School & District Management

Major Study to Identify What Good Leaders Do Right

By Jeff Archer — September 22, 2004 4 min read
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Researcher Kenneth Leithwood is confident that education leaders affect student learning. But he’s just as adamant that not enough is known about how they do so. And that’s something he hopes to help change.

The report, “How Leadership Influences Student Learning,” is scheduled to be posted on the Wallace Foundation Web site after Sept. 8.

With a new five-year study involving 180 schools in 45 districts and nine states, he and a team of other investigators plan to paint a clear picture of the links between student outcomes and the work of principals, superintendents, and other education leaders.

Claiming to be the largest study ever of those connections, the Learning from Leadership project promises to shed light on how schools should be managed, how administrators should be trained, and what state policies most help school leaders in raising student-achievement levels.

“There have to be quite practical outcomes to what we do, or we won’t have achieved our mission,” said Mr. Leithwood, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and one of the world’s leading academic authorities on leadership in education.

See Also

Read the accompanying “Scholarly Citings” column,

The effort is a joint venture of the Ontario institute and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement. It’s financed by a $3.5 million grant from the New York City-based Wallace Foundation, which also underwrites coverage of leadership issues in Education Week.

The project builds on a long line of previous research, going back to the “effective schools” studies first carried out in the 1970s, which showed that successful schools in high-poverty areas often benefit from strong principals who focus on improving instruction.

Project’s Size Noted

In preparation for the Wallace-backed study, the investigators drafted a report summarizing the existing research base on the topic, titled “How Leadership Influences Student Learning,” which was slated to be posted on the foundation’s Web site this week.

While confirming that leadership affects student performance, what’s lacking in the current research base is a firm understanding of the processes that skilled leaders use to foster the conditions that allow for improved performance, said Kyla Wahlstrom, the director of the Minnesota research center.

“We know that a school that is considered high-performing has a leader who exhibits certain traits,” she said. “But how those characteristics translate into classroom practice is a thing that we don’t know much about.”

Over the five years, the researchers will track the schools in their study through periodic interviews with school leaders and teachers, along with observations of classroom practice. They also plan to talk with district- and state-level officials to see how education leaders beyond the school leave their mark on teaching and learning.

At the same time, they will analyze available student-performance data, including state and local test scores, graduation rates, and attendance patterns. The places to be studied aren’t being revealed, but they reflect diversity in geography, as well as a variety of current achievement levels, the researchers say.

Data collection is set to begin this school year and is to be completed in 2008.

Other scholars say the sheer size of the project is what makes it significant.

Carolyn J. Riehl, an education professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, noted that much of the existing research on leadership practice is based on small, isolated studies. As a consequence, it hasn’t gotten much attention.

“Just by virtue of having a much larger sample, and what I expect will be coherence in their approach across many sites, that has the potential of establishing some broad trends and some robust findings that will be seen as more instructive,” said Ms. Riehl, who co-edited an upcoming book on research on educational leadership.

The investigators say they have a host of questions they aim to answer.

Policy Potential Eyed

Among them: How does the effect of certain leadership behaviors vary among urban, suburban, and rural schools? What role do informal leaders—such as teachers, parents, and other groups—play in shaping instruction? And how do different leadership practices stack up against one another in their relative effects on student performance?

The scholars also hope to provide some concrete descriptions of what effective leadership looks like. Too often, argues Mr. Leithwood, educational administrators are told to engage in certain practices without their being given many details on how. Such terms as “instructional leadership” and “distributed leadership” are often used with little agreement about what they really mean, he said.

Policymakers are another intended audience for the findings. In a time of tight budgets, Mr. Leithwood said, they need to know which leadership practices get the most bang for the buck in bolstering academic improvement.

“Choices have to be made in real life around where to put your resources,” he said. “We need to know whether it’s more important to do X than Y, and I think that’s where we stand to push things in a big way.”

Interesting ideas? Send suggestions for possible Research section stories to Debra Viadero at Education Week, 6935 Arlington Road, Bethesda, MD 20814; e-mail: dviadero@epe.org.

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