Instructional Leadership in Action

Stephen Fink

Dr. Stephen Fink is affiliate professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the University of Washington College of Education. He served as the founding executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) from 2001 to 2018. Dr. Fink is co-author of Leading for Instructional Improvement: How Successful Leaders Develop Teaching and Learning Expertise.
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Recent Posts

CEL is Partner and 'Critical Friend' to Transforming District

by Stephen Fink Mar 9, 2012

System-wide change in an education system is not easy, and it is not fast. Ginger Shattuck, who worked with the Center for Educational Leadership in a long-term comprehensive partnership aimed at boosting literacy in her underperforming district, describes the transformation as “evolutionary, not revolutionary.”

“We understood from the beginning that there would be no quick fixes, no magic bullets,” says Shattuck, who was superintendent of the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District when it signed a multi-year contract with CEL in 2004 aimed at building a new vision, language, and mission for powerful, equitable classroom instruction.

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Connecting Common Core Standards with Instructional Improvement

by Stephen Fink Oct 26, 2011

With so much of the nation’s attention caught up in partisan and intra-partisan arguing and brinksmanship, it is rare these days to find widely shared agreement on any national issue. But amidst the seemingly intractable political divisions, I have been heartened by the broad support at both the state and national levels for the adoption of the Common Core State Standards for education. Not since the time of Sputnik have such diverse political and popular wills rallied behind a shared nationwide vision of educational attainment.

It should come as no surprise that here at the Center for Educational Leadership we support the adoption of the Common Core State Standards. This state-led initiative was developed in partnership with teachers, administrators and experts, with feedback provided by national organizations including those representing civil rights groups, English language learners, and students with disabilities. The evidence-based standards define a clear and consistent K-12 learning framework for preparing students — regardless of where they live — for success after high school, whether their next step is college or a career.

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Principal Accountability Begins with Developing Expertise

by Stephen Fink May 24, 2011

Two foundational ideas guide our work at the Center for Educational Leadership.  First, we believe that quality teaching matters: if students are not learning, they are not being afforded powerful learning opportunities. Second, quality instructional leadership matters:  if teachers do not afford students powerful learning opportunities, this is ultimately an issue for school leaders.   

The key question is this: How do we know what quality teaching and quality leadership look like?  Earlier in the year, we focused our newsletter on teacher evaluation. This newsletter edition will focus on what we are learning about principal evaluation and effectiveness.

It is important to state our belief that in the spirit of reciprocal accountability a quality evaluation system must embody the concept that if we are going to hold you accountable for something, we have an equal and commensurate responsibility to ensure you know how to do what we are asking of you. In short, district central office leaders have a responsibility to develop principals’ instructional leadership capacity before holding them accountable for the quality of their leadership. As with high-quality teaching, high-quality instructional leadership requires a deep body of expertise.  

We think of this expertise in two parts:

  1. The extent to which principals have a shared vision and deep understanding of high-quality teaching is the extent to which they can lead for instructional improvement. The corollary here is that leaders cannot lead what they don’t know.
  2. The extent to which principals learn how to seize upon their emerging understanding of quality teaching to differentiate support to teachers and  orchestrate teachers’ professional learning is the extent to which they can help teachers improve their practice.

We know that successful principals must draw on a wide range of knowledge, skills, and attributes that include both instructional leadership and management. With respect to instructional leadership, we hope that any evaluation system addresses the following:

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Increasing Achievement for All Students: Linking Central Office Practices to School Improvement

by Stephen Fink Feb 18, 2011

Some may wonder why we would dedicate an entire newsletter to central office transformation.  For one, given the recent draconian budget cuts that have descended on public education from coast to coast, many central offices have been gutted to the point that meaningful support to school principals and teachers seems next to impossible.  And there are many in our ranks who believe central offices add no value whatsoever to improving educational outcomes for students.  However, decades of school reform research “has shown that school improvements tend not to deepen at single schools or spread across schools without substantial support from district central offices,” as Mike Copland and Meredith Honig, University of Washington researchers, point out in their recent Education Week commentary, “Don’t Cut Out the Center.” The bottom line is this: If we are serious about eliminating long-standing academic achievement gaps and improving learning for all students, we cannot ignore the critical role of school district central offices in improving educational outcomes for all students.

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Tying Teacher Evaluation to Improved Instructional Expertise

by Stephen Fink Nov 22, 2010

As I listen to the national education conversation, recently heightened and hyped by the movie Waiting for Superman, I am troubled that the current conversation has set up a false dichotomy that obscures the deeper challenges associated with improving the quality of teaching for every student.  The current conversation suggests that if we can just find a way to get rid of those bad teachers in our ranks, and reward those good teachers, then all will be well with the world.  This false dichotomy obscures the more fundamental reality which is that there are very few completely ineffective teachers and conversely very few completely effective teachers.  With this month’s newsletter theme of teacher evaluation, I want to focus my message on the larger national education conversation that has spawned, among other things, the effort to overhaul teacher evaluation and accountability systems. 

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Building Capacity in the Face of Urgency

by Stephen Fink Aug 19, 2010

Earlier this summer I was interviewed by a Seattle Times newspaper reporter who was writing a story about the Seattle Schools Superintendent who just completed her second full year on the job.  The school board was discussing a contract extension, and as you can imagine there were plenty of proponents and opponents for an extension.  I happened to be one of those proponents based first on my close understanding of the challenges she faced when she entered the job, the tough decisions she has made over the last two years, and the leadership direction of the district which is now rooted in the theory that in order to improve student learning we need most to improve the quality of teaching and leadership.

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Reflections on National Developments in Education

by Stephen Fink May 22, 2010

As I reflect on important national developments in education over the course of this current school year I have conflicting pictures in my mind.  I see these important developments with a picture of hope on the one hand and worry on the other.  In this message I will tackle two particularly important developments.

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Fishing Blindly for Quality Teaching

by Stephen Fink Dec 1, 2009

What lessons can we learn from fishing as it applies to instructional leadership? CEL’s Executive Director, Dr. Stephen Fink, shares his thoughts in the November 2009 issue of The School Administrator magazine, published by the American Association of School Administrators. 

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Developing Our Stamina for Learning

by Stephen Fink Nov 9, 2009

One big piece of my learning over the years has been that working with adult learners is really no different than working with young learners.   I used to believe that adults who worked hard to earn degrees and credentials for their chosen profession would be interested and excited about their own continued learning, and would have the stamina to engage in deep cycles of learning that demand time and attention.  The truth of the matter is that adults -- like our young learners -- need to see that the purpose of their learning is meaningful and relevant beyond the task at hand, and need to be engaged in the learning process in order to make meaning of new concepts and ideas.  And just as important as it is for our young learners to develop stamina for learning, so too is it important for our adult learners.  I have learned that we cannot take stamina for granted.

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What does the health care debate have to do with education?

by Stephen Fink Sep 23, 2009

Now that Congress is back from their summer break, fresh with input from their local constituents, they are continuing their effort to shape fundamental health care reform. Did you get to see or hear the “discourse” that transpired at local town hall meetings?  In too many cases it was a disgraceful display of boorish behavior that resembled anything but the kind of civil discourse our forefathers had in mind when they crafted the Constitution.  And what does the health care debate have to do with education?  Lots!!

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