While there are thousands of books and articles peddling ideas about what great leadership entails, few focus on the unique role of school leaders. Hard research on business leadership focuses on how a leader affects the bottom-line; a measure that is not the driving force of schools. Softer research focuses on how a leader affects staff satisfaction. However, there is no definitive link between staff satisfaction and the results that staff subsequently achieve1.
School leaders, like their teachers, are responsible for the results of students in their care. They aren’t paid to make profits. Nor are they paid to be popular. Rather, their key concern is to help each, and every child achieve their personal best.
While scarce, research does exist that sheds light on how principals and other school leaders lift the results of their students. In this article, you will discover what that research reveals.
The first finding is that school leadership matters. While the effect of your leadership and student results is not as large or direct as the effect that teachers have it is still substantial. John Hattie2 found that the typical effect of school leadership was nearly twice that of class size.
Furthermore, the effect that certain types of leadership had on student achievement, was greater still. This is what you should do …
Focus Your Leadership On Teaching & Learning
If you want to have a large effect on your students’ results at school, then you need to focus the bulk of your attention and efforts on boosting student results3 . You must expect your students to do well and to achieve results beyond what they are currently achieving. One of the key lessons to come out of Finland4 is that we consciously and unconsciously stream students too early by believing that they cannot cope with an academic curriculum. With noble, yet misguided intentions, we then stop expecting these students to follow, let alone do well in an academic curriculum.
To do this well, you need to ensure that your own knowledge of curriculum, teaching and assessment is both up-to-date and evidence-based5. Whether you are a principal, deputy, head of department or senior teacher – you are a key leader of teaching and learning in your school. While it is a role that you can share, it is not a role that should be delegated. And you cannot lead teaching and learning unless you know what you are talking about.
You also need to hold high expectations of your teachers6 This does not mean that you should expect them to take on extraneous duties or to work ridiculous hours. Most teachers already go above and beyond. Rather you must expect them to:
- Excel in the classroom
- Focus their efforts on helping students achieve better results
- Adopt evidence-based approaches to their work
- Monitor the impact that their teaching is having on student results
- Adjust and improve their teaching in light of this feedback
Principals and other school leaders should be directly involved in supervising teachers’ work7. This includes observing them in the classroom, and giving them meaningful feedback that helps them to improve. This enables you to reinforce your expectation about evidence-based approaches to teaching while being able to personalise your message in a way that suits each teacher’s current situation.
The more leaders focus their influence, their learning, and their relationships with teachers on the core business of teaching and learning, the greater their likely influence on student outcomes
Another powerful way that you should promote excellence in teaching and learning, is through supporting and participating in quality professional development8 with your teachers. Studies show that principals who encourage their teachers’ professional development have a much larger impact on student results than other principals. This effect is even larger when principals create an environment where teachers feel safe to critique, question and support each other to improve their practice.
Entwine Some Lessons from General Leadership Research
Transformational leadership is perhaps the most well known, contemporary leadership theory. It involves leaders in noble tasks such as challenging the status quo, communicating a compelling vision and inspiring people to make that vision a reality. Outside of the educational sphere, it has a great deal of research9 support.
However, in his book, Visible Learning, John Hattie how instructional leadership has a far greater impact on student achievement than transformational leadership. A closer examination of the research that John uses to form this conclusion reveals that the generic nature of transformational leadership is the problem.
Challenging the status quo has little impact on student results if the status quo you are challenging has nothing to do with current levels of student achievement. However, research10 shows that school leaders who challenge the status quo of student results have a large and positive impact on those results.
The same holds true for some other aspects of transformational leadership.
You should draw on the innate moral purpose of schooling, hold high expectations of your teachers and inspire them to work towards ambitious goals – provided those goals focus on raising the standard of academic achievement in the school11. Goals about peripheral matters make little difference to how well your students do at school12.
You should also provide teachers with intellectual stimulation, another key element of transformational leadership13. Within a school setting, evidence-based teaching, learning and assessment must be the source of that stimulation. Sharing and discussing the research (or lack thereof) behind different classroom practices will help shape how teachers go about their work.
Manage As Well As Lead
It is easy to be caught up in the grand and romantic nature of leadership. The eight elements of school leadership explained above help you to understand how to focus the ‘big picture’ of your role. However, school leaders who have the most effect on student results devote as much attention to the day-to-day realities of management as they do the mystical notion of leadership.
Leadership involves plumbing as well as poetry!
In the last part of this article, you will find out the seven specific aspects of management that have a high impact on student results.
Effective school leaders need to establish and sustain an orderly environment ((See Notes 5 & 13.)) for your teachers to work in. Your organizational ability has a significant effect on your students’ results. Therefore, you need to establish and sustain procedures and routines that enable the day-to-day life of your school to run smoothly.
Research14 shows that the most effective managers spend as much as 44% of their time communicating with those they lead, with other studies15 confirming the importance of communication for school leaders. Communication, which primarily involves exchanging routine information and processing paperwork, is the glue that holds all other aspects of your leadership together.
