Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency

Research & Theory

Research and theory used to formulate the conceptual framework of the Iowa Principal Leadership Academy

“I believe that we have only just begun the process of discovering and inventing the new organizational forms that will inhabit the twenty-first century.  To be responsible inventors and discoverers, though, we need the courage to let go of the old world, to relinquish most of what we have cherished, and to abandon our interpretations about what does and doesn’t work.”

Leadership and the New Science, Wheatley (1992)


For at least the past two decades, education has been the subject of increased public scrutiny and debate. Conventional wisdom about the appropriate role of education within the economic, political, and social fabric of society is continuously questioned and challenged. Attempting to reconcile rapidly changing policy perspectives with the “sacred norms” of school practice has become the bane of educational leaders (Jacobson, 1996).

A substantial amount of research, papers, books, and articles exist on the need for the kind of reform that creates the conditions for quality schooling, quality organizations, and quality leadership. Reform is the key word, and Margaret Wheatley, other researchers, policy makers, state departments of education, government, business and organizational leaders both in and out of education have recognized the need for change and suggested a variety of reform measures. There appears to be general agreement that organizations do not work well, that powerful new ideas are not absorbed systematically, and although the idea for continuous improvement might consume organizational thought, it rarely makes it beyond a superficial level.

This reform movement began when the National Commission on Excellence in Education published the1983 study of A Nation at Risk. Business, political, and educational leaders agreed that something was terribly wrong with the American system of public education. To improve education, the Commission recommended simplistic ways to reform the system:

Transformational Research – The Theory of Loose Coupling

The research that began to transform the thinking of the IPLA Advisory Board and to clarify the direction of the IPLA program, was a position paper written by Dr. Richard Elmore, Professor of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, and Senior Research Fellow for the Consortium for Policy Research in Education.  In his paper, written for the Albert Shanker Institute, Building a New Structure for School Leadership (2000), Elmore described the “system of ‘loose coupling’ prevalent in American education today that is creating the conditions that if continued will insure that reform will fail massively and visibly with serious consequences for public education.”  Elmore cited equally strong research as he advanced his theory that the way out of the problem was through large-scale improvement of instruction.  He suggested that although public education had not achieved the large-scale improvement, the improvement could occur through dramatic changes in the way public schools define and practice leadership. Elmore was not the only proponent of the theory that large-scale improvement of instruction must occur.  The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), and the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) also shared this theory.

Local leaders and national leaders opted for a form of organization based on locally centralized school bureaucracy, governed by elected boards under the supervision of administrators whose expertise was thought to lie mainly in their mastery of administrative rather than pedagogical skills (Tyack, 1974; Tyack and Hansot, 1982).  As the number  of public schools grew and compulsory attendance was required, this institutional structure prevailed, growing more elaborate and rigid while continuing to insist that local communities have direct control over schools.  By the 1960’s and 1970’s, analysts of the structure had converged on a model that came to be called “loose coupling.”  (Weick, 1976; Rowan, 1990; Meyer and Rowan, 1992).  This institutional sociology posits that the technical core of education, e.g. detailed decisions about what should be taught at any given time, how it should be taught, what students should be expected to learn, how they should be grouped for purposes of instruction, what they should be required to do to demonstrate their knowledge, and perhaps most importantly, how their learning should be evaluated resides in individual classrooms, not in the organizations that surround them (Elmore, 2000).

Administration in education, then, has come to mean not the management of instruction but the management of the structures and processes around instruction.  That which cannot be directly managed must, in this view, be protected from external scrutiny.  Therefore, administrators are charged with protecting teachers from outside intrusions in their highly uncertain and murky work, and with creating the appearance of rational management of the “technical core,” so as to allay the uncertainties of the public about the actual quality or legitimacy of what is happening in this technical core.  Local board members, system-level administrators, and school administrators perform the ritualistic tasks of organizing, budgeting, managing, and dealing with disruptions inside and outside the system, all in the name of creating and maintaining public confidence in the institutions of public education.  Teachers, working in isolated classrooms, under highly uncertain conditions, manage the technical core.  This division of labor has been amazingly constant over the past century (Elmore, 2000).  In fact, the educational change literature encourages respect for the autonomy of teaching and the mystery of its fundamental practices perpetrating the very practices that have kept schools all over America and in Iowa from successful implementation of new and improved instructional strategies, including the implementation of standards and benchmarks.  Volunteerism (the actions or lack of actions determined solely by each teacher), as the literature suggests, is the only way to improve practice in an organization in which administrators do not manage the core.  Therefore, volunteerism leads to innovations that are highly correlated to personal values or predispositions of individuals, and hence, tend to be adopted only by a small proportion of receptive teachers.  Schools are almost always aboil with some kind of “change,” but are only rarely involved in any deliberate process of improvement, where progress is measured against a clearly specified instructional goal (Elmore, 2000).

