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Report Series: Learning for Leadership Improvement
Part 1 of 4

Leadership for Learning Improvement in Urban Schools

How can school leaders in low-income urban districts raise expectations and improve student learning despite challenges?
October 2009
3 mixed race woman standing in a classroom holding papers and having a discusion
  • Author(s)
  • Bradley S. Portin, Michael S. Knapp, Scott Dareff, Sue Feldman, Felice A. Russell, Catherine Samuelson, and Theresa Ling Yeh
  • Publisher(s)
  • Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy at the University of Washington
Page Count 125 pages


How we did this

The data collected came from sources both inside and outside the school. Researchers collected data through interviews with school administrators, instructional support staff (e.g., teacher leaders), teachers, and other administrators, some in central office roles that worked with the schools; observation of school-based leadership processes and events; and the examination of artifacts of several kinds. Each source served as a vantage point from which to explore the research questions, and together allowed the researchers to develop a convergent picture of school leadership at work.

This report examines the efforts of school administrators and teacher leaders to improve instruction at 15 well-functioning, high-poverty schools in four urban districts. 

The findings suggest several ways of thinking about and exercising learning-focused leadership in these schools that may help to explain why they are doing well and how others could do so. In particular, the research sheds light on what it means for leaders to work within a demanding environment, what supervisory leaders do in these kinds of settings, and what nonsupervisory (or teacher leaders) leaders do.

Working within a demanding environment

The school leaders studied fully acknowledged and took advantage of the larger environment surrounding their schools. The schools had framed a learning improvement agenda that reflected the larger improvement agenda of their districts as well as school-specific priorities and values. School priorities emphasized high expectations for teaching and student performance; alignment of curriculum, instruction, and assessment; staff collaboration; and the development of robust instructional leadership capacity. 

The work of principals and other supervisory leaders

To lay the groundwork for team-based leadership for learning improvement in the school, principals and other supervisory leaders concentrated on clarifying learning improvement priorities, building team-oriented cultures, and anchoring improvement work to data. 

Supervisory leaders in the different schools all had certain priorities in common: high expectations for both teaching practice and student performance; alignment of curriculum, instruction, and assessments; staff collaboration; and the development of a distributed instructional leadership capacity.

The work of teacher leaders and instructional leadership teams

Teacher leaders engaged in instructional support work developed a niche that sits between the classroom and the school’s administrators, and to some extent between the classroom and the district or state. Their daily work entailed one or more of the following activities: direct instructional support with individual teachers, professional development of various kinds, instructionally focused data and inquiry work, coordination of assessment and related support, and curriculum coordination. 

Teacher leaders' direct and regular interaction with the principal allowed them to act as a bridge between the classroom and the district or state expectations for classroom practice.

Learning to lead for learning improvement

Based on the evidence, researchers describe ways administrators and teacher leaders can best pursue their work. Principals, for instance, need to create a school culture where teachers feel safe in having their classroom practices critiqued. Teacher leaders, meanwhile, must know how to build trusting relationships with colleagues in order to guide them towards improvement.

Pathways for school leaders' learning

School districts, state agencies, external organizations trying to support educational reform, and others can create various pathways for supporting these kinds of new learning:

  1. Central office support systems. Especially where the central office had taken proactive steps to become more responsive and engaged with schools, school leaders gained much from a variety of officials and staff from the district.
  2. Peer and professional networks. School leaders relied on—and were sometimes helped to develop—connections with colleagues in similar roles and other professionals who could offer ideas, advice, comfort, and modeling of potentially useful practices.
  3. Relationships with external organizations (e.g., nonprofit groups, universities). These organizations offered instructionally specific expertise and occasions for school leaders to deepen their understanding of their work. 

Key Takeaways

  • Principals who are effective instructional leaders incorporate state and school district demands into their own agenda, rather than viewing them as obstacles.
  • The managerial work of principals is often viewed as a distraction from instructional leadership. But researchers found that principals who were skilled at improving facilities, managing discipline and safety, and handling other managerial details created an environment that supported better teaching and learning.
  • Data is a powerful school leadership tool, and principals need to know how to use it. Data on student learning allows principals to plan and monitor instruction, diagnose problems with student learning and professionally develop staff. Data can stimulate conversation and spur collective action.
  • School districts, state agencies, external organizations trying to support educational reform, and others can create various pathways for supporting these kinds of new learning. These include central office support systems, peer and professional networks, and relationships with external organizations.

Materials & Downloads

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