Effects of School Leadership

Education Week, June 16, 2004

There is wide recognition that school leaders exert a powerful, if indirect, influence on teaching quality and student learning. In a review of literature for the American Educational Research Association, Leithwood and Riehl (2003) conclude that school leadership has significant effects on student learning, second only to the effects of the quality of curriculum and teachers' instruction. Case studies of exceptional schools indicate that school leaders influence learning primarily by galvanizing effort around ambitious goals and by establishing conditions that support teachers and that help students succeed (Togneri and Anderson, 2003).

Similarly, Leithwood and Riehl (2003) find that large-scale quantitative studies of schooling conclude that the effects of leadership on student learning are small but educationally significant. Although leadership explains only about 3 to 5 percent of the variation in student learning across schools, this effect is nearly one-quarter of the total effect of all school factors. In these studies, as in case studies, the effects of leadership appear to be mostly indirect: leaders influence student learning by helping to promote a vision and goals, and by ensuring that resources and processes are in place to enable teachers to teach well (Leithwood and Riehl, 2003).

Indeed, research has repeatedly shown that principals play key roles in instructional change in their schools. Their level of involvement often dictates whether attempts to change instruction succeed (Riordan, 2003). For example, studies have shown that school leaders, especially within low-performing schools, are typically ineffective in providing support and mentoring to improve instruction, and providing direction and resources for teacher learning and professional development within and outside the school (Riordan, 2003). This pattern continues despite a great deal of research that identifies the importance of the principal's role as instructional leader.

Although its effects are difficult to measure precisely, leadership is clearly important. But what, exactly, is leadership and how does it apply to the school environment?

In their landmark study of visionary companies, James Collins and Jerry Porras (1997) define leaders as individuals who "displayed high levels of persistence, overcame significant obstacles, attracted dedicated people, influenced groups of people toward the achievement of goals, and played key roles in guiding their companies through crucial episodes in their history."

This definition matches closely the definitions currently used for school leaders, although this definition has undergone some change in recent years. Until recently, most research assumed that leadership must come from the school principal (Riordan, 2003). The realization that improving instruction requires shifts in the behavior of school leaders has spurred new theories of school leadership and attempts at restructuring school organization. There is now much greater emphasis placed on the complex idea of "distributed leadership" shared by multiple individuals at different levels of the organization (Riordan, 2003).

Similarly, Spillane, Halverson, and Diamond (2001) argue that school leadership must be viewed as the cumulative activities of a broad set of leaders, both formal and informal, within a school, rather than as the work of one actor, such as the principal. The buck may stop with the principal in a school, but it serves everyone's interests to develop broad leadership capacity in their schools. This "distributive" leadership serves many purposes, including expanding expertise across staff members, thereby deepening efforts for instructional improvement (Supovitz and Poglinco, 2001).

Consequently, the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP, 2004) insists that the principal should provide leadership in the school community by building and maintaining a vision, direction, and focus for student learning. But the association argues that the principal should never act alone. Rather, according to NASSP, all schools should establish a governing council that includes students, parents, and staff members in key decisions to promote student learning and an atmosphere of participation, responsibility, and ownership.

So, although not responsible for directing all aspects of every activity in a school or district, neither are principals and administrators simply managers of staff and budgets. Indeed, according to a comprehensive analysis of principal and superintendent leadership, most leadership theories and activities have taken an overly narrow view of leadership, focusing primarily on the immediate support and supervision of teachers' instruction of students (Knapp et al., 2003). In reality, school and district leadership means creating powerful, equitable learning opportunities for students, professionals, and the system, and motivating or compelling participants to take advantage of these opportunities. School and district leaders--including staff developers, district coordinators, and mentor teachers as well as principals and superintendents--can advance powerful and equitable student learning by:

  • establishing a focus on learning;
  • building professional communities that value learning;
  • engaging external environments that matter for learning;
  • acting strategically and sharing leadership; and
  • creating coherence (Knapp et al., 2003).

This framework for school and district leaders is consistent with areas that administrators identify as critical to educational leadership. For example, principals point to leadership needs in seven areas: instructional, cultural, managerial, human resources, strategic, external development, and micro-political (Portin et al., 2003). Similarly, NASSP (2004) has developed a self-assessment instrument for instructional leaders that includes questions about instructional direction, teamwork, problem solving, communication, and skill building.

Because of their impact on school quality and student achievement, developing effective leaders of schools and districts is considered a top priority among researchers and policymakers. Many school leaders are not adequately prepared to carry out the tasks of improving instruction, according to Richard Elmore (2000), a professor of educational leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Instruction can be improved, argues Elmore, only if school leadership is substantially redefined and changed to include the notion of distributed leadership.

Unfortunately, there does not appear to be an efficient way to develop educational leaders. As noted by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington (Portin et al., 2003), "A 'one-size-fits-all' posture toward leadership training or methods and styles of school leadership serves neither principals nor schools well. Different schools have different leadership needs, and policy and practice need to support a variety of leadership models" (Portin et al., 2003).

Similarly, Frederick Hess (2003) notes that leadership, in education and elsewhere, lacks concrete benchmarks against which school leaders can be measured to determine adequacy. Therefore, he argues, states should remove most licensure requirements for principals and superintendents to allow promising leaders from other fields an opportunity to serve.