In A Framework for School Leaders:  Linking the ISLLC Standards to Practice, Hassel and Holloway (2002) describe what was needed to reverse the system of volunteerism and loose coupling was the “development of the framework (ISLLC) Standards for school leaders organized around the core proposition that the most critical aspect of a school leader’s work is the continuous improvement of student learning.”  Elmore in 2000 said that volunteerism is consequently no longer appropriate when progress is measured against clearly specified instructional goals.  All of the other multiple tasks and activities are in the service of that core responsibility.  Providing leadership and vision, marshalling the talents and experience of the professional staff and volunteers, managing budgets, coordinating schedules, and keeping the building in good repair.  All of these support the primary function of the school which is high level student learning.  Furthermore, the ISLLC Standards “marry leadership to learning, management with measurement of academic growth, and stewardship to the development of productive learning communities” (Hassel and Holoway, 2002).

Loose coupling also explains the unsuccessful quest over the past century for school administrators who are “instructional leaders.”  Most credential programs purport, at least in part, to be in the business of preparing instructional leaders.  The fact is, direct involvement in instruction is among the least frequent activity performed by administrators of any kind at any level, and those who do engage in instructional leadership activities on a consistent basis are a relatively small proportion of the total administrative force (Murphy, 1990; Cuban, 1988).  School leaders are hired and retained largely on their capacity to buffer teachers from outside interference and their capacity to support the prevailing logic of confidence between a school system and its constituencies.  School principals who chose to be instructional leaders, do so because of their personal preferences and values, often at some personal cost to their own careers, not because they are expected to do so as a condition of their work (Elmore, 2000). Consequently, it is not difficult to understand why standards-based reform creates fundamental problems for public schools.  These problems are most likely not solved by merely tinkering with the existing institutional structure.  Standards-based reform is generally greeted with dismay and disbelief by experienced educators, who are battle-worn veterans of past educational reform campaigns.  The logic of standards-based reform is fundamentally at odds with the logic of loose coupling as it cannot be successful with volunteerism or with every district doing what it  determines is right for kids (Elmore, 2000).

The scars “loose coupling” carved on reform in Iowa

Iowa, with its strong system of loose coupling, discovered that districts found it difficult to bend standards-based reform into their current structures.  Most Iowa districts have a standards-referenced system, which means the curriculum is loosely aligned with the standards.  The message is simple:  standards are “somewhat” important and what students must learn is “somewhat” central to their success.  Robert Marzano and John Kendall, from the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL), completed multiple studies on schools that are standards-based and schools that are standards-referenced.  Those schools in which classrooms are required to report student progress on the standards show significant gains in student achievement.  When rigorously taught and assessed, content standards carry the explicit message that students should learn at specified levels in all subject areas and that teachers, classrooms, and schools are accountable for what student learn.

It is not surprising that postsecondary institutions, PK-12 districts, teachers, and administrators who fully incorporate the norms and values of our loose coupling system discovered that standards-based reform totally challenges the current system.  Arguments exist that a standards-based system removes the freedom of content away from the teacher and replaces it with bureaucracy and policy controls.  Within a standards-referenced system teachers, principals, superintendents, boards and community members assign the cause of poor student achievement to weak family structures, little support from home, poverty, discrimination, lack of aptitude, peer pressure, diet, television, etc.  In the standards-based system the responsibility of student achievement rests solely with the school.

In Iowa, as in many other states, standards-based reform undermined a basic premise of the local governance of education because it identified schools, not districts, as the primary unit of accountability.  Even though state governments choose to be rather indirect about this issue, carefully constructing ways of including local school boards and superintendents in any description of how school accountability works, the stark reality is that little more than a decade ago most states, including Iowa, did not have the capacity to collect, analyze, and report data on individual schools.  As a result of legislative imitative state departments of education must now account for education expenditures that impact student achievement.  As states developed the capacity to collect data on individual schools, each school became the unit of accountability, and remedies and sanctions applied to schools of low performance.  As a result, more direct relationships exist between the Iowa Department of Education and individual schools.  Politics of local boards and administrators increasingly occur under a large, umbrella of state performance accountability requirements.  Over time, it became increasingly difficult to defend dysfunctional local politics in the face of increasing public scrutiny of individual school performance.  Putting schools at the center of accountability has the effect of calling into question the purpose of locally centralized governance and administration (Elmore, 2000).

