Special Report
School & District Management Opinion

Gauging the Quality of School Leadership

By James P. Spillane — January 03, 2008 2 min read
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Teacher quality has garnered much attention from a diverse group of scholars. A natural next step is to focus on the quality of school leadership and management. After all, the policy environment holds schools, not individual classroom teachers, accountable. By extension, from the work on teacher quality, the obvious response is to examine principal quality by looking at the traditional cast of characters: principals’ expertise, certification, experience, and so on. While this empirical research on principal quality is important and needs to be done, more will be needed to get good proxies for leadership-and-management quality.

I’d argue that expertise or capability are not entirely an individual affair. By letting go of the myth of individualism, the challenges of measuring school leadership-and-management quality begin to emerge. The expertise or ability to perform some core task that is critical for school improvement may be distributed over two or more leaders in a school, in both formal and informal roles, and involve various tools and organizational routines.


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At one level, this is an acknowledgment that the work of leading and managing the school involves a team of individuals with formally designated leadership positions (such as assistant principals and curriculum coordinators), and that the “aggregate” expertise and capability of this team might be an important consideration in the quality of the school’s leadership and management. If we were really ambitious, we might even attempt to measure the contribution of informal leaders, especially teacher leaders. Thinking about expertise and capability as distributed, we have to go beyond simply acknowledging the expertise of individual leaders in a school to considering how they complement one another in the performance of key school improvement tasks. This is difficult but important work. Finally, recognizing that expertise is situated further complicates the measurement task. A situated perspective would press us to acknowledge and understand how what counts as quality or capability in school leadership and management might differ, depending on such factors as the student population served and the teacher workforce in a school.

Work on teacher quality in the education sector has greatly benefited from the field of economics. Similar benefits can be gained from work in distributed and situated cognition, as we move forward and take on the challenge of school leadership-and-management quality. Let’s not fall into the trap of easy measures and quick fixes when it comes to studying and measuring that quality. If we do, our “easy measures” will eventually be debunked, leading to the erroneous conclusion that measuring the quality of school leadership and management is impossible.

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