5 Effective School Leadership Practices


Key Takeaways

  • Set compelling goals and expectations. Start with student outcomes and create a compelling discrepancy between how things are now, and how you’d like them to be in the future.
  • Align resources to achieving these goals. Allocate resources behind these goals, including students time.
  • Support quality teaching. This is done in three ways. Want to know what they are? Go and read all the words we’ve written below.
  • Lead quality teacher learning and development. Start with evidence of learning needs, integrate theory and practice, utilise external expertise and use science of learning principles to practice what you preach
  • Ensure an orderly and safe learning environment. This is more than just behaviour – relationships that allow students to feel psychologically safe matter too.

5 Effective School Leadership Practices


School Leaders are important. The effectiveness of school leadership informs school climate and the wellbeing and performance of teachers and students. Unfortunately, not all leaders have the same impact on student learning.

Undoubtedly, you’ve seen this – you have worked underneath or alongside leaders of varying quality. Some leaders (for a variety of possible reasons) can seem to make it more difficult for you to support learning in your classroom, whilst others help you and your colleagues work more effectively to have a better impact on student outcomes.

 In a recent paper, What difference does school leadership make to student outcomes?, Viviane Robinson and Emma Gray review the practices of school leaders that have the most significant impact on student outcomes.

This article builds on Robinson’s 2008 metanalysis of effective school leadership practices, exploring best practice in relation to the five dimensions she sets out her 2011 book Student Centered Leadership.

Let’s have a look at what it takes to be a great school leader.

Set compelling goals and expectations


It is not a new idea that effective leaders set goals– goal setting is a part of most leadership or organisational change models as well as the performance management and strategic planning processes of school systems.

Not all goal-setting practices have the same impact on student outcomes though. Leaders that do this right use goal-theory and begin with student wellbeing or learning.


From Robinson & Gray:

            “[Goal] theory, and the long history of goal-setting research in social psychology (Latham and Locke 2006, 2007), suggest that school leaders’ goal-setting will drive improved student outcomes if it creates a motivating discrepancy between current reality and the desired future state. For student-centred leaders, the most important indicator of the current reality is evidence about the wellbeing and learning of students. Goals that are clear, specific, and perceived as challenging but attainable, focus attention and effort and motivate persistent goal-relevant behaviour.”


Once you’ve set up a goal that is grounded in the current reality for students, the next step is to ensure that those school-level goals are “vertically integrated” into the goals of departments/domains, year-level teams and the work of individual teachers. This vertical coherence means that the activities of different sub-groups within a school all work towards the attainment of the school-level goal.

Align resources to achieving these goals


With goals set, effective leaders then make resourcing decisions that support actors within the school. This process is about aligning whatever resources the school has in terms of money, time-release, teaching materials and expertise toward the attainment of critical goals. Effective leaders also consider students time as an essential lever in this process.


From Robinson & Gray:

“Perhaps the most important strategic resource to be managed is students’ time. Establishing a school culture in which students’ time is treated as a strategic resource is an important responsibility of school leadership, because achievement is a function of both the amount and the quality of time students spend in learning the curriculum (Sebastian and Allensworth 2012; Sebastian et al. 2017). Without quality, longer school days, summer schools and catch-up classes waste student time. Given adequate quality, however, increased time in a subject will lift achievement (Scheerens and Bosker 1997).”

Support quality teaching


Effective leaders understand that a large part of their role is to support teachers to do their jobs well. Three practices support this.


1. Develop a coherent instructional framework


A coherent instructional framework organises curriculum, assessment and teaching practices within and between year levels. Effective leaders ensure coherence because it allows students to access consistent and increasingly tricky subject matter as they progress through a school, regardless of which teacher is in front of the class. Coherence also supports teachers to work together more effectively by providing common approaches to teaching and learning.


From Robinson & Gray:

“Students learn and remember more when key ideas are presented in ways that connect with their prior knowledge and experience and when they are given multiple, varied opportunities to gain an in-depth understanding of new concepts (Bransford et al. 2000). We also know that exposure to multiple representations of the same idea over a relatively short period of time – for example a unit of work spanning ten days – promotes students’ learning (Nuthall and Alton-Lee 1993). Learning opportunities that meet these conditions are more likely to be found in teaching programmes that are planned around a progression of learning objectives and associated informal assessments. A coherent instructional framework means that teachers reinforce the same ideas, use similar vocabulary for communicating those ideas, know how to make links with what has gone before, and are guided in their efforts by common assessments.”


2. Monitor a variety of evidence about the impact of teaching


It’s not enough to support quality teaching; effective leaders also carefully monitor the progress of their school-wide goals in regular, organised and evidence-based ways. Establishing routines for collecting, organising and analysing student learning data helps leaders use these data to plan, implement and evaluate school improvements. More than just structure monitoring activities, effective leaders also work with their staff to build the right culture around monitoring.


