How do principals really improve schools?

by Rick Dufour and Mike Mattos


This article from Educational Leadership is set in a US context, but it has relevance for New Zealand schools, and references research by New Zealanders.

At the start of the article DuFour and Mattos focus on issues particular to the US system in terms of what might “improve a school”, including whether principal “observations” of classroom practice have any value.

The area of most interest in the article begins with the section called The Case for the PLC Process. This part focuses on research that shows how creating an effective culture of collaborative learning between teachers within a school (professional learning community) has the most impact on improving student learning. The authors say that high performing schools throughout the world use PLCs to support the teachers to collaborate in ways that allow them to respond effectively to student learning needs. Dufour and Mattos reference Helen Timperley’s conclusions (2006) to support them in this. Without using the term, it is clear that they are describing the kind of culture of inquiry that many schools in New Zealand have embraced in recent years.

Five key steps are offered to establishing successful PLCs:

  • concentrate on the fundamental purpose of the school ensuring that all students learn at high levels and that teachers use all their practices to bring this about
  • organise teachers into collaborative teams that take collective responsibility for student learning
  • call on the teams to clarify the essential learning for all students, including guidelines, common assessments, and to monitor students learning at the end of the unit
  • use the evidence to identify students who need additional time and support to become proficient, the students who need enrichment and extension, teachers who help students achieve so that their practice can be examined, teachers who struggle so that they can be assisted, and external help that might be brought in to assist
  • create a coordinated, systematic intervention plan for the students who struggle.

Ongoing, collective analysis of learning is more likely to improve teaching practice than anything else a principal or senior teacher does, the authors say. The PLC process also promotes shared leadership by empowering the team of teachers to make the important decisions, and giving them a voice in determining what and how they teach.

The article has an excellent reference list for further reading.

Reflective questions

  • With senior staff discuss what you do now to help your staff improve their teaching and with which staff do you miss the mark? How might a focused push to establish PLCs help your school improve overall pedagogical practice?
  • What external help would you need to do this? Consider who would be best to assist you and your teachers. What would you need to explain to them first and what questions would you need to ask them about how they work and what their end results would be?
  • What systematic, intervention plan would you incorporate with your system of PLCs to ensure that students or teachers who struggle receive additional time and support for their learning/teaching?


DuFour, R. and Mattos M. How Do Principals Really Improve Schools? Educational Leadership. April 2013. Vol.70. No.7. The Principalship pp 34–40.

Tags: Collaborative practice

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