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LEARNING FROM LEADERSHIP: New Report Finds Effective School Leadership Is Strongly Connected to Student Achievement

“Leadership is important because it sets the conditions and the expectations in the school that there will be excellent instruction and there will be a culture of ongoing learning for the educators and for the students in the school.”

A recent report from the Wallace Foundation presents new evidence confirming that strong school leadership, particularly in principals, is positively linked to student achievement. The report, Learning from Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning, asserts that among school-related influences on student achievement, school leadership is second in importance only to classroom instruction.

The report stresses that leadership must be “collective” meaning a collaborated effort among educators, parents, students, principals, and community members. The combined influence of these stakeholders has a greater impact on student learning than any one leader, according to the study.

“The rubber hits the road in the classroom; that’s where the learning happens,” said Kyla Wahlstrom, coauthor of the report and director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota. “Leadership is important because it sets the conditions and the expectations in the school that there will be excellent instruction and there will be a culture of ongoing learning for the educators and for the students in the school.”

Learning from Leadership also finds that higher-performing schools employ “fatter” decisionmaking structures, meaning that almost all people involved with the school have greater influence on school decisions as compared to their counterparts in lower-performing schools.

Specifically, higher-performing schools award more influence to teacher teams, parents, and students and although principals are the central leaders in schools, they do not lose influence as others gain it. “Influence in schools is not a fixed sum or a zero-sum game,” the authors write.

In examining the different types of “shared leadership,” or situations in which staff members share responsibility for leading, the report highlights how principals and teachers are uniquely positioned to positively affect students’ classroom experiences. In fact, when teachers and principals share leadership, teachers’ working relationships are stronger and student achievement is higher. When this type of shared leadership is combined with principal work to improve instruction and teacher trust in principals, the results can lead to higher student scores on standardized math tests.

According to the study, shared leadership between teachers and principals is effective because of the role principals play in motivating teachers and in establishing suitable work conditions for them. The teachers and principals surveyed agree that three specific leadership practices contribute to improved teaching and learning: (1) focusing the school on goals and expectations for student achievement, (2) attending to teachers’ professional development needs, and (3) creating structures and opportunities for teacher collaboration.

Among the challenges to improving school leadership, the report cites high principal turnover, which results in negative effects on school culture and student achievement. Of the eighty schools examined in the study, the average principal tenure is little more than three-and-a-half years, which clashes with the general understanding that principals will serve in a school for at least five to seven years.

Another impediment is the lack of time principals have to spend on instructional leadership. This is particularly problematic in secondary schools due to the increased number of teachers and classes and principals’ severe time constraints. Secondary schools also struggle with school leadership issues because, compared to elementary school teachers, middle and high school teachers are less likely to trust their principals, less likely to report that they actively involve parents in decisions, and less active as instructional leaders in their buildings. In addition, high school teachers report lower ratings of school climate, openness to parents, and district support compared to their elementary school counterparts.

To overcome these problems, the report recommends that schools acknowledge the value of collective leadership and work to involve all educators in the decisionmaking processes. The report also encourages principals to play a pivotal role in motivating teachers and improving the work environment. Overall, the report states, it is very important for principals to coordinate or link other educators’ leadership efforts. Lastly, the report suggests reinventing the role of the principal so that he/she has more time to focus on improved instruction.

The report was conducted over a six-year period and includes data from nine states, forty-three school districts, and 180 schools. The researchers used surveys or interviews to reach educators at all levels including teachers, principals, district office personnel, school board members, community leaders, and state-level leaders.

To access the complete report or watch video commentary, visit

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