School accountability will not disappear in Iowa, or elsewhere, because policy makers will be left with the problem of how to account for increasing public expenditures for education without improvement in student achievement.  This is the conundrum in Iowa:  how to determine which is more important, a system of loose coupling (local control) or improvement in student achievement?  It is becoming increasingly evident that if schools are to succeed, each building leader must have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to better support teaching and leaning.  Each building administrator must be an instructional leader.  In the monolith entitled Preparing Leaders for Urban Schools: A vision for the Millennium, a Program for the Present it was stated,

There has never been a better time to develop visionary programs for educational leaders (in California) . . . Administrators should be first and foremost educational leaders. They must, of course, serve administrative and political functions as well, but they must be guided primarily by the improvement of instruction – by the question: ‘How will this improve teaching and learning?’ In this role, they should understand instructional alternatives, including developing approaches such as constructivist and hybrid methods of teaching, and should be able to evaluate all the policies in a school or district in light of their effects on teaching and learning. The Kenneth E. Behring Institute for Educational Improvement (2002)

This is the same in Iowa, as in California; there has never been a better time, as many administrative leaders will retire within the next decade.  Several years ago, many of Iowa local school boards took a first step. On the back of their board name plates was written, “How will this decision affect the children in our schools?”  They just didn’t go far enough.  It needs to read, “How will this decision affect teaching and learning in this building /district and improvement in the instruction of all children?”  Iowa schools, Iowa districts, and Iowa leaders need to change their focus.  This requires a different type of accountability and a change in current practices from building and district administrators, boards, and teachers. Iowa must reject the current loose coupling system and move toward the change that embraces one of the belief statements of the Iowa Principal Leadership Academy:  all Children learn at high levels. This cannot be accomplished with the current principal preparation programs, instead it requires new thinking aligned with current research and best practice.

The theory of quality schooling that results in high levels of student performance for all students

“In Leadership is an Art, Max De Pree notes that ‘the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.’ The time has come for American’s principals to define a new reality for America’s schools, a reality embedded in a belief that all – and al means all – children can learn to high levels. Leadership is not a spectator sport. It is reserved for participants. The time has come to put the principal’s leadership brush to the canvas to paint a vision of what tomorrow’s schools can be. The beauty of the finished canvas – equity and excellence for all children – will truly be a masterpiece.” (Tirozzi, 2001)

The theory of loose coupling is certainly prevalent in Iowa, the next step was to identify the theory and practices that result in quality schools and high levels of student performance for all students.  What is needed in Iowa, as elsewhere, is leaders who produce high levels of student performance. Iowa needs leadership training that embraces research concerning quality schools and quality learning. In the preface of Leadership for Student learning: Reinventing the Principalship (2000), task force members agreed on two things:

First, the top priority of the principalship must be leadership for learning. Second, the principalship as it currently is constructed – a middle management position overloaded with responsibilities for basic building operations – fails to meet this fundamental priority, instead allowing school to drift without any clear vision of leadership for learning or providing principals with the skills needed to meet the challenge.  Task force members agreed that school systems must ‘reinvent the principalship’ to meet the needs of schools in the 21st century.

The real problem, that standards-based reform requires schools and school systems to be accountable for student learning, places demands on Iowa principals.  Many have been educated in traditional programs that lacked training relating to instruction and instructional strategies leading to student achievement.

Research indicates that effective principals make a difference.  According to Exploring the Principal’s Contribution to School Effectiveness: 1980 – 1995, Hallinger and Heck reported after synthesizing 15 years of research on how principals impact their schools that,principals influence school performance by shaping school goals, direction,structure, and organizational and social networks.  Further, successful principal leadership guides the school policies, procedures and practices that contribute directly to student learning.  The Education Research Service concludes in its recent study on principals, ‘Researchers, policy makers, and educational practitioners agree:  good school principals are the keystones of good schools.

Without the principal’s leadership, effort to raise student achievement cannot succeed.  (Institute for Educational Leadership, 2000)

Elmore proposes that five “design principles” must be in place by leadership to stimulate practices that result in large-scale improvement.  These design principles are based on several research studies:  Murphy and Hallinger (1987, 1988) on instructionally effective school districts in California; Spillane (1999) on the district role in implementing mathematics instructional reform; Kapp, Shield, et al. (1995) in their study of high-quality instruction in high-poverty classrooms; Floden, Porter, et al. (1988) on district influences on teacher content decisions; Grissmer and Flanagan (1998) on state-administered performance measures in Texas and North Carolina; Raglan, Asera, et al. (1999) on examination of high-performing Texas school districts with diverse student populations; and Elmore and Burney (1997, 1998) on District #2 and their extraordinary level of stability in leadership.  The Iowa Principal Leadership Academy believes these principles must be part of any principal preparation program in order to significantly impact improvement in student learning.

