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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Do Leaders Really Need to Be Content Experts?

By Peter DeWitt — February 03, 2019 6 min read
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Research shows that instructional leadership has a positive impact on student learning. For example, in Hattie’s synthesis of meta-analysis (2009. 2012), which includes over 420 studies on school leadership, he found that instructional leadership was the most impactful way to lead a school (as opposed to transformational leadership, management, etc.) because it helps put a focus on learning. Hattie is far from the only researcher who has come to this finding, which is the direct result of his ability to synthesize over 420 studies on leadership.

We know it’s hard to debate that finding. Additionally, we know that we should not discount or get rid of transformational leadership or management, because there are important elements to each one. However, if leaders want to have more of an impact on learning, and the way in which it is addressed in their building, instructional leadership is where they should put most of their focus. The unfortunate side to all of this is that we find that instructional leadership is easy to talk about but much harder to do. What makes this topic more complicated is the additional work that seems to be mounting for leaders because of the instructional-leadership research.

Recently, I have heard many non-building-based leaders (i.e. district administrators, researchers, university professors, etc.) talk about the idea that principals/head teachers need to be experts around the content being taught in the buildings they lead. Meaning, their idea is that building-based leaders should have content expertise in all grade levels in their schools.

Although leaders should always be able to have knowledge of content being taught, there are far more important items to spend their time on in their daily practices. Yes, content knowledge is important, but studying standards and content from each grade level will result in the use of misplaced energy.

Part of the issue with leadership burnout, and the reason so many leave the position altogether, has to do with the sheer number of responsibilities put on them by their district leaders (i.e., paperwork, meetings that take them away from the building) or some outside force like state education departments or policymakers and politicians (i.e., accountability, mandates etc.).

In fact, when looking at the area of content expertise, and that of the research behind instructional leadership, a glaring issue surfaces. That issue is that many leaders understand why instructional leadership is important, but many of those leaders do not know how to put it into practice ... or they just don’t find the time to be instructional leaders. So, this issue of content expertise exacerbates the leadership dilemma which helps drive so many leaders out of the position because they just don’t believe they will ever be able to get a handle on all of the tasks being asked of them.

4 Areas of Instructional Leadership
First and foremost, instructional leadership really comes down to four driving forces. Those four areas are content knowledge, instructional strategies, student engagement, and collective efficacy (DeWitt. 2019). If leaders are truly going to begin on their path of instructional leadership, these are the four areas in which they need to start.

Let’s break it down a bit more.

Content knowledge—Instead of studying and memorizing the content being taught, it is much more important for leaders to be able to ask good questions of their teachers where content is concerned. Asking for information about the learning intentions and success criteria, necessary vocabulary for students to understand in the lesson, and how they go from surface to deep to transfer learning with students around the content is a much better way to focus on content.

Additionally, if we are to be concerned with content, perhaps our focus needs to be on equity of content ... meaning are all of the diverse populations in the school represented in the books, novels, and curriculum, and is the representation a positive one (i.e., our indigenous populations are not always represented in a positive way in textbooks)?

Instructional strategies—Leaders should understand different instructional strategies like reciprocal teaching and the jigsaw method, which Fisher and Frey so eloquently described in two recent editions of Educational Leadership (ASCD). Or they need to understand classroom-discussion strategies. which Jennifer Gonzalez articulated very well in this Cult of Pedagogy blog post.

Student engagement—Research shows that on average teachers ask 200 questions per day and students ask 2 questions per student per week (Clinton), and that 70 percent of a student’s time may be spent in cooperative-learning groups but 80 percent of that time is spent doing individual work (Coe). These are issues that leaders can use as discussion points with teachers at faculty meetings and PLC gatherings.

Collective efficacy—What we know is that leaders and teachers cannot take on all of the issues that surface in school in a solitary manner. They need to work with each other to take on challenges or focus on the best way to deliver instruction and build student understanding.

Collective efficacy is the belief we have in the group we worth with and involves co-constructing a goal together, implementing strategies to meet that goal, and collecting evidence to understand impact. In fact, in a small-scale survey involving close to 200 leaders, collective efficacy was seen as the most important out of all four areas of instructional leadership.

In the End
Content expertise ... no. Content knowledge ... yes. But only if it involves dialogue with the teachers in the building.

We know that instructional leadership is supported by research, and we know that there are four areas of instructional leadership that we have to focus on. The “how” still remains the biggest issue and something I have always tried to address in this blog.

Can we start with 60 minutes a day? Do leaders have 60 minutes they can devote to getting into classrooms? How?

When I was a leader (I didn’t have an assistant principal), I found that there were times that were less eventful than others. Meaning, times where I wasn’t confronted with upset parents, discipline issues, etc. For me, that time was from 10:15 a.m. until 11:15 in the morning. It was after the rush of bus arrival, and the issues that come with it, and right before lunches started. That was the time I could devote to getting into classes to see learning takes place.

When I added the 60 minutes to the 15 I took every morning to say good morning to each class, the dialogue I had with teachers during observations and other classroom visits, and the discussions we had at faculty meetings and our Principal’s Advisory Council, it meant that I could devote more time to instructional leadership and building relationships than I originally thought.

We know that instructional leadership is easy to talk about but hard to put into practice. Building-based leaders have a lot on their plate. Understanding the four elements to instructional leadership is important, but making the time to commit to those four elements is even more important.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is the author of several books including his latest release, Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.