Fish Don't Rot from the Tail First

Focused Leadership: Fish Don't Rot From the Tail First

Building administrators and school leaders across the nation are challenged to find strategies that will generate continual increased levels of student achievement. Research is clear about the importance of principal leadership and what makes an effective leader. Research is also clear about what the most effective practices are within a school to achieve increased student success.

So what is it, specifically, that instructional leaders do? How can leaders overcome the "politics of distraction" when it comes to leading change? Do our best teachers leave lousy schools or lousy leaders? Instructional leadership must be focused on evidence, not tradition.

In order to become an instructional leader, principals must decide if they prefer impact over popularity. Can leaders be both? I suppose so, but true leadership means standing up for change, even if that change is initially unpopular. Moreover, instructional leaders must maintain a learning environment based on quality teaching, student engagement, evaluation of instructional impact, and create positive home-school relationships.

The general literature on behavior change suggests that people will change their behavior if: 

  • They have a purpose to believe in.
  • Role models act consistently.
  • They have the skills and capacity for the new behavior.
  • Reinforcement systems such as performance measures are consistent.

In the past, school principals identified their primary role as manager. In this capacity, success meant keeping their schools running smoothly. Today, effective principals know that they must do much more than "keep the buses running on time." American education is at a tipping point and what counts most is student success. Complex academic, social, and economic barriers, however, keep many students from meeting their potential. The contemporary challenge for the principal is to break down these barriers and create the conditions for learning.

School Principals Manage People, Data, and Processes

The most effective leaders have a laser-like focus on the quality of instruction in their schools. As the Wallace Perspective notes, "They emphasize research-based strategies to improve teaching and learning and initiate discussions about instructional approaches, both in teams and with individual teachers. They pursue these strategies despite the preference of many teachers to be left alone" (The Wallace Foundation, 2012).

When principals spend time in classrooms to evaluate instruction, they can make close observations of what's working and what isn't. But it doesn't stop there-they make sure to discuss what they have found with teachers.

In the cause of improving instruction, effective principals take advantage of the collaborative culture they work in and consistently express a desire to see teachers working, teaching, and helping one another. "To create opportunities for teacher collaboration and learning, supervisory leaders across school sites turned to the school schedule to create the time and endorsement for this kind of work to occur.

Some principals moved to a block schedule, others gave up administrative meeting time to create more planning time for teachers, while others used the master schedule as a tool to create opportunities and accommodate for various teacher professional development activities, such as 'lab sites,' peer observations, grade-level meetings, and professional development sessions" (Portin et al., 2009, p. 59).

Instructional leaders engaged in school reform should continue to think about which three or four sources of data might show promising trends and carefully choose which variables can be tracked as simply as possible. When actual data are not available, principals can often extrapolate and report reasonable estimates based on larger trends and shifts. We often look at only obvious, easy-to-collect data, like test scores. It's important to look for other data that help to maximize impact.

From Floodlight to Flashlight: Instructional Leaders Narrow Their Focus

When Viviane Robinson and her colleagues (2008) identified principal leadership practices that positively impact student achievement, they incorporated the strength of the relationship between two variables; principal leadership actions and student achievement. The five practices in the findings appear below:

  • Establish goals and expectations
  • Strategic resourcing
  • Planning, coordinating, and evaluating teaching and the curriculum
  • Promoting and participating in teacher learning and development
  • Ensuring an orderly and supportive environment (Robinson, 2007; Robinson, et al., 2008)

To describe these practices in detail is not the purpose of this paper. The point is that there are only five, and they have the potential to help leaders form a strong school and district framework for success. Schools and districts benefit from a greater degree of focus. This includes curriculum focus, like identifying the most important standards and explicitly telling teachers that universal coverage of every academic standard is neither necessary or wise.

Moreover, instructional leaders understand that it is not the number of programs you implement, but the degree of implementation that makes a meaningful difference. The psychological advantages of implementation are increased when teachers and other stakeholders realize that in order to accomplish something significant, other tasks deemed insignificant or ineffective must be discontinued.

The best way to achieve instructional focus is by simply asking the right question-not "What works?" but "What works best for my students in my school?" and "What is the best evidence of impact and efficacy for my teachers?" Effective leaders focus only on what they can monitor, including adults and the collection of cause data-those practices that preceded test scores. Finally, a central part of being a great leader is cultivating leadership in others.


What "facts" about leadership, teaching, and learning are you willing to reconsider?  
What appropriate risks are you willing to take?
What is the cost of the mistakes you might make and what is the cost of failing to try new ideas?

When educational organizations determine the most important practices and are committed to sustaining those practices, costs will actually decrease because of better informed resource allocation and drastic reduction in student failures.

Schools and districts invest millions of dollars each year to purchase programs designed to increase achievement. Strong instructional leadership depends less on "programs" and more on professional practice. As educators, we must recognize the difference between the two; for every dollar we invest in the competence of teachers and leaders, we will net a greater gain in student achievement than if we were to spend that money on another program. While programs come and go, sound professional practice never goes out of style. 



Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Rutledge
Portin, B.S., Knapp, M.S., Dareff, S., Feldman, S., Russell, F.A., Samuelson, C., et al. (2009). Leadership for learning improvement in urban schools. New York: The Wallace Foundation.
Robinson, Viviane (2011). Student-centered leadership. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.