Leadership & Student Achievement

Upon reading "The Impact of Leadership on Student Outcomes: An Analysis of the Differential Effects of Leadership Types" (Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008), I began to consider the question of how leadership affects student achievement. The education system, with its many variables within it, can be influenced by leadership...right?

In schools with higher achievement or higher achievement gains, academic goal focus is both a property of leadership (e.g., “the principal makes student achievement the school’s top goal”) and a quality of school organization (e.g., “schoolwide objectives are the focal point of reading instruction in this school”).3 If goals are to function as influential coordinating mechanisms, they need to be embedded in school and classroom routines and procedures (Robinson, 2001). Successful leadership influences teaching and learning both through face-to-face relationships and by structuring the way that teachers do their work (Ogawa & Bossert, 1995)
— Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008, pp. 659-660

Leadership influence in education must influence relevant teaching practices in classrooms. Regardless of the relationship a leader has with their subordinates, the core of the organization must always come first: what is best for kids. Therefore, when analyzing transformational leadership (personal relationships) versus informational leadership (educational works), “the quality of [transformational] relationships is not predictive of the quality of student outcomes. Educational leadership involves not only building collegial teams, a loyal and cohesive staff, and sharing an inspirational vision. It also involves focusing such relationships on some very specific pedagogical work, and the leadership practices involved are better captured by measures of instructional leadership than of transformational leadership” (Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008, p. 665). Though some may argue that interpersonal connectedness between leaders and subordinates weigh heavily, they do not hold as much weight as the technical competencies of an orderly and supportive school environment. In other words, regardless of the relationship I have with my leaders, I can expect to consistently have applicable guidance, intellectual support, and quality feedback when I need it.

One Big System

…leaders in higher performing schools tend to give more emphasis to communicating goals and expectations (Heck et al., 1990; Heck et al., 1991), informing the community of academic accomplishments and recognizing academic achievement (Heck et al., 1991). There was also some evidence that the degree of staff consensus about school goals was a significant discriminator between otherwise similar high- and low-performing schools (Goldring & Pasternak, 1994)” (Ogawa & Bossert, 1995)
— Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008, p. 660

The multitude of moving parts within a school district are all systemic, feeding off of one another. The community can affect the culture and belief in the school system. The community can affect how the learners themselves feel about their own school. The community can affect the odds of passing referendums, which will directly affect what will happen with the schools within the district. The outcome of how the schools are affected directly affects the staff within them, which can impact the learners and their achievement. Regardless of what some may believe, class sizes and a lack of resources will have a direct effect on learner achievement outcomes and school staff morale. This is not to say that the teachers teaching these large class sizes and utilizing aging 20th century textbooks with little to no technology are incompetent. Quite the contrary. These teachers are spinning gold out of straw, but at the price of giving pieces of themselves away each day because they care. The leaders within these schools must work to provide support and opportunities to all, while continually staying grounded in the core of their organization: what is best for kids. This is not only found in community support and passing referendums. It is about unceasingly moving teaching practices forward with purpose and expertise through relevant support and opportunities provided. In this way, what is best for teachers is what is best for kids.

In the context of goal setting, this means that what leaders and leadership researchers need to focus on is not just leaders’ motivational and direction-setting activities but on the educational content of those activities and their alignment with intended student outcomes” (Ogawa & Bossert, 1995)
— Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008, p. 660

Merely changing practices in classrooms and schools for the sake of change cannot be the factor that moves achievement forward. Regardless of the trend happening at the time across the country, change must be purposeful to individual schools. Differentiation of practices to meet the needs of those within the organization should be consistent in every organization. However, the mission and vision of the organization should be the core of everyone within when applying said practices. Specific changed practices that are purposeful in classrooms and schools are what create achievement amongst learners and staff. Within schools, educators need relevant activities based on the context of their learner achievement outcomes. Within classrooms, learners need teachers who understand the context of their audience and apply relevant practices that will result in higher achievements. Throughout all adaptations that take place, the culture of the organization should always come back to the core: what is best for kids.