In addition to the challenge of training school leaders, a literature review conducted by the National Governors' Association notes that some research has found that there is a limited supply of talented candidates to lead schools and districts and that this lack of supply is leading to a severe shortage (Mazzeo, 2003). Other research, noting that claims of a national shortage of principals appear overstated, has found that the number of openings is expected to grow by 20 percent over the next five years and the number of retirements is likely to increase markedly, according to the same review.

NGA posits that these trends are expected to pose the greatest challenges for urban and rural districts with large concentrations of high-poverty and low-performing schools, since these districts often pay lower salaries and receive significantly fewer applicants for open positions. As a result, low-performing urban and rural schools are much more likely to end up with inexperienced principals and assistant principals.

Finally, research conducted by Public Agenda (2003), an opinion-research organization, and the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education (Fuller et al., 2003) suggests that recruiting and retaining educational leaders will be a significant challenge as frustration with the role continues to mount. Today, the demands of the principalship pull school leaders in several directions at once as they attempt to fill instructional, managerial, and political roles while balancing competing demands from the school, district, state, and federal government (Cuban, 1988; Elmore, 1999).

Although wanting to serve as true leaders, Public Agenda found that administrators have insufficient budgets and "are fighting an uphill battle against stifling bureaucracy and a torrent of local, state, and federal government mandates." In particular, 93 percent of superintendents and 88 percent of principals say their district has experienced "an enormous increase in responsibilities and mandates without getting the resources necessary to fulfill them." Similarly, Fuller et al. (2003) concluded that the politics of the urban superintendency and the limits on the superintendents' authority make it almost impossible for district leaders to significantly improve their school systems.

With assistance from the Wallace Foundation and its State Action for Education Leadership Project, several states are developing policies to increase the capacity of school leaders to raise student achievement. Massachusetts has changed the way it licenses principals, Kentucky has created an apprenticeship aimed at encouraging members of minority groups to become superintendents, and Rhode Island has passed a law requiring districts to give principals professional development on the state's standards for student achievement (Archer, 2004).


Archer, J. "Foundation to Expand State Project on School Leadership," Education Week, Jan. 7, 2004.

Collins, J. and Porras, J. Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. New York: Harper Business, 1997. 

Cuban, L. Managerial Imperatives and the Practice of Leadership in Schools, Albany: University of New York Press, 1998.

Elmore, R. When Accountability Knocks, Will Anyone Answer? Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, 1999. 

Elmore, R. Building a New Structure for School Leadership. Washington D.C.: Albert Shanker Institute, 2000.

Fuller, H. et. al. An Impossible Job? The View From the Urban Superintendent's ChairCenter on Reinventing Public Education, 2003.

Knapp, M., et. al. Leading for Learning Sourcebook: Concepts and ExamplesCenter for the Study of Teaching and Policy, Dewitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, and Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, 2003.

Hess, F. "A License to Lead?"  Education Week, July 9, 2003.

Leithwood, K. and C. Riehl. "What We Know About Successful School Leadership."American Educational Research Association, January 2003. 

Mazzeo, C. "Improving Teaching and Learning by Improving School Leadership," Issue Brief, National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Sept. 12, 2003.

National Association of Secondary School Principals"Breaking Ranks II: Strategies for Leading High School Reform," 2004.

Portin, B., M. DeArmond, L. Gundlach, and P. Schneider. "A Practical Look at School Leadership," Policy Brief, Center on Reinventing Public Education, Sept. 2003. 

Public AgendaRolling Up Their Sleeves: Superintendents and Principals Talk About What's Needed to Fix Public Schools, 2003. 

Riordan, K. "Teacher Leadership as a Strategy for Instructional Improvement: the Case of the Merck Institute for Science Education," Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, 2003.

Spillane, J., R. Halverson, and J. Diamond. "Investigating School Leadership Practice: A Distributed Perspective." Educational Researcher, 30 (3), 23-28, 2001. 

Supovitz, J. and S. Poglinco. "Instructional Leadership in a Standards-Based Reform," Consortium for Policy Research in Education, 2001.

Togneri, W. and S. Anderson. "Beyond Islands of Excellence: What Districts Can Do to Improve Instruction and Achievement in All Schools." Learning First Alliance, 2003.

On the Web

Institute for Educational Leadership has launched a policy initiative called "School Leadership for the 21st Century". See related publications.

The Wallace Foundation operates grant programs in educational leadership. 

The National Association of Secondary School Principals offers several publications on educational leadership, including "Mentoring the Organization: Helping Principals Bring Schools to Higher Levels of Effectiveness" and "Breaking Ranks II: Strategies for Leading High School Reform."

Public Agenda has conducted several opinion-research studies on leadership, including "Rolling Up Their Sleeves: Superintendents and Principals Talk About What's Needed to Fix Public Schools." (Full report requires free registration). 

"The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher," 2003, charts the views of teachers, principals, parents, and students on the issue of school leadership. 

The organization New Leaders for New Schools operates an intensive recruitment and training program for urban schools leaders. 

American Association of School Administrators compiles resources on leadership and governance.

Subject Area
  • leadership development, civics, political science
Delivery Area
  • school based
Outcome Area
  • academic performance
  • civic engagement
  • self efficacy
  • career awareness
  • community change
  • school change
Participant Area
  • student
  • educator
  • administrator
  • school
Age Area
  • elementary (6-11 years old)
  • middle school (12-14 years old)
  • high school (14-18 years old)