The Design Principles leaders use to improve instruction which result in high levels of student performance. (Elmore, 2000)

Design Principle 1:  Maintain a tight instructional focus over time

This principle requires that school leaders organize everyone’s actions, at all levels of the system, around an instructional focus that is stable over time.  For example, schools begin with a single instructional area such as literacy, and focus on that area until practice begins to approach a relatively high standard in most classrooms and performance begins to move decisively upward.  Then another focus is added with increased complexity for teachers and principals.  The goal is to teach people in the organization how to think and act around learning for continuous improvement.

Design Principle 2:  Routinize accountability for practice and performance in face-to-face relationships

Using this principle, school leaders create a strong normative environment in which adults take responsibility for the academic performance of children relying more heavily on face-to-face relationships than on bureaucratic routines.  Schools who use this principle and are improving are those who have succeeded in getting people to internalize the expectations of standards-based accountability.  The process is unlearning the behaviors that accompany loose coupling, and learning new behaviors and values that are associated with collective responsibility for teaching practice and student learning.  It is necessary to evaluate performance on the basis of all students, not select groups of students and, above all, not school or grade-level averages.    Everyone’s work is designed primarily in terms of improving the capacity and performance of someone else – system administrators of principals and teachers, principals of teachers, and teachers of students.

Design Principle 3:  Reduce isolation and open practice to direct observation, analysis, and criticism

This principle requires school leaders to provide many opportunities to expose staff to ideas, to argue staff into their own belief systems, to practice behaviors that accompany the values, to observe other staff practicing those behaviors, and most importantly, to gain success at practicing in the presence of others so as to be seen as successful.  It is likely that the daily school routines need to change so that the principal and the staff have time to meet to learn together and to analyze what is working.  Schools must gauge student improvement over time. In order for continuous improvement to occur at every level, time must be scheduled for the principal and staff to meet together in order to improve instruction and teaching practices.

Design Principle 4:  Exercise differential treatment based on performance and capacity, not on volunteerism

Early evidence of low-capacity schools (those with weak collective values) demonstrate certain tendencies and attempt to find the easiest method to solve accountability problems.  These schools tend to:

  • use only current knowledge;      
  • teach to the tests because they have no better idea concerning the improvement of curriculum;
  • focus on students who are close to meeting standards rather than those who need additional help not work collectively to learn new instructional practices;
  • insist that expectations and standards apply to all students (translates into examining assessment data on individuals and avoiding judgments about school performance based on grade-level averages;not use volunteerism as a strategy.

In myth-achieving schools, no one chooses whether they participate or not - participation is a condition of being in the system (Abelmann and Elmore, 1999).  It is not coincidental that most of the current examples of districts that show improvement occur in states with relatively strong standards–based accountability systems in place (Elmore, 2000).  Adults in the organization all frame their responsibilities in terms of their contribution to enhancing someone else’s capacity and performance.  Administrators are routinely engaged in direct observation of practice in schools and they master ways of talking about practice that allow for non-threatening support.  They adjust and adapt the routines of the workplace, i.e. teaching schedules, preparation periods, and substitute allocations. As Anthony Alvarado, former superintendent of District #2 in New York City states, “All discussions are about ‘the work’ and all non-classroom personnel are expected to learn and model the practices they want to see in the classroom.”  (Elmore, 2000) Principals and superintendents are just as subject to evaluation as those they supervise.  Everyone attempts to improve the work.

Design Principle 5: Devolve increased discretion based on practice and performance
This is the principle of “what’s lose and what’s tight.”  (Elmore 1993).  Administrators need to use the different standards for how much discretion they grant to various schools or grade levels in their systems.  These decisions are based on judgments about how well each unit can manage resources in an improvement process.  If there is too much discretion with all units, it virtually guarantees that those who know what do to will get better and those who don’t will stay the same – or get worse. What is really necessary for large-scale improvement is a clear set of expectations and standards of learning that apply to all schools, teachers, and students. Too much discretion allows the system to return to loose coupling.  Instructional practice and student performance must be subject to continuous careful scrutiny.  Improvement then, as seen in Elmore’s work, is a change with direction, sustained over time, that moves entire systems, raising the average level of quality and performance while at the same time decreasing the variation among schools and staff, and engaging people in analysis and understanding of why some actions seem to work and others don’t.

In order to raise student achievement, the Iowa Principal Leadership Academy Design Principles are integrated into each of the activities completed by the aspiring principals and their mentors.  The problem-based themes are centered on learning about, and becoming capable of, programs and practices that allow cohort members to transfer research into the work they will do in their schools.

