Can District Leaders Be Instructional Leaders?

Today's chat explores the issues raised in Education Week's recently released report, Leading for Learning.

Can District Leaders Be Instructional Leaders?

Today’s chat explores the issues raised in Education Week‘s recently released report, Leading for Learning.

Sept. 21, 2005


Leading for Learning reports on a representative poll of 813 superintendents, finding that large numbers of superintendents are turning to common planning time for teachers, new forms of classroom observations, and in particular, data-driven decisionmaking as systemwide strategies for improvement. But almost 90 percent of superintendents report that a lack of funds prevents them from acting as instructional leaders in their districts, and almost 70 percent cite competing priorities as a barrier.


Jeff Archer, associate editor at Education Week.

Jane Hammond, former superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools, CO, and director of the District Alliance Program at the Stupski Foundation.

Melissa McCabe (Moderator):
Welcome to today’s online chat on instructional leadership. We’re hoping to address the question of whether district leaders can be instructional leaders. Our special report, “Leading for Learning,” finds that school district leaders report they are playing a large role in shaping instruction. So let’s get to your questions about the growth of instructional decisionmaking at the district level and emerging district practices . . .

Question from George Reid, Education Leadership, Argosy University/Sarasota:
Do we really understand what leadership means at the district level? Do we use the “instructional leader” or principal model? Do we look at the old literature on “supervision”? I think we need a new model and new role definition for district leaders (both staff and line).

Jeff Archer:
I agree. There’s a real lack of research and other literature about what it means to be an instructional leader at the district level, especially compared to what’s out there on the principal as instructional leader. The field has long been saying that building leaders should focus on improving instruction, and I think people have some idea of what that looks like: someone who can facilitate the analysis of teaching and learning that goes on in classrooms and plan ways to improve it. What that looks like for a district leader is less clear. Recently, I wrote about the Public Education Leadership Project at Harvard--an attempt to adapt some business management concepts to education--and the premise was that there simply isn’t a body of knowlegde out there yet about how to create high-performing school districts. One foundation official also recently complained to me that he just doesn’t see enough on district leadership at educational research conferences. So there’s a lot of room for new work.

Question from Adria Shipp, Visiting Instructor, Western Carolina University:
What could individual schools do to help facilitate district leaders taking on more instructional leadership roles?

Jane Hammond:
In most districts where improvement is being implemented effectively, there is a cultural of collaboration and team work. Each group, such as teachers, principals, assistant superintendents and superintendents, has a clear role in increasing student achievement and closing the achievement gap. So in answer to your question, I would encourage you to reach out to district leaders to identify ways that you might work together to deepen the improvement efforts that are currently taking place at both the school and district level.

An example of what a school staff can do to support district reform is to form a professional learning community with another school staff to share best practices. School staffs can share how they are getting results and meeting the challenges of increasing achievement. Learning community can connect in person or through online chats.

Question from Dr. Marvin Peterson, Colegios Peterson, Mexico City:
1. How can a district leader not be an instructional leader and call himself a leader? Isn’t his effectiveness measured by the improvement in the academic level of his students?

2. With little or no power to dismiss incompetent teachers, what power does he have other than at the initial hiring?

Jeff Archer:
In response to your first question, I think many in the field are now asking the same thing: How can district leaders not be instructional leaders? And yet, it wasn’t that long ago that some districts were cutting back, or even eliminating, their curriculum and instruction departments. In the late 1980s, when Illinois lawmakers stepped in to overhaul the governance of the Chicago city schools, they did it, at first, by largely decentralizing decision making to the schools. So this idea that leadership from the district level is relevant to instructional improvement is somewhat recent.

Education Week commissioned a national poll of superintendents for its latest Leading for Learning report--in the Sept. 14 issue--and found that 93 percent said district leaders should play a more active role in matters of instruction.

On your second question, it is true that district leaders--especially those in large systems--sometimes complain that their hands are tied when their schools seek to dismiss someone for lack of performance. Still, I think most superintendents would say that hiring and firing aren’t the only ways they can control staff quality--that professional development is key. Catherine Gewertz at Education Week recently profiled the Montgomery Co. schools in Maryland to show how a system can effectively use hiring, training, and a peer review process for teachers to maintain consistency of quality in teaching across its schools.

