Many educational studies report that teachers have the greatest effect on student learning. Race, gender, socioeconomics, technology, and school leadership all play a part, but it is still the individual teacher that makes the greatest difference. So what can school leaders do to increase learning in schools if the apparent champions at the end of the day appear to be the teachers, not the principal? To what extent is student learning increased because of the PD agenda of the school leader? This meta-analysis analyzed 72 studies on aspects of educational leadership and student learning. The authors created 23 headings of leadership that had a positive effect on student learning and refined the findings down to five main categories. Below is my paraphrasing of the authors’ findings:

1. Providing educational direction and goal setting: “Constructive discontent” pushes transformational educators to always look for ways to improve and push themselves beyond their comfort level. This mentality is not a blind acceptance of new for the sake of new, but rather a willingness to dig in and rethink issues and techniques for the sake of increasing student learning.

2. Ensuring strategic alignment: The main idea here is that if money is spent, it should be aligned with a clear learning objective rather than just spending to spend. This could also be called capital investment in the organization: spending money on the things that will cause the educational value of the school to expand and perpetuate beyond the immediate.

3. Creating a community for improved student success: This category considers exactly what teacher learning has an effect on student learning. The authors identified two valuable qualities in this area: Assessment and accountability. School leadership should emphasize variety in assessments and then encourage teachers to modify their teaching strategies based on the outcomes of the assessments. On accountability, leadership must foster an atmosphere of non-autonomy through collective responsibility. In other words, learning environments with too much “professional autonomy” are not beneficial to student learning.

4. Engaging in constructive problem talk: This factor involves the willingness of leaders to identify challenges, discuss them openly with teachers, and call for personal commitment to change rather than allowing defensiveness. Leaders can foster change by exposing a problem and offering a solution, exposing a problem and asking others to help solve it, or by asking others to expose problems and suggest solutions. The point is that leadership cannot hide from problems or neglect their duty to deal with them, even if it makes teachers uncomfortable. The goal is to improve student learning, even at the expense of leader and teacher feelings.

5. Selecting and developing smart tools: There’s no replacement for vis-a-vis relationships. However, the leader cannot possibly handle every situation, expectation, and conversation face-to-face. The leader needs to have a focus on providing resources from whiteboards to software so that his/her expectations can be met independent of his/her physical presence. Whether it’s classroom comfort or data collection, the resources the school provides need to emphasize leadership’s goals for increasing learning.

Leadership in any environment is delicate, and educational leadership is no exception. Being in charge of the goal of a school, student learning, is a formidable task. This article reinforced the truism that the best investment a leader can make is to invest in his people yet to do so in ways that will accomplish the group goal of increasing learning. While there are many good ways to develop professionals, there are several ways that are better than others.

Robinson, V. M., & Timperley, H. S. (2007). The leadership of the improvement teaching and learning: Lessons from initiatives with positive outcomes for students. Australian Journal of Education, 51(3), 247-262.