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Improving School Leadership

The Promise of Cohesive Leadership Systems

An in-depth RAND evaluation describes payoffs and challenges as states and districts set out to collaborate more closely on policies to improve school leadership.
December 2009
A black female principal sitting at a desk talking to a white female teacher in a classroom
  • Author(s)
  • Catherine H. Augustine, Gabriella Gonzalez, Gina Schuyler Ikemoto, Jennifer Russell, Gail L. Zellman, Louay Constant, Jane Armstrong, and Jacob W. Dembosky
  • Publisher(s)
  • RAND Corporation
Page Count 178 pages


How we did this

RAND researchers performed a cross-case analysis, using a purposive sample of 10 Wallace grantee sites consisting of 10 states and their 17 affiliated districts. They reviewed literature on system-building and policy coherence. They then conducted site visits during which they interviewed 300 representatives of districts, state government, and pre-service principal preparation programs. RAND also fielded a survey of more than 600 principals and collected information in an online log in which nearly 170 principals described how they spent their time every day for two weeks. They supplemented this information by interviewing 100 principals.

This study analyzes efforts by 10 states and 17 affiliated districts to coordinate policies and activities related to school leadership so that they would reinforce rather than conflict with and undermine each other. The study found that it is possible to build more cohesive leadership systems and that such efforts can be a promising approach to developing school leaders engaged in improving instruction.  

States and districts devised strategies to build stronger working relationships and greater cohesion around policies and initiatives to improve education. 

What Are States and Districts Doing to Improve School Leadership?
  • Policies and initiatives. All the study sites had done something to improve school leadership. Their efforts were focused on six areas: standards, pre-service and recruitment, licensure, evaluation, in-service, and the conditions in which principals work.
  • Roles and interactions. Researchers observed two patterns of interaction across the sites. In one, districts were improving school leadership on their own, without support from the state. In the other, the state was clearly the leader, with districts involved in primarily reactive ways.
  • Degree of cohesion. The researchers found that the three sites that had the most advanced cohesive leadership systems all had five characteristics present: comprehensiveness in the scope of their initiatives, alignment of policies and practices, broad stakeholder engagement, agreement on how to improve leadership, and coordination achieved through strong leadership.
How Have Sites Built Cohesive Leadership Systems?

States, rather than districts, have played the key role in creating connections among state and district policies and initiatives on leadership. Sites differed a great deal in the organizations that assumed the lead role in developing cohesiveness. In some sites, it was the state education agency (SEA). In others, it was a university or a professional association. In others, a large district was an equal partner in the work. There appeared to be no “best” approach. The appropriate group depended on the local context. 

The researchers found eight strategies were the most important for building cohesion:

  1. Building trust
  2. Creating formal and informal networks
  3. Fostering communications
  4. Exerting pressure and influence
  5. Promoting improved quality of leadership policies and initiatives
  6. Building capacity for the work
  7. Identifying strong individuals with political and social capital to lead the work
  8. Connecting to other reform efforts

The sites with the most cohesive leadership systems shared several approaches to implementing these strategies. First, unlike other sites, they were pursuing all eight strategies. Second, leaders in these states pursued strategic communications. And finally, all three sites combined pressure tactics and support in effective ways.

The study identifies contextual factors that promoted or hindered the work. Some enabling factors included political support, supportive superintendents, strong preexisting social networks, a history of collaboration, and common structures and policies. Some inhibiting factors were limited resources, staff turnover, cultures of independence, and limited state education agency capacity.

RAND was not able to determine conclusively whether greater policy cohesion led to more time spent on instructional leadership in the sites studied.

Key Takeaways

  • It is possible to develop cohesive leadership systems between states and districts to improve school leadership, and research identifies eight strategies that appear most effective for developing such systems. One of those strategies is identifying strong individuals with political and social capital to lead the work. 
  • States that motivate school districts to accomplish the most ambitious reforms combine pressure—through regulations, laws or sanctions—with supports like expert guidance or additional funding.
  • States build better working relationships when they listen to and acknowledge district concerns and help address them.
  • Principals who report spending the most time on instructional leadership also say that they have access to timely and accurate student data, professional development through their district, and autonomy in decision-making.
  • Certain working conditions are linked to specific instructional leadership practices. For instance, principals with access to good student data reported spending more time spent observing teaching and building a common vision for the school.

Materials & Downloads

What We Don't Know

The study finds that principals reporting favorable conditions also reported that they spent more time on a series of instructional leadership practices. The analysis does not provide evidence of causation—there could be other explanations for this correlation—nor can the researchers demonstrate that principals spending more time on these practices has improved student learning. But the findings do offer some support for the theory that positive conditions for principals promote stronger instructional leadership. 

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