School & District Management

AERA: Instructional Leadership Is About Quality Time, Not Quantity

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 28, 2013 4 min read
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San Francisco

Principals set the tone for academic excellence in their schools, but researchers and policymakers are only just beginning to understand how their leadership affects student achievement. And for harried, time-crunched leaders nationwide, the results might be heartening: It’s not quantity, but the quality of time spent on instructional leadership that makes the difference.

Here amid the more than 14,500 researchers and educators at the American Educational Research Association conference, a more quantitative view of school leadership is coming into focus. In a meta-analysis of 79 unpublished studies and data sets, University of Alabama researcher Jingping Sun found three areas in which principals could spur student learning by improving teacher practices: through individualized support for teachers, modeling desirable instruction, and providing intellectual stimulation for teachers.

This sort of behavior is a lot harder to suss out than a principal’s credentials or experience, but, “when we look at lots of easily observed characteristics, those don’t seem to be very predictive of principal effectiveness,” said Jason A. Grissom, education researcher from Vanderbilt Peabody College.

Quality Time

In a separate study, an ongoing, three-year longitudinal study of principals by Grissom and other researchers, observers shadowed leaders at every high school and a random sample of elementary and middle schools in Miami for several days each spring in 2008, 2011 and 2012. During the observations, researchers recoded detailed information about what the principal was doing every five minutes, out of a list of 50 potential activities.

Then the researchers connected those data to structured interviews with the principals at the end of each visit; end-of-school-year surveys with principals, assistant principals, and teachers; and district administrative data going back to 2002.

In spite of the high-profile push for principals to become “instructional leaders,” Grissom and his colleges found on average, principals spent only 50 minutes each day, or 13 percent of their time, on instruction-related tasks, including (in the order of most- to least-common):
• Class walkthroughs,
• Developing educational programs,
• Coaching teachers, and
• Running required or voluntary professional development for teachers or other staff.

At first, it seemed principals who spent more time on instructional activities were no more likely to have high-achieving schools than those who spent less time—but that’s because all instructional leadership is not equal.

Take classroom walkthroughs, a staple of instructional leadership. In high school in particular, walkthroughs were on average linked to worse student achievement over time. But when Grissom and his colleagues teased out the data, it turned out that walkthroughs that were directly connected to teacher professional development and feedback improved student achievement over time, but “When walkthroughs are just done for the sake of doing it, that’s where you get these more negative outcomes,” Grissom said.

“Principals are a lot more likely to conceptualize walkthroughs as a way to keep tabs than a tool for professional development,” he said, adding that school leaders used walkthroughs for monitoring twice as often as they used it for teacher coaching and professional development.

Deep Conversations

Moreover, that tendency toward monitoring rather than partnership and professional development permeates school leaders’ conversations with staff, an unrelated University of Auckland study finds.

Auckland researcher Deidre LeFevre found that rather than engaging in genuine inquiry and being willing to question their own assumptions, principal conversations with teachers sometimes come from a position of mistrust or outright manipulation.

LeFevre asked 14 veteran principals to engage in 8-minute conversations with an actor trained to perform as a teacher who has been late to meetings and in providing student data. During the conversations, the leaders wrote down what they were thinking about as they spoke with the teacher, and both the conversation transcripts and the notes were coded and analyzed.

LeFevre found none of the leaders held a sustained, genuine inquiry. One avoided discussing the data issue at all, and the others posed leading questions that lectured the teacher on what she was doing wrong and did not respond to her questions about why the data was being collected and what relevance it would have to instruction. In some cases the principals’ notes made it obvious they simply thought the (imaginary) teacher was lazy, or that they privately agreed with her concerns but would not discuss the issue or try to come up with solutions beyond basic compliance.

“To have a genuine conversation, the leader needs to think about his own assumptions and be open to understanding and taking a new perspective,” LeFevre said.

Just as class walkthroughs weren’t much use if they were only a “gotcha,” teacher-leader conversations don’t change classroom practice if they aren’t real, she said. Again, leadership is about quality, not quantity.

If you’re at a great session at AERA this week, let me know via Twitter @sarahdsparks or

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.