How Much Does Leadership Impact Schools?


Leaders in higher performing schools are distinguished from their counterparts in otherwise similar lower performing schools by their personal involvement in planning, coordinating, and evaluating teaching and teachers…. leaders are actively involved in collegial discussion of instructional matters, including how instruction impacts student achievement (Heck et al., 1991)
— Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008, p. 662


…the leadership of higher performing schools is distinguished by its active oversight and coordination of the instructional program. School leaders and staff work together to review and improve teaching—an idea captured by that of shared instructional leadership (Heck et al., 1990; Heck et al., 1991; Marks & Printy, 2003)
— Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008, p. 662


…the degree of leader involvement in classroom observation and subsequent feedback was also associated with higher performing schools…. and made regular classroom observations that helped them improve their teaching (Bamburg & Andrews, 1991; Heck, 1992; Heck et al., 1990)
— Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008, p. 662


…there was greater emphasis in higher performing schools on ensuring that staff systematically monitored student progress (Heck et al., 1990) and that test results were used for the purpose of program improvement (Heck et al., 1991)
— Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008, p. 662

Of these four practices of leaders in a school organization, all possess the recurring theme of visibility. The more visible, available, and involved a leader is, the more successes happen. A leader who is visible changes a culture just by being present. However, that presence must be authentic and significant. Just like how implementing change for the sake of change does nothing, a leader who is visible but inadequate does just the same. Leaders within schools must “be seen by staff as a source of instructional advice… [because] leaders who are perceived as sources of instructional advice and expertise gain greater respect from their staff and hence have greater influence over how they teach. In addition, the principals’ central position in school communication networks means that their advice is more likely to have a coordinating influence across the school (Friedkin & Slater, 1994)” (Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008, pp. 663-664).

Protecting Time and Energy

 Leadership that ensures an orderly and supportive environment makes it possible for staff to teach and students to learn. Protection of teaching time from administrative and student disruption is one critical aspect of this dimension
— Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008, p. 668

How is this possible? The education profession itself is bewildered by the human condition of evaluations and relationships due to the spectrum of humans involved. With only so much time and energy in one day, what can an educator or leader sacrifice in order to ensure that all kids are taken care of in our system? Though it may be easy to say that less responsibilities and disruptions will increase teacher and learner efficacy, it is concerning to entertain just how realistic those items are. The responsibilities and disruptions education experiences should be what is best for kids, but initiative fatigue is real. It erases teacher autonomy and vital resources like time and energy. The only way to gain time is to sacrifice something in its place. The only way to gain energy is to quit utilizing energy. These two resources are needed for any position to be successful. In education, however, the complexities of utilizing the right practices for every child is a heavy factor over all.

Who Is the Leader?

All of these dimensions described within this journal should not be implemented by one sole leader. There are multiple leadership roles that must step up in order to move the organization forward. After all, it does indeed take a village. However, stepping into a leadership role may be a demotivation for teachers when considering how much time and energy they have left to give. Without anything to sacrifice, too much is thrown onto their shoulders. The idea of leadership is not an empowering opportunity, but rather a burden to bear.

So, what do leaders do when they find other people within their organization that have leadership qualities and are capable of having an expansive, positive impact on the organization? It is not a promotion, nor is it a compliment, to have your capabilities extorted and not be compensated in the time or energy necessary for your leadership impact to come to fruition. What is best for kids? A healthy, supportive environment with energized, encouraging teachers, who have the same healthy, supportive environment and energized, encouraging leaders. 

However, it is always easier said than done.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What are the processes of creating the conditions required to achieve the desired effects in an educational setting?
  2. What are the particular qualities that are responsible for positive cultural and leadership impact?
  3. How can leaders and teachers positively influence each other’s teaching and learning practices?
  4. What platforms must educators be given in order to achieve autonomy, empowerment, and evolution of the education system?

Robinson, V. M. J., Lloyd, C. A., & Rowe, K. J. (2008). The impact of leadership on student outcomes: An analysis of the differential effects of leadership types. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44 (5), 635-674.