  • change teacher mediocrity
  • institute longer school days and longer school years
  • provide a “back-to-the-basics” curriculum
  • link teacher pay to top performance

In 1990, Petrie recognized that education had not changed, “These were old style, work ethic solutions which asked educators to do more of the same but do it better and were not capable of meeting the challenge of school improvement.”  The second wave of reforms redefined common assumptions about teachers and teaching, the process of learning, and the context in which these processes occur.  These were captured in such works as Tomorrow’s Teachers (Holmes, 1986) and Teachers for the 21st Century (Carnegie, 1986).  Through this work, and the work of other researchers, policy makers and leading educational organizations rapidly recognized that to meet these challenges, drastic changes needed to occur in the preparation of educational administrators.  Therefore, through the 1990’s, leadership theories, books, and research abounded.  Broader research on management from which education had too long been isolated began, and works on leadership theories became prevalent educational reading (Jacobson, 1996).

Iowa experienced the same problems discussed in the research:  the reluctance to reform; a strong desire to maintain the status quo; training institutions that continue to build programs that develop leaders without the skills, knowledge, or dispositions that result in high levels of student achievement; new accountability legislation based on local control and individual district choice; weak compliance of districts to accountability rules; and leaders who are not inclined to challenge the status quo.  Education needed what Wheatley suggested, i.e., leaders with the “courage to let go of the old world, to relinquish most of what we have cherished, and to abandon our interpretations about what does and doesn’t work.”  What education needs, and what the IPLA Advisory Board subsequently found, is better theory and better research that leads to the deep, systemic changes that better serve schools and students.

Theory of Quality Leadership

The literature on the principalship suggests that principals should embody all the traits and skills that remedy all the defects of the schools in which they work.  The literature suggests principals should be in close touch with their various communities; be masters of human relations; be skilled at remedying all the conflicts and disagreements that arise among students, teachers, and anyone else who choose to create conflict in the school; be respectful of authority, yet crafty at deflecting administrative intrusions in their building that could undermine the autonomy of the teachers.  Principals must also create the perfect learning climate and must keep an orderly school, and on and on.  Somewhere on this list is usually a vague reference to instruction.  But why not focus leadership on instructional improvement and define everything else as necessary to it?  The real dispositions needed by leaders are ones that support instructional improvement in order to substantively improve student achievement.  Again, considering research and best practice, Elmore guided educators to the work of distributive leadership proposed by Spillane and Halverson, and others.  This is the theory that the Iowa Principal Leadership Academy incorporates.

Distributive Leadership:  leadership instrumental to school improvement

The rules have changed.  Being an effective building manager used to be good enough.  For the past century, principals were expected to comply with district-level edicts, address personnel issues, order supplies, balance program budgets, keep hallways and playgrounds safe, put out fires that threatened tranquil public relations, and make sure that busing and meal services were operating smoothly.  Principals still need to do all those things.  But now they must do more. Studies indicate that principals today must also serve as leaders for student learning. (Leadership for Student Learning:  Reinventing the Principalship, 2000).

Interestingly, standards-based reform forces the question of “what kind of leadership?” by making leadership instrumental to improvement.  It requires leadership based on exercising guidance and direction rather than management or control.  There are certain routine organizational functions that require control, i.e., budgeting, bus schedules, and accounting; but one doesn’t control school improvement processes since most of the knowledge required must inevitably reside in those who deliver instruction, not in those that manage.  This is the basis of distributive leadership (Spillane, Halverson, et al., 1999).  In any organized system, competency varies considerably among people in similar roles and among those who specialize or have specific competencies due to their preferences, experiences, and/or knowledge.  Organizing these diverse competencies is the role of the administrator as well as possessing the ability to assess whether or not those persons within the organization possess the knowledge or skill needed.  In a knowledge-intensive enterprise such as teaching and learning, there is no way to perform all these complex tasks without widely distributing the responsibility of leadership among roles in the organization and working at creating a common core of values, symbols, and rituals.  Thus, distributive leadership means that the job of administrative leaders is primarily about enhancing the skills and knowledge of people in the organization, creating a common culture of expectations around the use of those skills and knowledge, holding the various pieces of the organization together productively with each other, and holding individuals accountable for their contributions to the collective results.

This view of leadership is drawn on several strands of research on school improvement.  Rosenholtz, in a 1986 study, observed two distinctive different types of school cultures.  One kind of normative climate, characterized by an emphasis on collaboration and continuous improvement, develops in schools where teacher effort is focused on skill acquisition to achieve specific goals.  Furthermore, Rosenholtz found that seeking or giving collegial advice was a professional action viewed as desirable, necessary, and legitimate.  In schools with norms of autonomy, he found ambiguous goals and no attempt to develop a shared teaching technology. There was no agreement among teachers and principals about the outcomes or the means for reaching them. These schools had highly individualistic teachers and collegial and principal assistance served no useful purpose. They did, though develop profoundly different opportunities for teacher skill acquisition.  Even more startling, the study found that principal collegiality with teachers had no direct effect on school performance unless it was connected to activities focusing on school goals that translated into activities directly related to teaching.  In other words, being a well-loved principal did no mean the school improved.  In fact, “turf-minded” principals unwilling to relinquish control were unable to galvanize staff toward goal-directed endeavors (Elmore 2000).

