Instructional Leadership Study


In increasingly common currency is the idea that effective school principals, in addition to being managers and disciplinarians, must be instructional leaders of their schools — that is, they should convey to their staff members a common vision of what good instruction looks like, provide teachers with the resources and supports they need to be effective in the classroom, and monitor the performance of teachers and students. In theory, special training can help equip principals to perform their instructional leadership role more effectively. In addition, training for those who supervise principals — in most school districts of any size, administrators who occupy intermediate positions in the district hierarchy between the superintendent and school-level leaders — can also ensure stronger instructional leadership.

For some time now, the Institute for Learning (IFL) at the University of Pittsburgh has been working with school districts to improve the instructional leadership capacities of principals and their intermediary supervisors. MDRC worked with IFL to study the effects of these training efforts on leaders’ actions, on teaching practices, and on student outcomes.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

Although the term “instructional leadership” is widely used, researchers have only just begun to specify what good instructional leaders actually do. Nor has there been much study of how leaders’ actions flow through a social and organizational system to create learning opportunities for students. The Instructional Leadership Study was designed to fill these gaps in our understanding.

The study addressed the following questions:

  • What are the roles, functions, and specific instructional leadership actions of intermediary supervisors and principals?
  • Do these correspond with the leadership behaviors that IFL has hypothesized to be effective in improving classroom instruction and student outcomes?
  • How are the actions of educational leaders linked to teachers’ instructional practices and to student achievement? Specifically, do schools with leaders who demonstrate more leadership actions of the type promoted by IFL experience greater improvements in student achievement over time than schools whose leaders exhibit fewer of these actions?

The study’s findings are intended to provide guidance to district and school leaders about how they can act effectively to improve teaching and learning.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The study attaches quantitative measures to a theory about how change occurs in schools and about the centrality of principal leadership to that change. The theory holds that principals, by receiving professional development about high-quality instruction and about how they can train and motivate their teachers, can turn that knowledge around by organizing formal and informal professional development for teachers in their schools. The theory further holds that teachers’ receipt of professional development will result in better instructional practices in classrooms and that these will lead to higher student achievement. To test this theory, the researchers created quantitative measures of principal professional development and leadership behaviors, instructional practice, and student outcomes and then measured the correlations between the steps in the theory.

The study was undertaken in three urban districts — Austin, Texas; Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Region 10 of New York City (an area that includes Central Harlem and Washington Heights). These districts have large proportions of disadvantaged, minority, and low-performing students and partnered with IFL to put in place major instructional leadership efforts. Across the three districts, 49 schools — primarily schools with a history of low student achievement and located in low-income communities — participated in the study.

The study employed a variety of data sources. Surveys of principals, and teachers, complemented by qualitative research at selected case study schools, constituted the key source of data on leadership behaviors. Classroom observations as well as surveys provided information on teachers’ instructional practices. And student scores on standardized tests, available from records maintained by the districts, served as measures of student achievement.