Teacher's bookshelf: Educational leadership

In Leading Learning and Teaching, Professor Stephen Dinham draws on research from Australia and around the world to explore the importance and impact of instructional leadership. Themes include school improvement and educational change, leadership preparation, and effective professional learning. Recommended as a ‘must read' by Professor John Hattie and Professor Alma Harris, Leading Learning and Teaching is available for pre-order ahead of its release on 1 August, but here's a sneak peek for Teacher readers. In this extract, Dinham discusses the impact of leadership on student outcomes.

How educational leaders influence teaching and learning

The crucial importance of the teacher to student learning has long been recognised.[1] The challenge for any educational leader is to make things happen within individual classrooms, and across their school or area of responsibility. Wahlstrom and Seashore Louis have commented:

‘In the current era of accountability, a principal's responsibility for the quality of teachers' work is simply a fact of life. How to achieve influence over work settings (classrooms) in which they rarely participate is a key dilemma.'[2]

Despite the smaller (i.e., than for teachers and teaching), yet still significant measured effects on student learning for school-based factors beyond the classroom – Hattie has calculated an effect size of 0.39 for principals/school leaders[3] – research evidence has confirmed that ‘school leaders can play major roles in creating the conditions in which teachers can teach effectively and students can learn'.[4]

As a result of extensive meta-analytic work, Marzano, Waters and McNulty concluded: ‘A highly effective school leader can have a dramatic influence on the overall academic achievement of students ... Leadership has long been perceived to be important to the effective functioning of organisations in general and, more recently, of schools in particular. However some researchers and theorists assert that at best research on school leadership is equivocal and at worst demonstrates that leadership has no effect on student achievement. In contrast, a meta-analysis of 35 years of research indicates that school leadership has a substantial effect on student achievement and provides guidance for experienced and aspiring principals alike.'[5]

The emergence, decline and re-emergence of instructional leadership

A key to understanding this apparent conundrum – that is, whether educational leadership is important for learning or not – is to distinguish between different approaches to, or types of leadership. Effective management of day-to-day school functions involving budgeting, facilities, teacher hiring and evaluation, planning and accountability, can result in a well-run school, but if this is the extent or main focus of leadership, there may be little effect on improving student achievement, at least at a whole school level. This situation has led to calls for what has been termed ‘instructional leadership', or leadership for teaching and learning. Robinson, Lloyd and Rowe noted that: ‘Instructional leadership theory has its empirical origins in studies undertaken during the late 1970's and 80's of schools in poor urban communities where students succeeded despite the odds ... these schools typically had strong instructional leadership, including a learning climate free of disruption, a system of clear teaching objectives, and high teacher expectations for students.'[6]

Hallinger (2005) proposed three dimensions for instructional leadership from his review of the field:

  • defining the school's mission,
  • managing the instructional program, and
  • promoting a positive school learning climate.[7]

Hallinger (2005) also observed that despite interest in instructional leadership arising from research into effective schools going back as far as the late 1970s:

‘During the mid-1990s, however, attention shifted somewhat away from effective schools and instructional leadership. Interest in these topics was displaced by concepts such as school restructuring and transformational leadership.'[8]

For a time, ‘transformational leadership'– which goes back to James McGregor Burns' work on how some leaders ‘engage with staff in ways that inspired them to new levels of energy, commitment and moral purpose'[9] – became prominent and instructional leadership was relegated, and to some degree discounted as outdated, as noted in the previous chapter. (Unfortunately, the term instruction – more commonly used in the United States of America – does have technical, transmissive connotations that some find off-putting.)

To compound matters, during the 1990s, there was great enthusiasm for system and school restructuring and for corporate models and approaches, as discussed in the previous chapter.[10] Yet how schools are structured (or restructured) has been found to be a weak driver of improvement in student outcomes, despite great enthusiasm for structural arrangements such as middle schools, mixed ability groupings and ‘open classrooms'. It is the quality of teaching that occurs within such structures, and the leadership that guides and supports it, that is most important in improving student achievement. [11] Too often, schools make structural or organisational changes in the hope that these will lead to improved teacher and student performance, without addressing the bigger issue of teacher quality and its impact on learning. A highly effective teacher can work within almost any structural arrangement, while a poor teacher will not suddenly become a good one due to some change in how their class or school is organised.