A unique role for school leaders involves protecting your teachers from extraneous demands on their time. Teachers are the key to improving student results, so you must allow them to spend their time on their core business – teaching the children in their care. When you fail to protect your teachers from extra demands on their time you take their energy away from teaching their students, and this has a negative effect on student results. In fact, research shows that the simple act of buffering teachers from additional demands on their time accounts for 7% of variance in student achievement.
The job of leaders is to buffer teachers from extraneous and distracting non-instructional issues
A related role involves minimising the interruptions your teachers experience during class time16. This is achieved through establishing and following policies such as not allowing announcements to be during made during instructional time, or restricting phone calls to classrooms to emergencies. By minimising interruptions, you allow your teachers to focus on teaching and your students to focus on learning.
Another school-specific element of management involves establishing and maintaining high standards of student discipline. This begins with preventative strategies, such as providing clear structures, rules and procedures for students17. It also includes following-up on inappropriate behaviour, and targeted interventions for disruptive students18.
Managers keep their finger on the pulse so that they can intervene as necessary. In a school context, you need to monitor how well (or otherwise) students are performing. More specifically, you need to monitor how the efforts of different teachers are impacting on student results ((See Notes 5 & 13)). This involves far more than annual NAPLAN results, yet needs to be more rigorous than subjective teacher-judgement.
Finally, you need to ensure that your teachers have the necessary equipment and materials to teach the programs you want in the way that you want them taught19. This doesn’t mean throwing money away blindly. In fact, research20 does not support the claim that increased money automatically translates into better student outcomes. Rather, you need to strategically reallocate resources21 to support school priorities in teaching and assessment.
- Focus your efforts on boosting student results
- Stay knowledgeable about evidence-based teaching, learning and assessment
- Hold high expectations of your teachers
- Personally supervise your teachers
- Support quality professional development
Focused Aspects of General Leadership
- Challenge the status quo of student achievement
- Inspire teachers to work towards ambitious goals that lift student results
- Provide teachers with intellectual stimulation through promoting evidence-based education
Management Matters Too
- Establish and sustain an orderly environment
- Communicate with your teachers
- Protect your teachers from extraneous demands on their time
- Minimise interruptions during teaching time
- Create and maintain high standards of student discipline
- Monitor the impact your teachers are having on student results
- Strategically realign resources to support teaching priorities
- Iaffaldana, M. & Muchinsky, M. (1985). The Job Satisfaction-Job Performance Relationship: A Meta-Analysis, Psychological Bulletin, pp. 251-273 [↩]
- Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Syntheses of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, Routledge [↩]
- Henchey, N. (2001). Schools That Make A Difference: Final Report. Twelve Canadian secondary schools in low-income settings. Kelowna, BC, Canada: Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education; Connell, N. (1996). Getting Off The List: School Improvement In New York City. New York: Education Priorities Panel. [↩]
- Sahlberg, P. (2010). Finish Lessons: What Can We Learn from Educational Change In Finland. Teachers College Press. [↩]
- Marzano, R., Waters, T. & McNulty, B. (2005). School Leadership That Works: From Research to Results, McRel. [↩]
- Robinson, V. M. J., Lloyd, C., & Rowe, K. J. (2008). The impact of educational leadership on student outcomes: An analysis of the differential effects of leadership types. Education Administration Quarterly, 44 (5). [↩]
- See notes 5 & 6 [↩]
- See notes 5 & 6 [↩]
- See for example, Keller, R. (2006). Transformational Leadership, Initiating Structure & Substitutes for Leadership, Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, (1) pp. 202-210; Judge, T. & Piccolo, R. (2004). Transformational & Transactional Leadership: A Meta-Analytic Test of Their Relative Validity, Journal of Applied Psychology, 89, (5), pp. 755-768; Yukl, G. (1999). An Evaluation of Conceptual Weaknesses in Transformational & Charismatic Leadership Theories. Leadership Quarterly, 10, 2, pp. 285-305; Lowe, K., Kroeck, K. & Sivasbramaniam, N. (1996). Effectiveness Correlates of Transformational & Transactional Leadership: A Meta-Analytic Review of the MLQ Literature. Leadership Quarterly, pp. 385-425. [↩]
- See Note 5 [↩]
- See Note 5 [↩]
- See Note 2 [↩]
- Pantili, L., Williams, J., & Fortune, J. (1991, April). Principal assessment: Effective or not? A meta-analytic model. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL; see also, Note 5. [↩]
- Luthans, F., Hodgetts, R. & Rosenkrantz, S. (1988). Real Managers. Cambridge, MA. [↩]
- See Notes 5 & 13 [↩]
- See Notes 5, 6 & 16 [↩]
- See Note 5 [↩]
- See Note 2 [↩]
- See Note 5 [↩]
- See for example, Killian, S. (2014). School Funding: Does Money Buy A Better Education, Pinnacle. [↩]
- See Note 13 [↩]