Two Seemingly Conflicting Principles for Educational Leadership

Last week a long-time colleague dropped this gem on me: “Most superintendents and principals who lose their jobs do so not because of their instructional leadership (or lack thereof).”  Let’s refer to this as Rule 1.  His point, I inferred, was that my intensity around helping educators become stronger instructional leaders was a bit misplaced.

This was not the first time I’ve heard this quip regarding why leaders lose their jobs.  Other colleagues have expressed similar ideas.  What these folks seem to mean, and numerous media post-mortems have borne out this idea, is that educational leaders experience professional jeopardy mostly because of a range of non-instructional issues, from quality of relationships, strength of community approval, to budget woes.

Let’s be clear, I have seen some superintendents and school administrators nudged out of their jobs because of lack of academic results for students.  But I would say that they were in the minority, and that Rule 1—on its surface—is empirically accurate.  More often than not, when an educational administrator loses his or her job, it derives from a problem outside what we have popularly treated as the core of instructional leaders’ jobs—the improvement of teaching and learning.

However, this first rule does not negate another truth for educational leaders:  You will not significantly improve student outcomes without directly enhancing teaching and learning in schools.  Let’s call this Rule 2.  Climate and culture are key, and fostering an organizational ethos of care and support will support school improvement, but student outcomes will only improve marginally.  Financial resources are necessary for supporting improvement efforts, but money alone will teach few youngsters to read.   Improving facilities may remove barriers and represent important community investments in the well-being of children, but it won’t enhance critical thinking skills.  High-quality relationships may very well be a pre-condition for professional growth, but stronger adult interactions alone will not help improve the intellectual engagement of students in classrooms.

At the end of the day, schools and districts have to work with focus, discipline, and persistence on the systematic improvement of teaching and learning.  If that sounds boring, you are in the wrong profession.  It is an intellectually complex venture with moral heft.  It is THE work, and it demands our best thinking and doing.  It also won’t happen on its own.  Absent leaders who make teaching and learning a priority, schools and districts will focus elsewhere.  Without leaders who create the conditions for educators to dig deep into the practice of teaching and the nature of learning, schools and districts will skate along the surface.  And little will improve.

But where to start?

A recent research study by James Spillane and colleagues examines the supports districts must build to improve teaching and learning at scale.  In their conclusion, they note:

First, settling on a vision of instruction is foundational to any effort to redesign an educational infrastructure for supporting instruction and its improvement. Without an agreed on instructional vision, it is difficult to build an infrastructure to support instruction and its improvement in the first place.1

One approach to building this common vision of instruction is Instructional Rounds, a process that engages educators in identifying an instructional problem of practice, visiting classrooms to gather low-inference evidence, debriefing the data, and identifying solutions.  The brilliance in rounds, when implemented with integrity and as part of a continuous improvement process, is that it anchors an “infrastructure for supporting instruction and its improvement.”  Read more if you are interested in an upcoming rounds training institute.

No matter where you choose to start, get started.  Time is short, and there is learning to improve.

Richard W. Lemons, EdD
Executive Director, CT Center for School Change

Spillane, J. P., Hopkins, M., & Sweet, T. M. (2018). School district educational infrastructure and change at scale: teacher peer interactions and their beliefs about mathematics instruction. American educational research journal55(3), 532-571.