One other note on your second point, our poll of superintendents suggests that union contracts and staff resistence are not the biggest barriers that superintendents see to their leadership. Rather, they cite lack of money and competing priorities as much higher.

Question from Megan Keiser, Literacy Coach, Asheville City School System:
How can superintendents use their leadership position to model, for teachers and principals, ways to be an instructional leader?

Jeff Archer:
The best way is probably to engage in continuous professional learning around instructional improvement. That’s not easy for superintendents, since they work in such isolation from one another and are removed from the classroom. (It’s a lot easier for teachers, say, to talk to each other about how to solve particular teaching and learning problems.) I have seen one example that tries to address this. This past spring, I wrote a story for Education Week about the Connecticut Superintendents Network, in which 12 district superintendents there gather at one of their systems periodically throughout the year to analyze a particular instructional challenge. They make classroom observations in each district they visit, and then talk about what they saw. There’s much more to it than that, but the idea is to help them to collaborate, and to keep them focused on instruction.

Question from Phyllis Taub-Greenleaf, Child Development Specialist, Author of upcoming book on standardized testing and Grandmother:
Are you concerned that focusing on improving standardized test scores instead of developing meaningful curriculum will interfere with the development of quality teaching and learning?

Jane Hammond:
I understand your concern, but if standardized tests are aligned to high quality, rigorous, standards-based curriculum, you are not teaching to the test, but teaching to the standards. It’s important to remember that standardized test scores are just one measure of achievement. Data-driven districts focus on a broad range of measurements – including classroom assessments and performance – to determine whether all students are meeting high standards established by the district. Assessments also help the district continuously review and improve instruction and curriculum.

Question from Jondi Gumz, parent, Scotts Valley schools:
What other priorities do supts have besides improving student achievement? Where does student achievement rank on that list?

Jane Hammond:
School districts exist for the purpose of providing a quality education for the students they serve. District improvement efforts are needed to ensure that all students achieve at high levels and that the achievement gaps are addressed. To get results, every member of the organization must be focused on the role that he or she plays. For example, the bus drivers contribute to increased student achievement by delivering the students to school safely, on time and ready to learn. Facilities and maintenance staff work together to ensure that the schools provide an environment that is safe and conducive to learning.

In providing leadership, superintendents have many priorities to juggle, almost all of which focus on increasing student achievement. Some address achievement directly, such as providing quality learning resource materials for schools. Other priorities address student success less directly, such as fostering partnerships with community leaders to meet community needs, including building a strong educational system.

Question from Bill Davis, Teacher, Highland High School:
How can a district administrator who hasn’t taught in a classroom for ten years or more (in some supt. cases never) be an “instructional leader” if they possess only a theoretical knowledge of what is actually taking place in the trenches?

Jeff Archer:
This depends on what is meant by instructional leadership. Most people I’ve talked to describe it as creating an environment in which improvement in teaching can occur. The alternative isn’t anything I think most people in the field would advocate. Also, I think many district leaders just don’t feel they have any choice but to be instructional leaders, given that NCLB and state accountability systems require that all of their schools improve. I think the question isn’t so much if superintendents are instructional leaders, but how well they fulfill that role.

Question from Dr. Vincent Bates, Music Teacher, Tintic School District:
Asking whether administrators can be instructional leaders presupposes that they should. In my 14th year as a music teacher, I am still trying to “get it right.” How is someone who has spent less time in the classroom and who isn’t currently teaching kids supposed to be my instructional leader? What initiatives are there “out there” that place veteran teachers in the position of instructional leaders?


Jane Hammond:
Each member of the team has a role to play in district improvement. If each person plays his/her role effectively the combination of efforts will result in increased student achievement and closing the gap. As a Superintendent I didn’t know as much about music as any of the music teachers on the staff, and I was thankful for their expertise. I came to realize that we are all interdependent, and we all had to play our parts to make the difference.

We won’t all play the same role or have the same skills to get the needed increases in achievement. For example, the superintendent must focus on things like creating a district-wide vision for improving student achievement and enabling staff through goal setting, training and resource allocation.

Teachers can serve as instructional leaders in their buildings by providing training, peer coaching and mentoring as well as participating in professional learning communities. In addition, teachers can work with administrators in fostering good instruction, rigorous curriculum and healthy school climate to ensure student achievement goals are met.

