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Be an instructional leader, focus on student learning

When it comes to student learning, leadership matters. In fact, leadership is only second in line behind classroom instruction among aspects that play a part in what students learn at school.

Twenty-five percent of effects at a school are a result of leadership. However, some leaders are more effective than others. Some effective leaders can turn around a failing school, while other leaders can take a successful school and watch it slowly go downhill.

What makes an effective educational leader?

What is it that makes one educational leader effective at leading a school or district to improvement over another? Is it an instructional leader or is it a transformational leader?

When I think back on the effective leaders I’ve encountered over the years, some had very strong personalities, others were more reserved, yet confident in their approach to leadership.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

The actions of a leader are what impacts student learning and growth not the personality traits of a leader, and research bears this out. It is a matter of what a leader does that has an impact on student learning.

I have been fortunate to be trained as a Visible Learning + consultant through Corwin. John Hattie’s work has had a profound impact on me personally and professionally.

As a new school year starts, I often get the urge to return to a school building as a principal in order to lead a school or even in a district office position to impact leaders and teachers. I want a make a difference for students. I want students to thrive.

Instructional leaders have a greater impact on student outcomes

Research shows that being an instructional leader has a greater impact on student outcomes than being a transformational leader. The research revealed that instructional leadership has an effect size of .42 on student learning and transformational leadership has an effect size is .11.

On the effect size scale, an effect size of .40 and above is known as being in the Zone of Desired effects and .40 is known as the hinge point. A .40 effect size equates to one year of growth for one year of input, or schooling.

In simplistic terms, the focus for instructional leaders is on student learning. So daily decisions and dialogue focus on student learning. Concerning student learning and growth, being an instructional leader clearly has a greater impact over that of a transformational leader.

The focus for transformational leaders is on the teachers. Transformational leaders want to inspire their teachers and gain their commitment to achieving the mission of the school district and overcome any challenges.

“Concerning student learning and growth, being an instructional leader clearly has a greater impact over that of a transformational leader.”

But one type of leadership doesn’t prevail

I don’t think that a principal has just one type of leadership style such as instructional or transformational. The unique school situation a principal is faced with determines the leadership actions that the principal will take.

If you are the new principal at a school where the status quo prevails, it may be necessary to start out as a transformational leader. Once you have inspired your staff and had them reflect on why they went into teaching as a means to recommit to their purpose, your actions may become those more reflective of an instructional leader.

It will be your actions as an instructional leader that will have the greater impact on student outcomes. Instructional leaders are well versed in curriculum, instruction and assessment, so they are able to provide quality and effective feedback to teachers which impacts student learning. They are highly visible in their schools and districts and work closely with their instructional staff as data is analyzed and instructional decisions are discussed.

The research reveals five overarching actions associated with being an instructional leader. These actions and their effect sizes are:

  • Promoting and participating in teacher learning and professional development (.84)
  • Planning and coordinating, and evaluating teaching and the curriculum (.42)
  • Strategic resourcing (.31)
  • Establishing goals and exceptions (.42)
  • Ensuring an orderly and supportive environment (.27)

These actions appear straightforward, but do not forget that as an instructional leader the focus, even with these actions, is on student learning. The problem is that the focus of dialogue in schools is often on student behavior, high stakes assessment, contractual issues, evaluation systems, or playing the blame game instead of on student learning.

Each of the above instructional leadership overarching actions should be a priority for leaders to impact student outcomes and focus conversations on student learning.

If you are ready to be an instructional leader, it is time to table the distractions and make student learning the center and focus of all actions and conversations in your school or district. Join the ranks of instructional leaders who are having an impact on student learning in their schools and districts.

Over the next few months a series of Blog posts will focus on each of the above five overarching actions of instructional leaders.

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Tracey Shiel

Tracey Shiel is author and consultant with over 20 years in the field of education. Through Thought Partners, she provides research-based educational services including balanced leadership coaching, professional development, implementation planning and execution support, and special educational projects of the highest quality. Her passion is with coaching educational leaders to achieve school and district improvement goals while enhancing leadership capabilities.