Gordon Cawelti studied six schools with high percentages of “at-risk” students and high levels of student achievement.  He found five common characteristics.  All six schools had a focus on clear standards and improving results.  Each had a strong principal.  All of the principals kept the activities of staff and students focused on a goal developed and adopted by the school community.  All facilitated the work of others, analyzing what their schools needed most, and provided experiences that galvanized others into action (ERS 2000).

A broad scale study in 1989 of a national sample of high schools by Newmann and Rutter, et al., found that teacher knowledge of each other’s courses and focus on improved practice were the cultural variable in schools that had the strongest relationship to teacher sense of efficacy.  The study indicated that the responsiveness of administrators to problems of practice with help, support, and recognition was most strongly related to teacher perceptions of principal leadership, teacher participation in professional development, or teacher participation in organizational decisions.  None of these, though, changed student achievement unless all were deliberately tied to immediate problems of practice (ERS 2000).

A study by Rowan in 1990 found that participation of teachers in extended roles “fosters higher levels of commitment and satisfaction.”  These roles required teachers to acquire knowledge and to solve problems in groups and networks, as opposed to individually.  He further found that teacher collegiality focused the bulk of interactions on relatively narrow issues such as materials, discipline, and the problems of individual students rather than on the acquisition of new knowledge and skills.  “Teachers reasoned that they talked less about these issues because they already knew much about these subject and because teacher behavior is personal and private.”  This idea was further corroborated in a recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS) study that found when schools reinforced a focus on curriculum and clear expectations about the range of acceptable quality in the delivered curriculum, then a broader range of students learned at higher levels (Schmidt, et al, 1997; Stigler and Heibert, 1999; Wilmore, 2000).

Study after study confirms that principals are the key to high improving schools and distributive leadership is the glue.  According to Elmore, creating a model of distributive leadership consists of two main tasks:  1) describing the ground rules which leaders of various kinds need to follow in order to engage in large scale improvement; and 2) describing how leaders of various kinds in various roles and positions share responsibility in a system of large scale improvement.  Elmore suggests five principles that lay the foundation for a model of distributive leadership focused on large-scale improvement as described.

Principles of Distributive Leadership (Elmore, 2000)

Distributive Leadership Principle 1:  The purpose of leadership is the improvement of instructional practice and performance, regardless of role

Institutional theories of leadership, in the loose coupling mode, stress the role of leaders as buffers of outside interference and as brokers between the school and their clients.  Political theories of group leadership stress the role of leaders as coalition-builders and brokers among diverse interests.  Managerial theories of leadership stress the role of leaders as custodians of the institutions they lead and sources of control.  Cultural theories of leadership stress the role of leaders as manipulators of symbols around which individuals with diverse needs can rally.  None of these theories capture the imperative for improvement since none posits a direct relationship between the work that leaders should do and the core function of the organization.  One can be an adept leader in any one of these types and never touch the instructional core of schools.  If the purpose of leadership is the improvement of teaching practice and performance, then the skills and knowledge that matter are those that bear on the creation of settings for learning focused on clear expectations for instruction.  

Distributive Leadership Principle 2:  Instructional improvement requires continuous learning

Collective learning demands an environment that guides and directs the acquisition of new knowledge about instruction.  Leadership must create conditions that value learning as both an individual and collective good, an environment in which individuals expect to have their personal ideas and practices subjected to the scrutiny of their colleagues, and in which groups expect to have their shared conceptions of practice subjected to the scrutiny of individuals.  Privacy of practice produces isolation; isolation is the enemy of improvement.

Distributive Leadership Principle 3:  Learning requires modeling
Leaders must lead by modeling the values and behavior that represent collective goals.  Role-based theories of leadership wrongly envision leaders who are empowered to ask or to require others to do things they are not willing or able to do.  If learning is the central responsibility of leaders, then they must model the learning they expect of others.

Distributive Leadership Principle 4:  The roles and activities of leadership flow from the expertise required for learning and improvement, not from the formal dictates of the institution

If collective learning is the goal, then improvement requires a relatively complex kind of cooperation among people in diverse roles performing diverse functions.  This kind of cooperation requires understanding that learning grows out of differences in expertise rather than differences in formal authority.