Question from Steve Carter, Deputy Superintendent, Union Co. Schools:
What role does school based decision making guidelines and regulations hinder or promote district administration to be active instructional leaders?

Jeff Archer:
If I understand this question, it’s about the possible tension between site-based decision-making and district leadership on instruction. Interestingly, about half of superintendents responding to Education Week’s recent poll of district leaders said that, in recent years, more instructional decisions were being made at the district level, as opposed to at the school site level. Among large districts, those with 10,000 or more students, it was 75 percent.

Still, my hunch is that it’s not just a matter of shifting decision-making to the central office. There’s still lots of interest in giving schools greater control over spending, hiring, and other things. I think what’s happening is that we’re seeing a rethinking about what decisions should be made at which level.

One of the most interesting examples is Edmonton, Alberta, which has long been a model of site-based management for U.S. districts. In the past few years, Edmonton has persued a very district-led effort on instructional improvement. And yet, it continues to be a site-based district. In essence, the district has set up an improvement planning process that all schools must follow, but it’s up to schools to figure out where that takes them. Education Week ran a story on this latest phase of Edumonton’s reforms in January.

Question from Kim Twarowski, Counselor/School Improvement Chairperson, Shelby Junior High:
I am finding that districts are turning more to teachers as instructional leaders. However, most of us are not trained in research, data collection, and the instructional leadership that this position requires. Don’t you feel that principals and district leaders are the better ones to drive the data-driven decision making, with teacher input as one of the resources?

Jeff Archer:
Where I’ve seen this work, it appears to be a team effort that involves teachers and administrators. In Education Week’s Leading for Learning report this month, I profiled the Gilroy district in California, where the district took on the responsibility to train teachers and create structures in which they can work together. The teachers, then, are the ones using the data and training that the district provides to make the on-the-ground decisions about instruction. So everyone has a key role. I doubt it would be so successful if the system hadn’t trained its teachers in how to use data, or if the teachers weren’t able to work together to figure out what the data are telling them.

Question from Barry Golden, Education Consultant, Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction:
Arthur Levine, President of Teachers College at Columbia Univeristy, recently reported in a national study of educational leadership training programs that the “quality of preparation of our natioon’s school leaders ranges from Inadequate to appalling.”

1. How can we best address this issue as more leaders are reaching retirment age including those in the training institutions?

2. It appears that a great many superintendents in small to medium sized school districts have little expertise in curriculum, knowing the research on best practices and implementing quality school improvement programs. If this is true, what can be done to improve the quality of efforts toward school improvement?

Jane Hammond:
This is a significant challenge. There is a need to increase the number of people prepared to take on these leadership positions.

A number of institutions of higher education are working on improving administrator training programs to meet the needs of today’s school leaders. For example, some universities are focusing on leadership development for urban principals and superintendents. In addition, school districts involved in reform efforts recognize that they need strong leadership development programs for leaders and future leaders as well as succession planning to build internal capacity for long-term sustainability of the district’s improvement program.

Question from Keith Silver, Teacher, Glenwood Elementary:
If district leaders aspire to be instructinal leaders, should they increase the amount of time spent in schools being hands on or is it possible to be an effective instructional leader who delegates to the building level adminstrator.

Jane Hammond:
It is very important for superintendents both to delegate to school leaders and to visit schools. The superintendent works on the vision and “big picture,” and delegates the specific reform work to the building-level administrator for implementation. The superintendent visits schools frequently to understand what is happening at the building level and to learn what district leadership is needed to continue the district improvement process.

Question from Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District:
How can class visits be justified unless administrators are certified in the subject field they are observing? What content expertise do they possess to substantiate their evaluation?

Jeff Archer:
Walkthroughs certainly can be controversial, as shown by Los Angeles, where they are now banned by agreement with the teachers’ union.

Many of the experts on walkthroughs say that they work best when they are not used for evaluation, but rather as a tool for creating a schoolwide conversation about teaching and learning. Indeed, many of these experts tell me they are sometimes horrified by what some districts are calling walkthroughs. The Institute for Learning calls its process LearningWalks precisely to make the point that they’re not about evaluation, but are about learning. (EdWeek ran a story on this in July.) People at the Institute also have told me that when principals do walkthroughs, they should bring with them teachers who are well versed in the subject being taught.

