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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Leadership for school and student learning - what do we know?

Bill Mulford
Professor and Director, Leadership for Learning Research Group, Faculty of Education, University of Tasmania

What are the links between leadership, school practices and student outcomes?
How can school leadership make a difference to school reform and improved student learning?  This paper describes a project called ‘Leadership for Organisational Learning and Student Outcomes' (LOLSO) carried out through the Australian Research Council. The goal of the project was to understand school reform initiatives which aimed to change school practices in order to achieve improved student learning.

On the basis of teacher and student surveys, the research suggests that, in the opinion of those who are being led, leadership which makes a difference encourages, supports and respects teachers and involves them in decision making. It suggests that successful school reform is about development and therefore learning; that the context for leadership and school reform (such as socio-economic factors, home environment and school size) should be taken into account; and that what counts for academic achievement should be broadened beyond performance in national tests to include, for example, students’ perceptions of themselves as learners and of their achievements.  

The research raises concerns that school leadership currently overemphasises the managerial or strategic aspects of the role.

What were the aims of the research?
The research aimed to find answers to the following questions:  

1.  How is the concept of organisational learning defined in Australian secondary schools?
2.  What leadership practices promote organisational learning?
3.  What are some outcomes of schooling other than academic achievement?
4.  What are the relationships between the non-academic and academic outcomes of schooling?
5.  Does school leadership and/or organisational learning contribute to students' outcomes?
6.  What other factors contribute to student outcomes?  

How was the study designed?
Data for the LOLSO project were gathered over four years from a wide range of people and by researchers who were not involved in the design or implementation of the reform:

  • 3,500 Year 10 students from 96 Tasmanian and South Australian schools and 2,500 of their teachers and headteachers were surveyed (quantitative data);
  • case studies of best practice were collected from four schools (qualitative data);
  • data was collected from over half of the student sample which included whether or not they continued on from Year 10 to Year 12 and their five-subject aggregate Tertiary Entrance score (South Australia's assessment procedure);
  • Year 12 students, teachers and headteachers were resurveyed; and
  • the results from the quantitative and qualitative data was used to develop and trial problem-based learning professional development interventions for school leaders.

What did the research find out?
The research uses the results from surveys to answer the project's six research questions. It found organisational learning involved a sequence of establishing a trustworthy and collaborative climate, followed by having a shared and monitored mission, and then taking initiatives and risks. These three stages were supported by a ongoing, relevant professional development.  

The main conditions that promoted organisational learning were found to be distributive leadership (staff actively and collectively participated in the school decision making) and transformational leadership (defined by six factors which enabled teacher leadership and valuing of contributions).   

Students in Year 10 and Year 12 perceived four non-academic processes of schooling as significant: teachers' work (such as, students liking the way teachers teach); academic self confidence (such as, students confident of their success); participation (such as, students responding to questions in class and/or engaging in extra-curricula activities); and engagement (such as, students identifying with their school).  

Students were more likely to stay on at school and complete Year 12 if they were engaged with school, but engagement with school only indirectly influenced achievement (through staying on).  Features of the home environment (such as having space to study and help with school work) also influenced student participation and self-concept.  

Teacher leadership contributed to organisational learning, which in turn influenced teaching and pupils’ learning, the way teachers taught and the challenges and expectations they placed on their pupils.  The higher the teachers' ratings of the school as a learning organisation, the more positively their work was perceived by their pupils.  Where pupils' perceived teachers' work positively, this directly promoted their participation, academic self-confidence and engagement, and these factors were related to academic achievement.  

Larger schools were less likely to have transformational and distributive leadership and were more likely to have students who were academically “self confident”, but who participated less intensively in school life and work.  Schools with higher socio-economic status were more likely to have students who stayed on at school, had higher academic self-confidence and achieved more academically, but who saw teachers' work less positively.  The important factor to staying on at school and academic achievement was that students actively participated in school and felt valued.

What conclusions did the researchers draw?
On the basis of their findings, it is suggested that successful school reform is related to four factors:

  • distributive and transformational leadership;
  • development and learning;
  • context; and
  • a broader understanding of student outcomes.  

