Leadership and Student Outcomes

Published in SEDL Letter Volume XVII, Number 2, Leadership for Learning

In recent years there has been much talk about changing the paradigm of principal as instructional leader. This is even seen in Mike Schmoker’s article in this issue of SEDL Letter.

The term “instructional leader” has been used for decades, though there hasn’t been a clear consensus as to what it means precisely and as to exactly what activities it entails. Many perspectives, theories, and ideals have been discussed, written about, and taken to heart by principals everywhere. Other forms of educational leadership have been suggested— including transformational, sustainable, moral, and participative. These new forms encompass many of the same characteristics and activities that some instructional leadership models tout.

The truth is, the terms we use to describe leadership really aren’t so important. It is what a good leader actually does that makes a difference in student outcomes—it isn’t dependent on whether the leadership is instructional or transformational or sustainable. But just which activities and strategies a leader should use to make a difference in student outcomes is not entirely clear. Although thousands of studies have examined the relationship between leadership and student outcomes, few have been experimental studies. The best we can do at the present time is look at the correlational evidence to see which leadership strategies are more highly correlated with student outcomes. Recently, researchers at the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) conducted a metaanalysis on studies that examined the relationship between leadership and student achievement.

Balanced Leadership Study

There is a positive relationship between leadership and student achievement according to Balanced Leadership: What 30 Years of Research Tells Us About the Effect of Leadership on Student Achievement by Tim Waters, Robert J. Marzano, and Brian McNulty.

This working paper, published by McREL, is a result of a meta-analysis of 5,000 studies published since the 1970s. The studies all examined the relationship between leadership and student achievement. Waters, Marzano, and McNulty based their work on 70 of those studies that met the following criteria:

  • Quantitative student achievement data was provided.
  • Student achievement was measured on standardized norm-referenced tests or some other objective measure of achievement.
  • Student achievement was the dependent variable.
  • Teacher perceptions of leadership was the independent variable.

The McREL team identified 21 leadership responsibilities (shown in the table on page 27) that are significantly associated with student achievement. Waters, Marzano, and McNulty also organized the literature into four types of knowledge that can be applied to the 21 leadership responsibilities and associated practices:

  • Experiential knowledge—knowing why this is important
  • Declarative knowledge—knowing what to do
  • Procedural knowledge—knowing how to do it
  • Contextual knowledge—knowing when to do it

They created a framework, which they call the Balanced Leadership framework, to organize research findings in a way that makes the findings accessible to practitioners. The reader should keep in mind, however, that due to the nature of the studies and the meta-analysis, one cannot say for certain that if the leadership strategies described are adopted, there will be an increase in student achievement. Instead, the findings may help practitioners think about and evaluate the strategies and issues related to leadership. They also provide a way to organize the knowledge that education leaders need to be successful.

While studies such as this meta-analysis conducted by McREL examine a number of important leadership issues, they reinforce the need for future experimental research that focuses on leadership and student outcomes.

To read more about the meta-analysis, the Balanced Leadership working paper may be downloaded at www.mcrel.org. The work has also been discussed in more detail in a book published this year by the Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ASCD), School Leadership that Works.

Principal Leadership Responsibilities: Average r and 95% Confidence Intervals

Responsibilities The extent to which the principal . . . Effect Size Average r N Schools N Studies 95% Confidence Intervals
Culture Fosters shared beliefs and a sense of community and cooperation .29 709 13 .23-.37
Order Establishes a set of standard operating procedures and routines .26 .456 17 .17-.35
Discipline Protects teachers from issues & influences that would detract from their teaching time or focus .24 397 10 .14-.33
Resources Provides teachers with materials and professional development necessary for the successful execution of their jobs .26 570 17 .18-.24
Curriculum, instruction, assessment Is directly involved in the design and implementation of curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices .16 636 19 .08-.29
Focus Establishes clear goals and keeps those goals in the forefront of the school’s attention .24 1109 30 .18-.29
Knowledge of curriculum, instruction, assessment Is knowledgeable about current curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices .24 327 8 .13-.35
Visibility Has quality contact and interactions with teachers and students .16 432 11 .06-.25
Contingent awards Recognizes and rewards individual accomplishments .15 420 7 .05-.24 Communication Establishes long lines of communication with teachers and among students .23 245 10 .10-.35
Outreach Is an advocate and spokesperson for the school to all stakeholders .28 478 14 .19-.35
Input Involves teachers in the design and design and implementation of important decisions and policies .30 504 13 .21-.38
Affirmation Recognizes and celebrates school accomplishments and acknowledges failures .25 345 7 .14-.35
Relationship Demonstrates an awareness of the personal aspects of teachers and staff .19 497 12 .10-.24
Change agent Is willing to and actively challenges the status quo .30 479 7 .22-.38 Optimizer Inspires & leads new and challenging innovations .20 444 9 .11-.29 Ideals/beliefs Communicates and operates from strong ideals and beliefs about schooling .25 526 8 .17-.33
Monitors/evaluates Monitors the effectiveness of school practices and their impact on student learning .28 1071 30 .23-.34
Flexibility Adapts his or her leadership behavior to the needs of the current situation and is comfortable with dissent .22 151 2 .05-.37
Situational awareness Is aware of the details and undercurrents in the running of the school and uses this information to address current and potential problems .33 91 5 .11-.37
Intellectual stimulation Ensures that faculty and staff are aware of the most current theories and practices and makes the discussion of these a regular aspect of the school’s culture .32 321 5 .22-.42

Source: Balanced Leadership: What 30 Years of Research Tells Us About the Effect of Leadership on Student Achievement. Reprinted with permission from McREL.

Next Article: Bill Sommers Explains Why Communication is Key to Effective Leadership