From Robinson & Gray:

“…leaders need to create a culture in which teachers trust the data, are willing to open up their practice for critical scrutiny and in which the expertise required to improve can be shared and developed (Marsh 2012; Hattie 2015; Datnow and Hubbard 2016).”


3. Evaluate teachers and teaching


Evaluating teachers is tricky. Approaches too grounded in accountability undermine teacher morale and incentivise teachers to narrow the curriculum to best prepare students for what will be examined. Research also shows that an approach too grounded in a “development-focused” approach is unlikely to improve teaching and learning, perhaps because principals seem unwilling to give negative appraisals of teacher practice.  Effective leaders have a particular set of methods and qualities that help them evaluate teaching practice in a way that improves student outcomes.


From Robinson & Gray:

“Leaders who are accessible and who evaluate teachers as part of an ongoing supervision process (Tuytens and Devos 2017), who are judged as having relevant expertise, and who have a good relationship with those they evaluate, are likely to be perceived as having provided useful feedback (Tuytens and Devos 2011). Involvement of teachers in the planning of the evaluation also improves its perceived fairness and utility (Tuytens and Devos 2014).”

Lead quality teacher learning and development

 
This is the dimension with the highest effect on student learning (in Robinson’s 2008 metanalysis it had a mean effect size of 0.84). This will not surprise many in the educational community, as there is an array of research supports the idea that teaching practice has a substantial effect on student achievement (for example this, this and this).  Therefore, it follows that leaders who spend time working on this with their teachers will have a more significant impact on student outcomes than leaders who do not. Robinson and Gray identify the professional development practices of effective leaders that best support student learning.


1. Start with evidence of students’ learning needs


Rather than starting by introducing teachers to the new things they need to do, effective professional learning begins by inquiring into evidence about the achievement or practices of students. Then, effective leaders make evidence-based choices about any ‘solution’ they are going to introduce to teachers.


2. Integrate theory and practice


Professional learning is not effective when it is overly theoretical (because it’s difficult for teachers to connect theoretical concepts to the classroom-level problems) nor when it is excessively practical (“tips and tricks” don’t give teachers the underlying principles they need to adapt and develop new practices into their existing ones). Effective leaders find the “sweet spot” that balances these two approaches.


From Robinson & Gray:

“Effective professional development communicates clear theoretical principles and provides ample opportunity for participants to explore how they can be applied in their own contexts.”


3. Use external expertise


Importantly, this doesn’t always mean bringing in a “guru” consultant. Instead, “external” knowledge and expertise can come from within a school – it just needs to be expertise that allows teachers to solve problems in new ways.


From Robinson & Gray:

“By external, I mean that the leadership of the group, whether a teacher, school leader, coach, facilitator or researcher, has demonstrated a greater capacity to solve or prevent the relevant teaching problems than the remaining group members. Expecting teachers who share similar difficulties to solve their problems without the help of such external expertise is unrealistic.”


4. Use the science of learning principles


Finally, because adult learning isn’t that different from student learning, effective leaders design teacher professional development in a way that supports learning and practice change.


From Robinson & Gray:

“Since the science of adult learning is no different from that of children’s learning, teacher professional learning should be designed in accord with that science (Bransford et al. 2000; Bransford et al. 2005). Just like students, teachers need multiple opportunities to learn, including to try things out in their own classrooms, inquire into their effects, modify their approach and repeat this cycle until improvement is evident.”

Ensure an orderly and safe learning environment


There is more to this than behaviour management (although that’s a part of it). An orderly and safe environment extends to the broader needs of students. Effective leaders understand that for students to feel engaged with school, they first need to feel physically and psychologically safe and supported by positive and caring relationships with their teachers. Practices that nurture this dimension don’t have a massive stand-alone effect on student learning, but they establish the foundation for other practices that do.


From Robinson & Gray:

“The leadership of higher performing schools is distinguished on this dimension by high social expectations incorporated within clear, fair and consistently enforced discipline routines and by high levels of trust between students, teachers, leaders and the parent community (Bryk and Schneider 2002). Although the average effect of this leadership dimension is small (Marzano et al. 2005; Robinson et al. 2008), it provides a foundation for all the rest. In the absence of a school climate that is conducive to learning, educational improvement is unlikely (Sebastian and Allensworth 2012; Sebastian et al. 2017).”


A reference list for the sources included in quotes in this post can be found in the original journal article


Key Takeaways

  • Set compelling goals and expectations. Start with student outcomes and create a compelling discrepancy between how things are now, and how you’d like them to be in the future.
  • Align resources to achieving these goals. Allocate resources behind these goals, including students time.
  • Support quality teaching. This is done in three ways. Want to know what they are? Go and read all the words we’ve written above.
  • Lead quality teacher learning and development. Start with evidence of learning needs, integrate theory and practice, utilise external expertise and use science of learning principles to practice what you preach
  • Ensure an orderly and safe learning environment. This is more than just behaviour – relationships that allow students to feel psychologically safe matter too.