Our recent poll of superintendents suggests that while walkthroughs are widespread, few teachers, in fact, are being included. For the most part, they are something done by principals. So my guess would be that much of the concern out there has to do with the way walkthroughs are being done. This may also explain why, in our poll, we found that while 90 percent of superintendents say their district does walkthroughs, only 52 percent thought it has a “great deal” of an impact on instructional improvement. Perhaps they’d feel differently if they included more teachers.

Question from Irma Hernandez Larin:
What role do instructional materials play in the district’s role in providing guidance to schools. For the site administrator as well as the classroom teachers.

Jeff Archer:
It depends on whether they’re actually used. I’ve heard from many superintendents that districts have adopted textbooks, programs, and curriculum guides, only to have them sit on the shelf. Either teachers haven’t been trained in them, or there’s been no follow-up to see how well they’re being used. Which is why I think you see more districts trying to monitor if teachers are using what they’ve been given--through classroom observations, and other methods.

Question from h.mazurek,teacher, archdiocese of phila:
I see little attention given to the point of instructional leadership from the bottom up. Effective teachers being recognized, and their methods being publicized. Especially using the internet as communication. The Sch Dist-Phila has 11,000 teachers, and a zillion man hours of experience. That expertise is little tapped. Instead the last two superintendents have imposed curricula down onto the teachers. Comments?

Jeff Archer:
There certainly is a trend toward greater consistency in instruction across districts, particularly in larger systems. The thinking behind this has been: allowing schools to go in a zillion directions hasn’t yielded widespread improvement. On the other hand, I know of districts that have gotten 3-4 years of improvement by achieving that kind of consistancy, only to see scores level off. Michael Fullan, of the University of Toronto, says the only way to get continuous improvement at scale is for districts to have both conistency of focus and school-level ownership. That’s a balance that I think few large districts have found yet.

Question from Chris Warden, Prog. Dir., Cross City Campaign:
We know a lot about the work of principals and teachers as instructional leaders. How is the day-to-day work of the superintendent and central office staff different? How do they act as instrucational leaders?

Jeff Archer:
Clearly, district leaders are more removed from the classroom. But I think the new consensus in the field is that what district leaders do nonetheless affects what happens in the classroom. And that effect can be positive or negative. As I said in an earlier answer, I see much of instructional leadership as facilitating the analyis of instruction for the purpose of making improvements. When a district leader creates a new data system for schools to use, I see that as instructional leadership. When they retool their human resources processes to help schools get more of the kinds of teachers they need and want, I see that, too, as instructional leadership. Some other examples are less obvious, but still important--like creating a sense of urgency around the need to make changes. Still, I think a lot more needs to be known about the link between district leadership and student achievement. The Cross City Campaign’s recent report examining three districts did a great job describing the challenges posed by instructional leadership at the district level. I’d like to see more research on that.

Question from C. Evans Director of El. Literacy , Mich,:
In schools where management issues such as student conduct and apathy on the part of students and teachers are a concern, how do we go about: 1.Changing the focus 2.Improving learning for students that are behind?

Jane Hammond:
A key element in changing culture and addressing discipline and apathy is school leadership. Successful schools have leaders who believe that all students can achieve and who create an environment that fosters that belief. By focusing on student achievement, setting high goals and standards, and empowering students and staff, school culture will change. It takes teamwork on the part of teachers, administrators and community to create a climate where learning thrives. I have seen schools change culture through a change in leadership and attitude.

Question from Mary Theresa Nelson AP NYC Public Schools:
Do you find after surveying the District Leaders that the problems in NY are not the same as the problems in NJ? Or at the district level, are the issues the same?

Jeff Archer:
Our poll didn’t do state breakdowns. My guess is that the results would be very similar, especially given that NCLB now has all districts in all states facing the same challenges.

We did, however, examine differences between large and small districts. Generally, we found the larger ones more likely to embrace districtwide approaches--like pacing guides that show teachers where they need to be in their instruction at any particular time.