Distributive Leadership Principle 5:  The exercise of authority requires reciprocity of accountability and capacity

All accountability relationships are necessarily reciprocal.  Policy usually states the side of accountability in which a person with formal authority requires another to do something he or she might not otherwise do except in the presence of such a requirement.  Many educators perceive standards in this way as a set of requirements carrying formal legal authority without attending to the circumstances that make the work possible.  This creates expectations that everyone should know what they don’t know and without any preparations.  The chief administrative leaders, superintendents and principals, are accountable for using the resources and authority to guide improvement and for explicitly modeling in their own behavior the learning hey expect of others.  Teachers and professional developers are accountable for developing the new knowledge and skills.

Overall, distributive leadership challenges the conventional roles of policy and administrative leaders in buffering practice from outside interference and using volunteerism as the means to support change.  Distributive leadership is not the norm in Iowa.  The Iowa Principal Leadership Academy intends to prepare aspiring principals with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to practice distributive leadership.

Conditions and challenges of schooling and society in the State of Iowa for which IPLA will prepare school administrators

Iowa is well known for its belief in local control.  Legislators, the Iowa Department of Education, state school-based organizations, local school boards, administrators, teachers, parents, and communities state, with pride, their belief in local control.  This institutional practice of loose coupling explains a great deal about the strengths and weaknesses of the existing structure of public education in Iowa.  It explains why, for example, most innovation in schools, and the most durable innovations, occur only in the structures that surround teaching and learning, and only weakly and idiosyncratically in the actually processes of teaching and learning.  Much of innovation in Iowa is about maintaining confidence between the publics and the schools, not about changing the conditions of teaching and learning for actual teachers and students.  This is not to say that there are leaders who want this to happen, or that the Iowa Department of Education has not put considerable thought and energy into change.

The theory of loose coupling explains why Iowa policy and policy leaders continue to promote structures and to engage in practices that research and best practice suggest are manifestly not productive to the learning of certain students.  Loose coupling also explains why manifestly successful instruction practices that grow out of research or exemplary practice never take root in more than a small proportion of classrooms and schools (Cuban, 1984, 1990; Tyack and Cuban, 1995; Elmore 1996).  Because administrative structures in Iowa exist to buffer the instructional core from disruptions and improvements, and because teaching is isolated work, instructional improvements occur most frequently as a consequence of purely voluntary acts among some consenting teachers and/or teachers and administrators.

In all, some of the current practices in Iowa prevent the changes necessary to substantively improve student achievement.  Current principal preparation programs, although most likely aware of research and best practice, have not altered a great deal in either the courses offered or the format in which course work is delivered.  To substantiate this, a survey of all Northwest Iowa principals was conducted in the spring of 2002, with 102 male and 37 females elementary, middle level, and high school principals responding, representing 92% of those surveyed.  (See Appendix A for complete survey and responses).  Seventy-seven of these principals were trained in traditional Iowa principal preparation programs.  Three had a low degree of satisfaction with their job as principal, and 12 planned to leave the principalship.

What did we learn from the Principal Survey?

Only eight of the 137 principals surveyed considered instructional leadership as an important task and even fewer suggested that instructional leadership was a great learning need to improve personal performance.  As a whole, they resented state mandates and the increasing demands on their time, although their time was basically described as managerial in nature.  They felt inadequate in using data to drive change and in development of comprehensive school improvement planning and implementation, essential to improving student achievement. Answers were inconsistent, i.e., yes, we want to be instructional leaders, and no, we find it the least attractive part of learning.  Although principals put a great deal of importance, time and energy in creating an environment for student learning, they do not connect the need for setting clear goals and creating a school-wide focus for improvement to support student learning.  The principal preparation programs prepared them for management of the organization, school order and discipline, an environment of student learning, and evaluation of program and staff as well as mission and vision.  Noticeably absent was a strong emphasis on instructional leadership and improvement of student achievement –- the basic needs for improvement for all student learning.

They praised all course work with hands-on experiences, less lecturing, strong discussions and collaboration/group work.  They identified theory and textbook work as least effective.  The best courses were taught by practicing principals.  There was strong agreement in their suggestions for improving programs:  mentors, field experiences, and classes taught by current, in the field, experienced principals.

Iowa, like other states in the nation, is facing a leadership crisis. To assure success in raising academic standards and in improving academic achievement, principals need to have different kinds of skills and knowledge.  In a review of current Iowa principal preparation programs, generally only one seminar/course is offered in curriculum and instruction. Troyce Fisher, a member of the IPLA Advisory Board and Executive Director of School Administrators of Iowa, wrote an article, Making Sense of It All, (2002).  In her article she quotes Michael Fullan in his latest book, Leading in a Culture of Change, that when  “tough times hit, we begin to look for the wrong kind of leadership.”  Quoting Heifetz he says, “in a crisis we call for someone who can make hard problems simple.  Instead of looking for saviors, we should be calling for leadership that will challenge us to face problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions – problems that require us to learn in new ways.”

