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Cool People You Should Know: Jim Spillane

By skoolboy — July 28, 2008 2 min read

The current policy discourse about teachers and teaching in the U.S. emphasizes the recruitment and retention of “high-quality” teachers, defined either by the teachers’ credentials, or their value-added influence on students’ achievement, or both. It has not, in skoolboy’s view, paid sufficient attention to the ways in which the school serves as a context for teachers’ work, shaping the conditions under which a teacher might be more or less successful in advancing students’ learning. Teachers don’t teach in a vacuum; the ability of the leaders in a school to set a direction, secure resources, facilitate professional development, and build a culture for teachers to work in concert has a lot to do with whether a teacher can be successful. One of the implications of this perspective is that a teacher’s effectiveness may be contingent on the school context, which eduwonkette has pointed to as an issue that needs further research before we embrace value-added assessment as the last word on teacher effectiveness.

Jim Spillane, who studies school leadership, is a cool person you should know. He’s the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor of Learning and Organizational Change in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. Over the past half-dozen years or so, he has led a series of research projects on distributed leadership and instructional improvement. A key principle of distributed leadership is the distinction between leadership roles and leadership practices. The conception of the “great man” theory of leadership is only exacerbated by calls by business leaders, politicians and high-level school administrators for “strong” principal leadership. (“Strong” is always cast as better than “weak.”) Leadership, Spillane explains, is not limited to people who are formally designated as leaders. Rather, there are times when people other than the school principal perform key organizational functions, and the principal works with these others—who may include curriculum specialists and coaches, assistant principals, and of course teachers.

Spillane also emphasizes the importance of organizational routines to the practice of leadership. All organizations have a set of routines and rituals that guide the day-to-day work and interactions of teachers, students and administrators in schools. Leaders can purposively design organizational routines that might contribute to improved teaching and learning. A distributed leadership perspective is no panacea, he warns; but it can be a useful lens for making sense of the practice of leadership, and how schools can create organizational routines that allow a broader array of educators in schools to take on leadership responsibilities and develop as leaders.

The goals of schooling are too complex, and the technology for achieving those goals is currently too weak, to rely on a single person—no matter how talented—to be defined as the sole leader of a contemporary U.S. school.

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