Advocates of district-led strategies to improve teaching and learning have complained in recent years about what they see as a shortage of empirical studies on how school system leadership may affect student achievement.
But two well-known researchers, Robert J. Marzano and J. Timothy Waters, contend that when what evidence does exist is put together, the message is clear: Superintendents can improve student performance, so long as they do the right things.
In a paper released last week, the two experts at Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, the federally funded regional laboratory in Denver known as McREL, distill 27 studies on district leadership and student results. Using meta-analysis techniques, they combined the effects found in those studies and arrived at a positive and statistically significant correlation.
Actions aimed at creating what they called “goal oriented” districts were the most powerful.
“There are some things that you ought to be clear and intentional about doing, because you know they have a relation to student achievement,” said Mr. Waters, the president of McREL. “We’ve taken some of the guesswork out of that.”
Although hardly counterintuitive, the paper could shape policy discussions on the development of district leaders. A 3-year-old McREL meta-analysis on school leadership, for example, has informed the training and evaluation of principals in a number of states.
Dan Katzir, the managing director of the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation, said the new results also could help settle debates on where improvement efforts should be focused. The foundation runs a superintendent-training program and bestows an annual award for improved urban districts.
“I think there are a lot of people in the education reform world who believe the most effective way to make change is at the school level, and not at the district level,” Mr. Katzir said. But, he added, “a system can do a lot of things that an individual school can’t.”
For their new analysis, the McREL researchers scoured the abstracts of some 200 studies on district leadership published over the past 30 years in search of those that included links to measures of student achievement that could be standardized.
Of the 27 that met that criterion, 14 included a general measure of leadership, such as surveys of superintendents and their constituents about the abilities of those in charge of the district.
McREL’s meta-analysis of studies on district-level leadership found that successful superintendents:
• Set “non-negotiable” goals for achievement and instruction.
• Involve others, especially principals, in setting those goals.
• Align school board support to performance and instructional objectives.
• Continually monitor progress and make corrections when needed.
• Focus resources, especially for training, on districtwide goals.
SOURCE: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning
In statistical terms, the combined analysis of those studies showed a positive correlation of .24. To grasp what that means, imagine a superintendent whose measures of leadership and district-level student achievement are at the 50th percentile.
If that superintendent improved his or her leadership so as to move to the 84th percentile—a shift of one standard deviation—the predicted result would be a jump in average student achievement to the 59.5th percentile.
“This is not a small change,” said Mr. Marzano, a senior scholar McREL. “You don’t get correlations in the social sciences that are much above that. It might be worth districts’ looking at the effectiveness of their leadership.”
Analyzing all 27 studies, the researchers discovered the greatest benefit in behaviors that focused a district on agreed-up goals, such as when superintendents secured support from the school board for performance targets or continually monitored for progress.
The results also shed some light on the long-standing debate about site-based management. They found little benefit when schools got latitude to determine their own objectives, but did find value in allowing some discretion in how to meet them.
The authors say “defined autonomy” is likely the most effective approach. That is, districts needn’t require the same instructional model in all classrooms, but they must ensure common understandings about what makes for good teaching.
Findings With Traction
Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said he hopes that political leaders and school board members pay attention to the message of the new analysis.
The view that administration has little value to schools’ instructional mission has recently fueled interest in the “65 percent solution”—a requirement that at least 65 percent of school dollars be spent on the classroom.
“If you’re defined by others as sort of a superficial appendage to the process, that not only shapes your self-concept, but also the power and authority you need to get the job done,” said Mr. Houston, whose Arlington, Va.-based group represents district superintendents.
He also noted that the analysis found a significant positive link between achievement and superintendents’ tenures, suggesting that high turnover among leaders undermines efforts to improve learning.
McREL plans to publish a book expanding on the study’s methodology and findings, as the lab did with the meta-analysis of effective principal leadership, which became the basis of School Leadership That Works, published last year with the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development in Alexandria, Va.
Carried out with a former McREL vice president, Brian McNulty, that earlier work proved influential by identifying 21 essential responsibilities of principals. It also stressed that to be successful, leaders must understand the extent to which their actions represent a change to their schools.
Iowa, for example, used the findings to update its state standards for school leaders. Michigan is using them to help create a new administrator credential. And the University of North Carolina built a yearlong training program for superintendents around them.
Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2006 edition of Education Week as Synthesis Finds District Leadership-Learning Link