Distributive leadership
Leadership that made a difference in the secondary schools studied involved not only the headteacher, but the administrative team and teachers.  Headteacher leadership was focused on creating a caring ethos, where teachers felt supported and valued, were given opportunities to learn from each other, were encouraged to reflect on what they were trying to achieve and contributed to the decision making (which the research describes as transformational).  How teachers were treated by the headteacher was reflected in how the students perceived the teachers' work, and this was related to the outcomes of their schooling. Thus, the LOLSO research suggests that success is more likely where teachers are encouraged, respected, supported and involved in decision making.  

Development and learning
Successful school reform is about development and therefore learning.  Once distributive leadership and a collaborative climate have been established, then a shared and monitored mission was seen as providing a unifying focus. When there is confidence in what the school is doing and why it is doing it, then the leaders and the school can move to development, learning and change, including working with other schools.  The research indicates the importance of having stability for change.

The research suggests that more account should be taken of the context for leadership and school reform, as socio-economic status, home background and school size had a clear interactive effect on leadership, the school and student outcomes.  It suggests that leadership may have to adapt to circumstances. For example, as smaller schools were found to have advantages, large schools may find it beneficial to divide themselves into sub-schools, to provide the support needed to involve students and teachers with the school and improve learning outcomes.  

A broader understanding of student outcomes
The research suggests that what counts as effective education should be broadened beyond academic achievement, to include, for example, self-confidence.  Although academic self-confidence was not linked to academic achievement, it does not follow that academic self-confidence is not an important student outcome.  The research cites other studies where pupil self-confidence has been found to be related to later life successes such as employment and income.    

What are the implications of the study for school leaders?
In completing this article, questions such as the following might be asked about the implications of LOSO for practitioners:  

  • many schools are now involving pupils in their school improvement planning. Would your school benefit from asking pupils (through a questionnaire, for example) for their views on teaching and school leadership?  Do you have the information you need about how pupils view themselves as learners?  
  • do teachers in your school participate actively in decision making and/or understand, share and monitor progress toward school goals?   
  • if you asked teachers in your school whether they felt ‘safe’ in taking risks and leading new initiatives, what would they say?  
  • could your school's professional development programme support teachers in making regular use of pupil voice to enhance their teaching and their pupils’ learning?  

Where can I find out more?  

Web based
Systematic review of the impact of school headteachers and principals on student outcomes: http://eppi.ioe.ac.uk/EPPIWeb/home.aspx?page=/reel/review_groups/leadership/review_one.htm

B. Mulford. (2003). School leaders: Challenging roles and impact on teacher and school effectiveness. Paris: Commissioned Paper by the Education and Training Policy Division, OECD, for the Activity “Attracting, Developing and Retaining Effective Teachers”. http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/61/61/2635399.pdf

B. Mulford. (2003). The role of school leadership in attracting and retaining teachers and promoting innovative schools and students.  Canberra: Commissioned Paper by the Review of Teaching and Teacher Education, Commonwealth Department of Education Science & Training. http://dest.gov.au/schools/teachingreview/

H. Silins, S. Zarins, & B. Mulford. (2002). What characteristics and processes define a school as a learning organisation? Is this a useful concept to apply to schools? International Education Journal. 3(1), 24-32. http://iej.cjb.net

Print based
B. Mulford & H. Silins. (2003). Leadership for organisational learning and improved student outcomes. Cambridge Journal of Education. 33(2), 175-195.

B. Mulford, H. Silins & K. Leithwood. (2004). Leadership for organisational learning and student outcomes: A problem-based learning approach. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

H. Silins & B. Mulford. (2002). Leadership and school results. Invited Chapter for K. Leithwood & P. Hallinger. Second International Handbook of Educational Leadership and Administration. Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers. Pp. 561-612.

H. Silins & B. Mulford. (2002). Schools as learning organisations: The case for system, teacher and student learning. The Journal of Educational Administration. 40(5), 425-446.

H. Silins, B. Mulford, & S. Zarins. (2002). Organisational learning and school change. Educational Administration Quarterly. 38(5), 613-642.  


This article originally appeared in Independence, The Journal of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia, Volume 29 Number 2 2004.

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