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Ask Dr. Lynch: The Importance of Quality Leadership in Schools

EducationWorld Q&A columnist Dr. Matthew Lynch is an associate professor of education at Langston University. Dr. Lynch provides expert advice on everything from classroom management to differentiated instruction. Read all of his columns here, and be sure to submit your own question.

Dr. Matthew Lynch

This week, reader Mitchell D. asks:

There are a number of studies that explain how to develop quality teachers, but what does the research say about developing quality school leaders?


Mitchell, until recently, there was little research regarding effective leadership and how it functions at the school, district and state levels. Questions remain concerning how leaders can best influence learning, and the type of leadership training needed. Additional questions focus on state and district policies that help leaders and those that hinder them. Attention is also directed toward the best ways to evaluate the behaviors and performance of school leaders so that effective practices can be documented and rewarded, and ineffective ones corrected.

Improved training is not enough to get the leaders we want and need in every school. State and district officials also need to set expectations of what leaders should know, and actions they need to take to improve both teaching and learning. These standards should form the basis for holding leaders accountable for results. Data should be available to leaders to inform their decisions. Also, they should have the authority to direct resources to schools and students with the greatest needs.

It is important that states and districts work together to create supportive leadership standards, training and work conditions--a “cohesive leadership system.” Collective action is the most likely pathway to lasting change throughout the system. Collaboration has not been the historic norm in education policy. Efforts at state-district policy coordination remain relatively new, and are yielding both early successes and cautionary lessons.

First-class leadership is essential to making a genuine, positive difference for all students. There are virtually no examples of troubled schools reversing their circumstances without high-quality leadership. While other factors clearly help improve overall school performance, leadership is the catalyst for change. The national conversation has shifted from whether leadership is worth the investment, to how to train, place and support high-quality leadership in failing schools and districts.

A more thoughtful approach is required in identifying future leaders and providing them with training to manage and lead. School reform calls for leaders who can set a vision for student learning, create a climate where teachers give high-quality instruction, and build policies to support both. The right leadership can make measurable differences.

Leadership training is essential, but training alone is not enough. New principals need mentoring, which should be more than just a sympathetic ear. Effective mentoring for new leaders involves real guidance from knowledgeable professionals who have exhibited proven success as educational leaders.

Ongoing professional development is needed to reduce isolation, build skills and provide time for leaders to receive additional training on their roles as instructional leaders and effective managers of school resources. They also need training on how to better use data to make decisions and accurately guide their teachers.

Ambitious district office centralization efforts seek to strengthen student learning by engaging the central office in learning-focused partnerships with schools. One of the main ways these partnerships work is by central offices providing a dedicated group of administrators who work closely with individual school leaders. Together they engage in joint work as they identify problems of practice. They concentrate on situations that hinder student learning and develop solutions to correct them. This allows district and school administrators to develop blueprints for action that incorporate collaborative justifications based on specific educational situations.

District and school administrators engaged in building school partnerships develop central office and school policies to put agreed-upon ideas into practice, revisit them regularly and refine them when necessary. An environment is created for building on lessons learned, reviewing evidence and ensuring that there is a framework in place so that all parties are accountable.

These partnership relationships are created by substantial district investment in central office staff development, as they play a pivotal role in reform. Strengthening how central offices support student learning is not solely a matter of developing better policies and structures. Rather, central office support involves helping administrators throughout central offices build their capacity to participate productively in improvement efforts.

Central office administrators are encouraged to be innovative when it comes to building district-central office partnerships. Beyond the general guidance that central office administrators should support learning, research-based models of this professional practice are virtually nonexistent. Even extensively documented cases reveal little about how administrators’ functioning in central office changes when they incorporate support for learning improvement into their daily practice.

External support for central office administrators seems essential to enabling their productive participation in dynamic learning support partnerships. The research demonstrates how community agencies and reform-support organizations can assist not only with school change, but also central office participation in learning improvement initiatives. In these arrangements, fellows or coaches from the external organization assist central office staff in their own transformation efforts.

About Dr. Lynch

Dr. Matthew Lynch is a Chair and Associate Professor of Education at Langston University and a blogger for the Huffington Post. Dr. Lynch also is the author of the newly released book It’s Time for a Change: School Reform for the Next Decade and A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories. Please visit his Web site for more information.

If you have a question for “Ask Dr. Lynch,” submit it here. Topics can be anything education-related, from classroom management to differentiated instruction.

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