School leadership – which includes state-level officials, superintendents and district staff, principals, school board members, teachers and community members – can have a strong, positive effect on student learning. These school leaders have the power to influence school policy and practice, enhance the classroom environment and grow student achievement. For more than a decade, the Wallace Foundation has engaged in multiple ways to strengthen school leadership across the U.S. With support from the Wallace Foundation, the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development in collaboration with the University of Toronto conducted the largest study of its kind over a five-year period to answer the question: How does school leadership make a difference in student learning?
School Leadership is Central to Teaching and Learning
Our research found that school leadership is second only to classroom instruction among all school-related factors that contribute to what students learn in school. Principals and district leaders that encouraged and supported teachers’ leadership and influence on school decisions fostered highly motivated teachers. In turn, teacher motivation had the strongest relationship with student achievement.
When teachers and principals work together to create a culture of shared leadership and community among school staff members, parents and the wider community see higher student achievement in their schools. This shared leadership between teachers and principals creates a strong professional community that encourages collaboration of curriculum and instruction and sharing of practices that help improve student learning.
The Elements of Effective School Leadership
Effective school leadership is a combination of:
- Expectations paired with accountability, which helps determine whether expected outcomes are being attained.
- Efficacy and support that begins with the belief that a person has the ability to succeed. For example, principals who view themselves as working collaboratively towards a clear, common goal with district personnel, other principals and teachers are more confident in their leadership.
- Engagement within a broader community where everyone is working together to improve student learning.
At the district level, the trend is to reduce school and classroom level flexibility and increase standardization. However, higher performing districts developed curriculum and learning standards that are aligned with – but actually exceed – state policies and standards that are based solely on test score data. Districts also play a major role in school principal development and turnover. A high principal turnover rate can negatively affect student achievement because principals greatly influence the school’s culture and classroom environment. High performing districts had professional development systems in place for principals as well as ongoing monitoring and advising about performance.
State policies were generally viewed as vehicles for achieving local goals in larger districts. Local district and school initiatives continued to have a greater impact for student improvement and generally exceeded state standards.
Principals that communicate often with teachers and ask questions to encourage reflection of their teaching practices can help improve classroom instruction and student learning. A strong focus on academic success and creating an inviting learning environment for both teachers and students is also an important school leadership function. Together districts, principals, teachers and students can thrive when school leadership is effective and supportive.
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