The Iowa Principal Leadership Academy design is based on research, theory, and best practice.  The design calls us to produce educational leaders that are not saviors but ones who can face problems that require us to learn in new ways.  The philosophy section provides an overview of the IPLA program features that successfully meet the vision and mission of the IPLA and reinvents the way aspiring principals are trained in Iowa.  It is a problem-based approach that insists that these new leaders become capable of facing the tough issues that confront us today.  It builds the kind of leaders Iowa needs and its children deserve.

Review of Literature 2006

In The Educational Forum, Winter 2005, Elmore describes the dimensions of accountable leadership.  Richard Elmore, professor of educational leadership at Harvard University, is the Director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, a group of universities engaged in research on state and local education policy.  He states that there are good reasons that leaders are often discouraged by changes in their working conditions, due to performance-based accountabilities.  Principals are asked to do things they do not know how to do.  This is probably due to the fact that Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College, Columbia University, stated, “the majority of [educational administration] programs range from inadequate to appalling, even at some of the country’s leading universities.” (Hess and Kelly, 2005)

Due to No Child Left Behind legislation passed in 2001, schools are now accountable for student learning.  No less than 63 percent of superintendents report that raising student achievement is the biggest part of a principal’s evaluation (Hess & Kelly, 2005).  However, only 6 to 7 percent of all of all class sessions in a 2004 study of 56 of the 496 education-administration program in the United States deal with accountability, data, research, or technology as management tools.  “Contemporary education leadership requires that principals have a familiarity with data and research,” (Hess & Kelly, 2005).  There is also little evidence that principal preparation programs are including writings by star thinkers in the world of business management.  Principals are encountering only a limited body of thought.  Hess & Kelly conclude that there is a narrow-mindedness of today’s instructional focus.  Candidates are trained for the traditional, pinched world of leadership.

Preparation programs seem particularly unprepared to help principals tackle the challenges of leading new schools, running charter schools, or operating in a changing policy environment.  Programs are training principals to do the things they have traditionally been empowered to do – monitor curricula, support and encourage faculty, manage facilities, and so on—but do little to equip them to take advantage of tools newly available to school leaders.    Hess & Kelly, 2005

According to L. Lashway (2003), Elmore believes that distributed leadership plays a role in generating instructional improvement.  Instructional improvement is now the measure of leadership success.  The instructional process must be guided, rather than controlled by administrators.  All the leadership must be organized around a common task and shared common values.  Creating this unity is the principal’s core responsibility.

Elmore (2005) gives four basic tenets for a model of accountable leadership practice:

  1. accountable leadership focuses on the development of internal accountability
  2. accountable leadership stresses the importance of agency – individually and collectively
  3. accountable leadership focuses on the technical and social/emotional dimensions of improvement
  4. accountable leadership is distributed leadership

According to Stuart Smith, Associate Director, (ERIC) Clearinghouse on Educational Policy and Management, University of Oregon, in a personal communication on August 15, 2006, regarding distributed leadership and distributive leadership, stated, “I'd assume they mean the same, and ‘distributed’ is the consensus term now.” Marzano, Waters and McNulty (2005) completed 35 years of research and identified 21 leadership responsibilities, that have a statistically significant relationship with student achievement (p. 64).

The Institute of Educational Leadership states that principals are expected to mobilize the entire school community around the goal of improved student performance.  Because principals have not been trained in this new role, and because they are not always supported by their districts, potential principal candidates often view the job as impossible (Lashway, 2002). In 2002, The Iowa Principal Leadership Academy developed its syllabus on current research based on the need for principals to be instructional leaders.  A review of literature in 2006 supports the philosophy of the IPLA program.  Graduates from the program understand the changes that are required from leaders in 2006, however, the traditional schools are not always ready for the new skills and knowledge that these new leaders have.  Therefore, the challenge for graduates of the IPLA program is not how to be accountable leaders, but how, as accountable leaders, they are accepted in traditional schools.

References for the 2006 Review
Elmore, R.F. (2005).  Accountable Leadership The Educational Forum, 69, 134 – 142.
Hess, F.M., & Kelly, A.P. (2005) The Accidental Principal Education next.  The Hoover Institution:  Leland Stanford Junior University.
Institute for Educational Leadership (2000) Leadership for Student Learning: Reinventing the Principalship Washington, DC
Lashway, L. (2002) Rethinking the Principalship Research roundup.  National Association of Elementary School Principals, 18 (3), 2.
Lashway, L. (2003) Distributed Leadership Research roundup.  National Association of Elementary School Principals, 19 (4), 3.
Marzano, R.J.; Waters, T. McNulty, B.A. (2003) School Leadership that works from research to results  Alexandria, VA: ASCD, Aurora, CO: McREL.

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