Developing Instructional Leaders. ERIC Digest.
by Lashway, Larry
Significant educational ideas endure, but they also evolve over time.
In the 1980s, "instructional leadership" became the dominant paradigm for
school leaders after researchers noticed that effective schools usually
had principals who kept a high focus on curriculum and instruction. In
the first half of the 1990s, attention to instructional leadership seemed
to waver, displaced by discussions of school-based management and facilitative
But recently instruction has surged back to the top of the leadership
agenda, driven by the relentless growth of standards-based accountability
systems. Explicit standards of learning, coupled with heavy pressure to
provide tangible evidence of success, have reaffirmed the importance of
Nevertheless, despite general agreement that instructional leadership
is a critical skill, few principals and superintendents have had in-depth
training for that role, especially in a standards-based environment. This
Digest reviews the demands of today's instructional leadership and discusses
steps that universities and school districts can take to help leaders develop
the necessary skills.
HOW IS TODAY'S INSTRUCTIONAL LEADERSHIP DEFINED?
Current definitions of instructional leadership are richer and more
expansive than those of the 1980s. Originally, the role involved traditional
tasks such as setting clear goals, allocating resources to instruction,
managing the curriculum, monitoring lesson plans, and evaluating teachers.
Today, it includes much deeper involvement in the "core technology" of
teaching and learning, carries more sophisticated views of professional
development, and emphasizes the use of data to make decisions (Deborah
King 2002). Attention has shifted from teaching to learning, and some now
prefer the term "learning leader" over "instructional leader" (Richard
The National Association of Elementary School Principals (2001) frames
instructional leadership in terms of "leading learning communities." In
NAESP's view, instructional leaders have six roles: making student and
adult learning the priority; setting high expectations for performance;
gearing content and instruction to standards; creating a culture of continuous
learning for adults; using multiple sources of data to assess learning;
and activating the community's support for school success.
These sweeping goals reflect a "best-practices" perspective distilled
from an analysis of the current demands being placed on schools. We know
much less about how-or how much-principals actually carry out these functions
on a daily basis (James Spillane and colleagues 2000). The leader's day
is built around dozens of concrete "micro tasks," many of which have no
overt connection with instruction. How do principals weave these mundane
daily activities into a learning-focused agenda?
Joseph and Jo Blase (2000) provided a partial answer by asking teachers
to describe the behaviors of principals who had a positive influence on
student learning. Two broad themes emerged: talking with teachers and promoting
professional development. These were expressed in specific behaviors such
as making suggestions, giving feedback, modeling effective instruction,
soliciting opinions, supporting collaboration, providing professional development
opportunities, and giving praise for effective teaching. All these actions
were carried out in a way that respected teacher knowledge and autonomy.
HOW IS INSTRUCTIONAL LEADERSHIP DISTRIBUTED?
Instructional leadership of the 1980s was principal-centered, often
accompanied by images of heroic leaders single-handedly keeping the school
on track. Many recent policy documents continue to put principals front
and center; for example, Gene Bottoms and Kathy O'Neill (2001) characterize
the principal as the "chief learning officer" who bears "ultimate responsibility
for success or failure of the enterprise."
However, a growing number of researchers say that instructional leadership
is distributed across the school community, with principals, superintendents,
teachers, and policymakers having complementary responsibilities (King;
Richard Elmore 2000; Spillane and colleagues).
Elmore identifies five key players in reform: (1) policymakers, whose
responsibility is synthesizing diverse political interests into a viable
system; (2) researchers and program developers, whose responsibility is
identifying and creating successful strategies and structures; (3) superintendents
and central office staff, whose responsibility is framing coherent district-wide
goals and support systems; (4) principals, whose responsibility is designing
and implementing a well-focused school improvement plan; and (5) teachers,
whose responsibility is translating curriculum into meaningful learning
experiences for students. Elmore says that each role leads to a different
kind of expertise that leaders must both respect and cultivate.
Distributed leadership does not imply a simple division of labor, with
participants playing their designated roles in isolation from the others.
Instead, their efforts are interdependent, frequently spanning boundaries
(Spillane and colleagues). For example, principals can arrange professional
development opportunities, but teachers must actually apply the new ideas
in the classroom.
WHAT DO ADMINISTRATORS NEED TO KNOW ABOUT INSTRUCTIONAL LEADERSHIP?
