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Cool People You Should Know: Jim Spillane


The current policy discourse about teachers and teaching in the U.S. emphasizes the recruitment and retention of “high-quality” teachers, defined either by the teachers’ credentials, or their value-added influence on students’ achievement, or both. It has not, in skoolboy’s view, paid sufficient attention to the ways in which the school serves as a context for teachers’ work, shaping the conditions under which a teacher might be more or less successful in advancing students’ learning. Teachers don’t teach in a vacuum; the ability of the leaders in a school to set a direction, secure resources, facilitate professional development, and build a culture for teachers to work in concert has a lot to do with whether a teacher can be successful. One of the implications of this perspective is that a teacher’s effectiveness may be contingent on the school context, which eduwonkette has pointed to as an issue that needs further research before we embrace value-added assessment as the last word on teacher effectiveness.

Jim Spillane, who studies school leadership, is a cool person you should know. He’s the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor of Learning and Organizational Change in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. Over the past half-dozen years or so, he has led a series of research projects on distributed leadership and instructional improvement. A key principle of distributed leadership is the distinction between leadership roles and leadership practices. The conception of the “great man” theory of leadership is only exacerbated by calls by business leaders, politicians and high-level school administrators for “strong” principal leadership. (“Strong” is always cast as better than “weak.”) Leadership, Spillane explains, is not limited to people who are formally designated as leaders. Rather, there are times when people other than the school principal perform key organizational functions, and the principal works with these others—who may include curriculum specialists and coaches, assistant principals, and of course teachers.

Spillane also emphasizes the importance of organizational routines to the practice of leadership. All organizations have a set of routines and rituals that guide the day-to-day work and interactions of teachers, students and administrators in schools. Leaders can purposively design organizational routines that might contribute to improved teaching and learning. A distributed leadership perspective is no panacea, he warns; but it can be a useful lens for making sense of the practice of leadership, and how schools can create organizational routines that allow a broader array of educators in schools to take on leadership responsibilities and develop as leaders.

The goals of schooling are too complex, and the technology for achieving those goals is currently too weak, to rely on a single person—no matter how talented—to be defined as the sole leader of a contemporary U.S. school.


I agree with Eduwonkette that teacher performance can vary depending on the school itself - teachers do not teach in a vacuum.

Over my teaching career, I taught at several different schools, including time spent in summer schools, student teaching assignments, substitute teaching, and volunteer work.

In my experience, my effectiveness as a teacher could vary considerably based on factors specific to the school, such as quality of administrative support, class size, support from colleagues, number of different preps taught each day, number of planning periods, in addition to the students themselves.

Quick example: In one summer institute, the program was run similar to a military academy. If students misbehaved in class, or failed to turn in homework, they were assigned after school study hall and/or detention. All these discplinary consequences were built into the school schedule, and were handled by one administrator in charge of these issues. As a result, teachers did not have to spend their time or effort doling out consequences for disciplinary infractions, or holding after school study halls on an individual basis. It allowed the teachers to focus on teaching, grading, and lesson planning. In my view, all the teachers in the summer program were more effective due to this structure.

Yes! Yes! Yes! I absolutely agree with you and Mr. Spillane. Teachers, especially those new to the profession, are socialized into a school culture which sets a certain expectation for the role of the teacher. Those experiences mold who the teacher will be as a professional and has ramifications even after she has moved on to another school. (I am doing my doctoral research on very similar themes, so I am a big fan!)

My principal loves Mr. Spillane and operates under what he believes is distributive leadership. I'm not so sure that is what the rest of us experience...but the intention is there and that's a starting place at least.

Barnett Berry and I have been saying this for 2-3 years. based on our our work on teacher working conditions in numerous states (www.teachingquality.org), we recognized quite early that working conditions (facilities and resources, teacher empowerment, leadership, use of time, and prof development) had a huge impact on not only teacher retention,but whether teachers even had a chance to be effective. Some schools are clearly so dysfunctional that it is next to impossible to be an effective novice teacher.

This has huge implications for individual value-added analyses as well as those of teacher prep programs like the on-going efforts in La. Without taking these factors into consideration, we can be wildly off in our assessments of the effectiveness of individual teachers and teacher prep programs.

The point of high quality professionals working in a supportive environment is true in any profession.

For clinicians, well-designed public hospital systems have enhanced patient interactions. In general, designs that are supportive to the patient and clinician have improved patient-clinician care outcomes.

A well-designed system is a supportive instrument; it may even add some baseline measure of excellence. But, its the high-quality professionals that make the measurable difference.

Finland and Sweden have given priority to the education system and professional.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • S: The point of high quality professionals working in a supportive read more
  • Ed Fuller: Barnett Berry and I have been saying this for 2-3 read more
  • Mimi: Yes! Yes! Yes! I absolutely agree with you and Mr. read more
  • Attorney DC: I agree with Eduwonkette that teacher performance can vary depending read more




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