In a recent study by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), researchers found that the professional development offered by the Center of Educational Leadership (CEL) at the University of Washington had very little to no impact on student achievement in 100 elementary schools across the country. The principals from those 100 elementary schools participated in CEL’s school leadership professional-development sessions, which included 188 hours of professional development over two years.
Among a few areas such as human capital and organizational leadership, the professional-development program was meant to help increase the likelihood that school principals will practice instructional leadership, and therefore, have a positive impact on student achievement and school climate in their schools. IES’ study of CEL’s program showed:
- Despite substantially increasing the amount of professional development principals received, the program did not affect student achievement or most teacher or school outcomes. For example, the professional development did not affect school climate or principal retention.
- The program did not have the intended effects on principal practices that it targeted, which may explain its lack of effects on key student, teacher, and school outcomes. For example, it decreased the frequency of instructional support and feedback teachers received from principals and it did not affect the number of teacher observations principals conducted or the usefulness of the feedback as reported by teachers.
The study showed the CEL’s program, “encouraged principals to conduct frequent classroom observations and document what teachers and students did and said in the classroom using a nonjudgmental, fact-based approach.” According to the report, observations and feedback were a major part of the program.
Herein lies part of the problem. Instructional leadership is more than just observations and feedback.
Is It Time to Expand the Meaning of Instructional Leadership?
So often it seems as though people believe instructional leadership is about one-sided monologue where principals walk into classrooms and tell teachers what they need to improve upon when it comes to instruction. That is a very narrow and misguided focus.
When looking at the research behind instructional leadership, Robinson et al. (2018, p. 23) state, “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.”
Instructional leadership is about how those in a leadership position focus on learning with teachers and students. Those in a leadership position are teacher leaders, PLC leads, department chairs, as well as building and district-level leaders.
However, that focus on learning is not one-sided. The observations and feedback that take place are a small part of a much larger picture that should not be one-sided, and we need a more holistic approach. Instructional leadership is about creating dialogue between parties of leaders and teachers where they learn from one another. Hence, the relationship piece that Robinson et al. refer to above.
Credibility Comes Before Feedback
There are numerous reasons why instructional leadership is not just about observations and feedback. Principals do not always have the credibility to offer effective feedback to staff, and those with credibility understand that feedback is not only complicated, but it is a two-way street.
In a small-scale study from earlier in 2019, I found that 24 percent of principals felt very confident that they were instructional leaders, and 43 percent felt confident in their instructional-leadership practices. However, when surveying teachers, I found that only 15 percent of teachers felt confident that their principals were instructional leaders, and 22 percent felt confident in their principal’s instructional-leadership practices.
Some of this discrepancy between the leader’s confidence and that of the teachers in their school has to do with proximity. If I am a principal and I have a great relationship with one teacher, so I spend a lot of time in their classroom talking about learning, they will most likely see me as an instructional leader. However, if there is a teacher in the school that keeps their door closed and I do not like walking in when the door is closed, I talk less about learning with them, and they will most likely answer that I am not an instructional leader.
Instructional leadership is about understanding that proximity and credibility play a part in practicing that type of leadership, and leaders need to find spaces where they are in proximity with all staff to talk about learning. That’s why faculty meetings and cabinet (or building-level team) meetings are so important. Those are places where dialogue about learning can take place. Unfortunately, those meetings are typically used to talk about adult issues and management.
Additionally, IES’ study mentioned that the professional development offered by CEL did not have a positive impact on school climate. If, indeed, CEL focused only on observations and feedback (and I’m hoping they respond to the study), of course the school climate would not improve because that one-sided approach, where principals may not be seen as credible sources, would ultimately have a negative impact on climate because teachers would feel as though everything in the school was top-down. Too often programs focus on principals playing the role of instructional leader, but they do not put a strong focus on helping leaders build credibility in that role.
In the End
If we merely look at instructional leadership as observations and feedback, we have missed the boat and once again set up an unhealthy dynamic where principals have all the voice and teachers are stripped of their voice. As a former school principal, I grew as an instructional leader because of what I learned from the teachers that I worked with in school.
Instructional leadership is about providing a space and uninterrupted time for teachers to work together on student learning. It’s less about the principal and more about the structures that principals set up for teachers to discuss learning. In the research, it is called collective teacher efficacy, which happens when groups of teachers work together on a common goal around learning, try different strategies to achieve that goal, and learn from one another and their students in the process.
Instructional leadership isn’t about one person holding all of the power; it’s about empowering everyone else in the building, including the students.
Questions to ponder about the study:
- Is state assessment data the best achievement data to use as a sole source? What about locally developed measures or progress monitoring?
- Why would IES only focus on observations and feedback when CEL also provided professional learning on human capital and organizational leadership?
- Is it possible that IES has a short term focus by just looking at standardized tests and CEL has a deeper impact over time that standardized tests will not show?
- Does the U.S. Department of Education, given its current leadership, have credibility to do research on school leadership?
- Where principals who received the PD were concerned, is it possible their teachers were upset about feedback because they hadn’t experienced effective feedback during observarions prior to this new learning on the part of school leaders? Stone and Heen have done deep research on feedback triggers.
- Is it at all possible the school climate suffered because of an implementation dip?
Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018), and Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (Corwin Press. 2020). Connect with him on Twitter.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
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.