Standards-based accountability challenges traditional assumptions about
instructional leadership. Instead of encouraging teachers' efforts, principals
now must lead teachers to produce tangible results on ambitious academic
standards. This requires not just innovative practices, but a different
mindset (Elmore; Kate Jamemtz 2002).
Several implications are apparent. First, given the numerous and often
conflicting demands for reform, leaders must create coherence in improvement
efforts (Jonathan Supovitz and Susan Poglinco 2001). This is sometimes
expressed as "vision," but more prosaically it just means that all players
understand there is a common goal to which everyone is accountable and
that policies, practices, and resources are aligned with the goal. Instructional
leadership is the "organizational glue" that keeps things on track (Elmore).
Second, the distributed nature of leadership requires administrators
to achieve a finely tuned balance of mandate and empowerment. On the one
hand, they must make it clear that change is not optional, and that common
goals may require teachers to give up or defer some individual preferences.
On the other hand, they cannot simply impose the goal. Effective instructional
leaders create a safe environment for teachers, using dialogue rather than
dictates to keep the focus on core instructional issues (Supovitz and Poglinco).
Finally, leaders must model learning. Jamentz notes that principals
must be able to recognize whether lessons are aligned with standards, develop
classroom assessments consistent with standards, and evaluate student work
for evidence that standards have been achieved. Their knowledge should
be deep enough to let them coach teachers using explanations, practical
examples, and demonstration lessons. Just as important, leaders must demonstrate
the same learning traits that they expect in teachers: openness to new
ideas, willingness to be driven by results, and persistence in the face
HOW DO PREPARATION PROGRAMS DEVELOP INSTRUCTIONAL LEADERS?
Success in standards-based reform clearly requires sophisticated skills,
exerting pressure on preparation programs to sharpen their focus on instructional
leadership. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education
(NCATE) has responded with new performance-based standards based on the
assumption that "the purpose of leadership is to improve teaching and learning."
Administrator preparation programs must prove that their students can develop
a vision, design comprehensive professional growth plans, provide effective
instructional programs, and apply best practices to student learning (National
Policy Board for Educational Administration 2002).
Programs have just begun to implement these standards, and many are
not affiliated with NCATE. Although most programs undoubtedly address instructional
leadership, there is little evidence at this point that students gain in-depth
knowledge of the core technology of teaching and learning.
Reforms described by Ann Weaver Hart and Diana Pounder (1999) hold out
promise for improving training for instructional leadership. Cohort programs,
in which students go through the program with the same group of peers,
can provide a meaningful laboratory for developing collaborative skills.
Case studies and problem-based learning offer lifelike simulations that
hone students' thinking about complex instructional issues. Extended internships
can give students experience in making changes in field settings.
Finally, Theodore Creighton and Gary Jones (2001) point out that few
programs currently look beyond grade-point average when recruiting students
into programs. They suggest that using behavioral-based criteria such as
assessment center exercises would provide better insights into candidates'
ability to handle the demands of instructional leadership.
HOW DO DISTRICTS DEVELOP INSTRUCTIONAL LEADERSHIP?
Earlier images of heroic principals may have encouraged many districts
to seek instructional leadership by hiring exemplary candidates with all
the right traits (Elmore). But heroes are in short supply, and research
suggests that the district's organizational culture can either develop
or squelch learning-focused leaders.
Districts can build instructional leadership by expecting all employees
to be both teachers and learners. Elaine Fink and Lauren Resnick (1999)
have described how New York City's District Two expects central-office
staff to provide models of learning for principals. Monthly conferences
invariably focus in depth on instructional issues, including examination
of test results to cast light on instructional issues. In addition, principals
are expected to attend a number of special-topic institutes during the
The deputy superintendent conducts support groups for new principals,
who are encouraged to air instructional problems they are grappling with,
and similar groups are established for principals of schools with large
numbers of at-risk students. The district also encourages principals to
visit each other's buildings to observe specific practices or simply do
informal "buddying" on selected issues.
A key strategy is the supervisory "WalkThrough" of each school. It begins
with a meeting to review goals and objectives, analyze test data (including
discussions of individual children), and discuss the performance of teachers.
This is followed by a visit to every classroom, involving interaction with
students and teachers, and is concluded with an evaluation meeting. The
WalkThroughs are both supervisory (underscoring the principal's accountability)
and supportive (providing the occasion for dialogue and coaching).
Through these activities, the district sends a clear message: learning
is everyone's responsibility.
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