How fostering leadership at every level promotes student achievement

As more districts begin some form of in-person instruction and work to address learning loss resulting from the pandemic-driven school closures, a new brief suggests stable leadership within a district benefits children at the classroom level.

Researchers at the Learning Policy Institute identified “positive outlier districts” in California in which African American, Latino and white students all substantially outperformed their peers on California’s statewide math and English language arts assessments.

Past studies associate increased principal quality and a superintendents’ longevity in the office with gains in high school graduation rates and student achievement — and high-performing districts appear to prioritize developing a leadership pipeline.

Chief among the LPI’s recent findings: positive outlier districts employed a variety of strategies for developing leaders who would stay in the district long term, and for engaging leaders in districtwide professional learning through observation of instruction, participation in learning communities and the use of data.

“Continuous, stable district leadership was a key factor in positive outlier case study districts, and one that educators frequently identified as contributing to students’ successes. The districts generally had sustained leadership from their superintendents and from many principals,” researchers wrote. “The districts also intentionally recruited leaders from within. This created a leadership pipeline in which teachers who were strong leaders took on more and more responsibility for school leadership, and some eventually became principals. Principals, in turn, could expand their leadership roles and become district administrators.”

District examples of leadership development in action

In all the positive outlier districts, superintendents had multiple years of experience in their positions and had often come up through the ranks as principals, assistant principals and teachers, researchers found.

Prior to his retirement last year, Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent Chris Steinhauser served as superintendent for 18 years, having previously been a student, teacher, principal and associate superintendent in the same district. Steinhauser was replaced by his deputy superintendent, Jill Baker, who has been in Long Beach Unified for nearly 28 years as a teacher, principal and central office administrator.

In Clovis USD, school principals have been Clovis teachers, area superintendents were former principals, and senior district office administrators were former area superintendents — that means administrators  were steeped in the culture of the district and were highly regarded as educators by teachers, researchers said. The district’s current superintendent, Eimear O’Farrell, began in the district as a teacher in 1993 and climbed through the ranks before being appointed superintendent in 2017, as did her predecessor, Janet Young, and the founding Superintendent, “Doc” Buchanan.

To cultivate strong leadership, districts included staff in leadership activities and professional learning at all levels of the system, building trusting relationships and distributing responsibility and ownership, according to the LPI brief. Mentoring and coaching opportunities were collaborative, ongoing and coordinated across the system, and teachers had opportunities to take on leadership roles as they were encouraged to share their expertise.

The development of a strong leadership pipeline can help to ensure continuity of principles and practices within a district, researchers concluded.