operations and began revising inflexible ways of dealing with schools, joining with schools in partnerships centered on improving instruction.

"Districts can have heavy, bureaucratized histories, with byzantine rules about who needs to okay this or that, and turf wars between operational support members, with little incentive to perform rapidly and efficiently," says Knapp. "All those rules can get in the way of good thinking and responsiveness to schools' instructional improvement needs."

Researchers found that while strong leadership requires a persistent, strategic focus, leaders are often not adequately prepared for this role and are not properly supported once they are in it.
"People think leaders are the ones who know what they should be doing, so why do they need support?" says Knapp."That's wrong. The people who provide support also need support—it can be technical assistance, regular opportunities to learn how to improve their leadership, extra funds when needed, political cover, or a shoulder to cry on. Leaders need to be able to make mistakes, and they will take more risks if they have the support."

The successful leadership-for-learning strategies the UW research team investigated have been adopted by a number of programs, including the UW's Leadership for Learning program, a doctoral program for aspiring system-level educational leaders. "We're using these ideas in our own teaching of the next generation of people who will be system-level leaders," says Knapp.
One critical lesson will be learning to build buy-in for learning-focused goals, so that the entire school and district community owns the idea of improving student outcomes, from classroom to living room to boardroom.

Knapp cites the example of a new third-grade teacher in an elementary school in the South Bronx, who, when asked about the priorities of her work, repeated what leaders had said about differentiating instruction to reach all kinds of learners no matter what level they are and no matter how they learn, what modality they learn by. "We really want to collect data, make sure that everything is assessment-based so that we can see where they stand and what progress, if any, they are making."

Two months into her new job, the third-grade teacher had internalized the learning improvement agenda of her school.

The leadership message had come through loud and clear.

For more information:
Knapp, M. S., Copland, M. A., Plecki, M. L., & Portin, B. S. (2006). Leading, learning, and leadership support. Seattle, Wash.: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington.

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

November 2010  |  Return to issue home

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