However, despite the enthusiasm for both school restructuring and transformational leadership, the findings from international meta-analytic work comparing the impact of various approaches to educational leadership, along with wider developments and concerns over quality teaching and student performance noted in earlier chapters, caused a re-examination of the worth of instructional leadership. Robinson, Lloyd and Rowe concluded from their meta-analysis of empirical work on the impact of various leadership approaches:

‘The comparison between instructional and transformational leadership showed that the impact [on student outcomes] of the former is three to four times that of the latter. The reason is that transformational leadership is more focused on the relationship between leaders and followers than on the educational work of school leadership, and the quality of these relationships is not predictive of the quality of student outcomes. Educational leadership involves not only building collegial teams, a loyal and cohesive staff, and sharing an inspirational vision. It also involves focusing such relationships on some very specific pedagogical work, and the leadership practices involved are better captured by measures of instructional leadership than of transformational leadership.'[12]

… In Australia, one could argue that the imperative for instructional leadership only (re)gained momentum in the context of the National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests introduced in 2008, and with the establishment of the My School website in 2010 (which lists NAPLAN results for every school in Australia along with other information). National student testing and publication of school performance and student growth data certainly gained people's attention, although outcomes other than those from standardised testing (i.e., academic, personal, social) are considered by many to be equally or even more important.[13]

However, there is now little doubt that educational leaders are receiving a clear message as to both their importance and their obligation to improving teaching and learning.

An international review by Barber and Mourshed found: ‘High-performing [‘top' 15 per cent] principals focus more on instructional leadership and developing teachers. They see their biggest challenges as improving teaching and curriculum, and they believe that their ability to coach others and support their development is the most important skill of a good school leader.'[14]

The review found that a thorough knowledge of teaching and learning on behalf of leaders is essential if teachers are to be developed and supported to be able to move forward the learning of every student in their care: ‘Leadership focused on teaching, learning, and people is critical to the current and future success of schools.'[15]

… Today, leadership is seen as central and essential to delivering the changes, improvement and performance society increasingly expects of all organisations, including schools. What has become clear, though, is that leadership generally, and educational leadership in particular, is a more contentious, complex, situated and dynamic phenomenon than previously thought.

We now turn to three case studies to illustrate and build upon the above understandings and views on leadership.


Hallinger, P. (2005). Instructional leadership and the school principal: A passing fancy that refuses to fade away. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 4, 221–239.

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[1] Wright, S., Horn, S., & Sanders, W. (1997). Teacher and classroom context effects on student achievement: Implications for teacher evaluation. Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education, 11, 57–67.

[2] Wahlstrom, K., & Seashore Louis, K. (2008). How teachers experience principal leadership: The roles of professional community, trust, efficacy, and shared responsibility. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44(4), 458–495. (p. 459)

[3] Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers. London, England: Routledge. (p. 252)

[4] Dinham, S. (2008). How to get your school moving and improving: An evidence-based approach. Melbourne, Victoria: ACER Press. (p. 15)

[5] Marzano, R., Waters, T., & McNulty, B. (2005). School leadership that works: From research to results. Alexandria: ASCD. (pp. 10–12)

[6] Robinson, V., Lloyd, C., & Rowe, K. (2008). The impact of leadership on student outcomes: An analysis of the differential effects of leadership types. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44, 635–674. (p. 638). Copyright © 2008 by V. Robinson, C. Lloyd and K. Rowe. All text extracts from this article are reprinted by Permission of Sage Publications, Inc.

[7] Hallinger, P. (2005). Instructional leadership and the school principal: A passing fancy that refuses to fade away. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 4, 221–239.

[8] Hallinger, P. (2005). (p. 228)

[9] Robinson, V., Lloyd, C., & Rowe, K. (2008). (p. 639)

[10] See Dinham, S. (1998). Restructuring: The myths, the realities—and survival. The Practising Administrator, 20(3), 4–5, 51.

[11] Dinham, S., & Rowe, K. (2007). Teaching and learning in middle schooling: A review of the literature—A report to the New Zealand Ministry of Education. Melbourne, Victoria: ACER; Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning—A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London, England: Routledge.

[12] Robinson, V., Lloyd, C., & Rowe, K. (2008). (p. 666)

[13] MCEETYA. (2008). Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians. Canberra, Australia: Author.

[14] Barber, M., & Mourshed, M. (2007). How the world's best-performing school systems come out on top. New York, NY: McKinsey & Company. (p. 7)

[15] Barber, M., & Mourshed, M. (2007). (p. 28)

Leading Learning and Teaching, by Stephen Dinham, is published by ACER Press is released on 1 August . To pre-order a copy visit the ACER Bookshop.