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Finally, Developing Leadership Is Recognized as Improving Educational Outcomes!

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woman-1401616_640.jpgProfessional development is important. Whether there is money to back that value or not, teacher growth is important to student success. This isn't about teachers not being good enough. It is about helping them stay on the cutting edge of their profession. Our best teachers want that. They are interested in developing new capacities and learning the new research about teaching and learning. But there is an additional aspect of teacher professional development that merits talking about here. We are talking about developing leaders. Now so is the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

"School Leadership Interventions Under the Every Student Succeeds Act: Evidence Review", a Rand Corporation report included these five findings regarding school leadership:

  • School leadership can be a powerful driver of improved education outcomes.
  • Activities designed to improve school leadership demonstrate positive impact on student, teacher, and principal outcomes, based on research that is consistent with ESSA evidence tiers.
  • ESSA expands opportunities for states and districts to use federal funding for initiatives that strive to improve the quality of school leaders.
  • ESSA's evidence tiers provide a framework for using evidence in school leadership policy and practice.
  • ESSA's framework with tiers of evidence, coupled with the U.S. Department of Education's non-regulatory guidance, strongly emphasizes the use of evidence in setting direction for improving school leadership and prioritizes more-rigorous evidence.

Let's delve into them:

School leadership can be a powerful driver of improved education outcomes. If we were to ask 100 leaders what specifics about the school leader drives improved outcomes, it is our belief we would get varying answers. Each school environment has differing needs and strengths and limits.  However, there are core essentials in leadership that all leaders must possess in order to effectively improve outcomes. These specifics go beyond the educational realm and are attributes of all outstanding leaders. Ten books come to mind immediately to capture that spectrum. Leading with Passion (John J. Murphy), Leading from Within (Sam M. Intrator and Megan Seribner), Holding Sacred Ground (Carl D. Glickman), Dialogue (Linda Ellinor and Glenna Geard) , Self-Efficacy (Albert Bandura), On Becoming a Leader (Warren Bennis), A Simpler Way (Margaret J. Wheatley), The World Café (Juanita Brown with David Isaacs), and The Bass Handbook of Leadership (Bernard M. Bass), Leadership (James MacGregor Burns). Even if these books are on your shelf, have they been consulted lately?  Do they contribute to daily routines of reflection and planning?

Professional development for leaders is a curious thing. Most believe in its importance but few set an example for the faculty in the way they seek it out and participate. Many believe leaving the building or office is not a wise choice while school is in session. There seems to be a shared expectation that school leaders should always be available when a child, a teacher, a parent or a board member wants to see them. It is not an environment to encourage off site development and many don't even do online programs. Leaving a building with a technological tether so that one can be always accessible limits the leader's ability to be present and learn. Yet, these are the realities of many leaders' lives. While asking teachers to grow and develop their technology skills, shift their practice, change their schedules, connect differently with students and parents and other teachers, leaders cannot stand on the sidelines as cheerleaders.

Activities designed to improve school leadership demonstrate positive impact on student, teacher, and principal outcomes, based on research that is consistent with ESSA evidence tiers. 

The Every Student Succeeds Act gives states and districts much more room to be creative when it comes to school improvement than the narrow range of options available under the No Child Left Behind Act, but they must give evidence that their proposed interventions are likely to work. The law provides tiers of evidence, from strong (experimental trials) to moderate (quasi-experimental) to promising studies that don't meet the higher standards of rigor but still statistically control for differences between the students using an intervention and those in a control group. In areas aside from school turnaround where there just is no rigorous research, states and districts can test an intervention while conducting their own study. (EdWeek's Sarah D. Sparks)

Here a concern exists. It is likely that a leader's attention will be drawn to the evidence tiers, defending and explaining research findings.That is important, but once again calls the leaders' attention away from the essential work of continuing to become a better leader. The freedom to investigate and study what works best in one's district is valuable.  We all will benefit from the dialogue among leaders and from leaders becoming consumers of research and scholars as well as practitioners. But if a leader is only developing their skills to do faculty evaluations and understand student data, there still exists a hole where leadership development is lagging.

  • ESSA expands opportunities for states and districts to use federal funding for initiatives that strive to improve the quality of school leaders.
  • ESSA's evidence tiers provide a framework for using evidence in school leadership policy and practice.
  • ESSA's framework with tiers of evidence, coupled with the U.S. Department of Education's non-regulatory guidance, strongly emphasizes the use of evidence in setting direction for improving school leadership and prioritizes more-rigorous evidence.

Without a doubt, leaders have to possess the skills required to develop research questions, gather data and analyze results accompanied by evidence. It also requires that the research inform their decisions. Now, the data is not just about the teacher and student performance, it will also be about the research and collection process. 

Leaders are liked or disliked, respected or not respected, well informed or not informed, horizon seekers or rooted in routines, even handed or driven by who is involved, warm and caring or cold and dismissive, sincere or shallow. It matters who a leader is because, it seems, we can all intuit sincerity. In order to lead well, people have to want to follow. So, yes, it is important to know the "stuff" of the work and the field. That is where most invest their time. Now, there is legislation in support of leadership development and that is a very good thing.  We hope leaders will take advantage of this opening. Regardless of current cynicism, leaders can be powerful forces for good.  We encourage leaders to value their own professional development beyond 'how to better evaluate teachers' or 'new schedule enhancements' or 'better ways to utilize coaches' or 'how to get more students to particpate in clubs'. We encourage leaders to use the opportunity this legislation is offering, to step back and review one's own leadership and commit to the time and learning that will enhance their knowledge and their leadership.  It matters. Improved student outcomes are dependent upon teachers and leaders and their active partners in families and communities. Educators know that to be true. Now, there is opportunity supported by the ESSA to encourage districts to value the development of their leaders' and their future leaders. That is a very good investment.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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