School leadership BES - a guide

A presentation from Professor Viviane Robinson on the synthesis approach and the leadership dimensions and leadership expertise identified through it.

School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying What Works and Why: Best Evidence Synthesis (2009)

Professor Viviane Robinson and Dr Margie Hohepa at the University of Auckland were lead writers for this synthesis of effective leadership practices. They examined 134 New Zealand and overseas research studies or reviews.

The big finding of the leadership BES is that when school leaders promote and/or participate in effective teacher professional learning this has twice the impact on student outcomes across a school than any other leadership activity. 


The first thing to notice is that it talks about looking at leadership from the point of view of making links between leadership and student outcomes – a range of important student outcomes. So what do we know about how leadership makes a difference to students, which is after all why you’re in this job. Those are critically important questions, but they’re not directly relevant to this BES, because that is the pervasive focus – about the links to learner outcomes.

It talks about leadership not principalship, so there’s work in here for policy makers as well as for leaders like yourselves about how we re-shape our system and re-shape our own role and our own use of time so that we’re smarter at focusing on what matters.

The first thing to know is is that this BES is not original research. It is a synthesis of all the existing published evidence that addresses that initial question. [Alright?] So it is a knowledge building exercise.

We talk about what works in practice, and you go to one particular study and then you go to another study that says exactly the opposite. [Right?] OK, well that’s the problem with just going to one study, or another study, or another study, because our field in education is so complex that you will always have contradictory findings.

So what we did was what’s called a meta-analysis – that’s why we needed the statistical consultants, 'cos a fancy way of bringing quantitative data together – of those thirty studies that had measured leadership and some type of student outcome.

Five leadership practices

And what we did is we got really fine grained about it and said what do these studies tell us about the impact of different types of leadership practice. And, that analysis gave us five different types of leadership practice where we knew something about the relationship between those five types of practice and student outcomes. Because that’s what’d been studied. [OK?] It’s always got to be that caveat. If there were different studies done perhaps some of this would change. Although, overall, if we look across the world in the field of leadership, it’s pretty consistent, across.

Because you set goals [there’s a story there], you set goals, then you resource those goals with expertise, time, money. Those goals often require you to get closer and look at the type of leadership in your school around curriculum, assessment and teaching including evaluation and use of evidence. And then, in doing that, you discover as we all do that there’s a whole lot of gaps in the capabilities of yourself and your teachers and you’re not going to achieve those goals unless those gaps are addressed. So then you get deeply involved in number 4 and all of that helps build 5, which is people feeling better about themselves and each other – although in some cases, you may start there as well. So does that give more of an interactive story?

Engaging the community

There’s got to be something in this leadership BES about leading and engaging the community. But we don’t know anything in an evidence-based way about the type of leadership that works. But what we do know is that leaders spend a huge amount of effort trying to engage their communities and we do have a jolly good evidence base about the type of community partnership work that delivers for students and doesn’t.

And we’ve summarised all that evidence for you in chapter 7 and this is the graph of the effects of it. So we’ve got an effect size of up to point 2 for certain types of community engagement. Huge effects. And look at these negative affects for some other types of community engagement. So we can actually do harm by certain sorts of community engagement.

Let me just point out one or two features. Parent and teaching interventions where both parents and teachers work together on let’s say a homework programme or a reading programme and learn from each other can have really powerful effects – and that’s the bit of reading together programmes that’s happening in some schools.

Teacher-designed interactive homework with parents has positive affects, but contrast that with this: homework surveillance by parents – with parents particularly of secondary students trying to act as teachers – produces negative effects because it creates tension and stress. And, parents helping with homework, trying to behave like teachers.

So you can just see that there are ways of getting this right and ways of getting this wrong. [And] that chapter we hope is an easy guide to how to engage parents and families through the right sorts of homework, the rights sorts of reading programmes, the right sorts of engagement with the culture of the family in the community and the culture of the school, and those two things coming together and learning from each other.

Leadership capabilities

Now having answered that question about what are the types of leadership that make more or less difference for learners, the next question we asked was what do leaders need to be able to know and do to confidently engage in those practices.

And far from having a long list of leadership skills, I think there are three important leadership capabilities – but of course within these 3 there’s a complex set of knowledge, skills and dispositions. And these 3 are also interconnected.

The first is building relational trust which is that you don’t achieve much on your own; you have to engage others in the work. This is not about having good relationships with staff, per se. There is a lot of evidence that there’s millions of ways that you can have good relationships with staff that don’t deliver for learners.

There’s quite interesting evidence about the fact that leaders differ in their expertise in complex problem solving. [And] complex problem solving is for me all about context. If you’re going to introduce difference sorts of goal setting in your senior management team or your staff you have to take a whole lot of things into account that are specific to your school, like the history of goal setting in the past, their attitudes towards data, the trust that they’re going to be punished if they don’t achieve the goals, the fact that they can’t agree on what the important goals are, etc. Those are all the things you need to take into account while trying to advance the issue of goal setting. That is a process of solving complex problems.

So if you ask me, what about context? Context is that. For every decision you have to make, you have to take different conditions into account and those conditions constitute the context for that decision. Your context is not ‘I am a high school in Canterbury’. That’s a generalised abstract context that’s not doing any decision-making work. The decision-making work is how that translates out into things that you have to take into account and that’s a problem solving process.

We are increasingly, in the educational leadership field, recognising the expertise that is needed to do this work, and the days of saying that running a business is the same as running a school is I hope over.

The knowledge base of our work is brain surgery and we underestimate it at our peril, especially given the ambitiousness of our national goals, because there isn’t one country in the OECD that has met those goals. They’ve all set them but none of them have met them. Why? Because it’s incredibly hard work. We know how to do it in pockets of providing equitable outcomes we don’t know how to do it at scale.

One of the difficulties, not entirely, but one of the difficulties, is the fact that we need to deepen teachers' knowledge of how to teach students who do not come to school with the ability to teach themselves. Which is what we’ve been coasting on a lot sometimes in our schools, where the key opportunity to learn academic school knowledge is school and it’s those children where the knowledge base has to be much deeper for our teachers.

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