Question from Chris Warden, Prog. Dir., Cross City Campaign:
A follow-up to your answer of Adria Shipp’s question about how school staff can reach out to central office. Our research has shown that central office staff’s view of what “communicating” with schools means makes it difficult for them to learn anything from the experiences of teachers and principals much less incorporate that expertise into policy and implementation strategies. How have you gone about changing the culture in central office? And what avenues and forums do you create at the district level to model that type of communication?

Jane Hammond:
The districts that we as a Foundation are working with are using a wide range of strategies. I will share a couple of strategies from my own experience as a superintendent. When I was superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools, I visited every one of our 140 schools for a half-day to interview staff, students and parents. One of the questions I asked was how central office was helping or hindering their school improvement efforts. I brought these results back to our central office staff, so we could make changes in our work based on data. As a result of this work we took many different actions, including Cabinet development of four district values - integrity, teamwork, valuing people and exemplary performance - and indicators - what it would look like if we modeled the values. We then asked other administrators to evaluate us based on how well we lived by our values. Later, all administrators agreed to adopt these four values. Finally, all staff adopted the values, and they were incorporated into our evaluation systems, and maybe more importantly, we began to recognize people for living by the values. As an example, living in an environment that values people changed the culture significantly. We also formed an Anchor Group, composed of members of the Cabinet and representatives of the employee associations and Board of Education, to foster collaboration among the district’s employee groups and management. The Anchor Group developed a mission, “To provide the leadership for creating the organizational culture and climate of trust and respect wherein the Strategic Plan is made a reality.” This mission linked perfectly to the Cabinet-adopted values, and the Anchor Group soon embraced these values. One of the ways that we demonstrated our values was to improve communications between central staff and schools. We established new communications channels.

There are many ways to bridge the gap between schools and central office, but all have to be a part of the solution to make the changes necessary to get better results.

Question from Principal, Berlene Mace, Joint School District, #2:
I spend most of my time looking at test scores, analyzing weakness, and examining patterns because test scores are what the public sees. This leaves little time for leadership. How are others handling this ?

Jane Hammond:
It is challenging to identify the most important things to do that will actually make a difference in the classroom. But, unless our leadership results in improvement in the classroom, our efforts are wasted. The fact that you are carefully looking at the data to help inform instruction is very important. One possible answer would be to develop the skills of teachers to analyze the data and work together in identifying patterns and sharing practices that are making a difference. It works much more effectively if the principal coaches and leads staff rather than doing all of that work. Once teachers develop the skills to analyze the data and it helps them become more effective, they feel a greater sense efficacy in their work.

Question from Scott Shuler, curriculum specialist, CT State Dept. of Education:
Back to the idea of leading by focusing instruction on tests ...

Instructional leaders have an obligation to ensure that all subjects in the core are taught and learned, not just those that happen to be tested. Focusing on teaching to tests is not sufficient when tests are not comprehensive. Hence...

How should instructional leaders stand up for balanced curriculum in an era of test obsession?

Jane Hammond:
One of the key roles of instructional leaders is developing a vision for the district. If we truly believe in educating the whole child, we cannot waiver in our support for such programs as art, music and physical education. Rigorous, standards-based curriculum and quality instruction in all core areas must be developed, implemented and measured through a variety of assessments to ensure effectiveness and continuous improvement. > I agree that teaching to the tests is never sufficient. We must ensure - through multiple measures - that students are meeting high expectations and have mastered rigorous content standards. > Spending time engaging the community in identifying what is important to them often keeps the curriculum broader than just what is tested. >

Question from Elizabeth Goldman, parent, Dover High School, Dover, NH:
Are there particular qualities that distinguish effective superintendents, especially in districts where education is complicated by poverty, race, or other factors?

Jane Hammond:
Effective superintendents are leaders who not only can create a vision with staff and community, but also are able to get widespread buy-in of that vision. They are strong, focused, and data-driven. They ensure effective implementation of a plan to reach that vision. Leaders must attend to the implications of racial and ethnic diversity of the community and be knowledgeable of the cultural context within which they operate.

A commitment to social justice is essential -- and that demands that children of color and poor children get a high quality education. There is much more to say in response to this question -- this is a start.

Melissa McCabe (Moderator): Thank you for joining us for this great discussion about instructional leadership. I also want to particularly thank Jeff and Jane for their terrific insights.

The online chat is now over. And check out our special report, Leading for Learning, for more information and superintendent poll results.

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