Instructional Leadership in Action

Instructional Leadership, Not Evaluation, Will Improve Teaching

by Stephen Fink on Apr 24, 2013

Stephen FinkOur January 2013 newsletter focused on teacher evaluation, which continues to occupy a significant part of the education reform landscape. However, as school leaders become more proficient in the use of new teacher evaluation instruments, their work will have just begun. In other words, being able to rate a teacher’s performance with increased accuracy does nothing (in itself) to actually improve that teacher’s performance. The improvement of teaching practice is a much larger piece of instructional leadership — an important construct that has gained much attention in recent years.

Within education circles it’s commonplace now to hear talk that the quality of teaching is the number one variable impacting student achievement, with the number two variable being the quality of instructional leadership. In fact these are two of our foundational beliefs here at the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership. It certainly makes for a strong theory of action: If we want to improve student learning then we must improve the quality of teaching; and if we want to improve the quality of teaching then we must provide the leadership necessary to build teacher capacity.

With the development of comprehensive instructional frameworks such as the 5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning (5D™), we have clearly addressed what we mean by quality teaching. That still leaves an important question about what we mean by quality instructional leadership.

It’s important to note that by instructional leadership, I am referring to the most critical and salient aspects of a school leader’s daily leadership practices that are most likely to improve teaching effectiveness. I am concerned, however, that those “most critical and salient” aspects are getting lost in the litany of knowledge, skills and attributes that are being adopted as components of principal evaluation.

As states implement new principal evaluation instruments, the sheer number of items for which principals are being held accountable is untenable at best. At worst, these myriad accountability items may obscure and weaken the more critical aspects of instructional leadership.

I agree that the successful school principal must be able to know and do a wide range of things. However, we must be realistic about the daily life of a school principal, and put extra weight on those leadership actions that are most likely going to improve teaching effectiveness.

This more focused view of instructional leadership was at the forefront of a Principal Leadership Knowledge Development Project that our CEL team led in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Working closely with Foundation program officers, we studied seven school districts and four charter management organizations comprising the Foundation’s partnership to “Empower Effective Teaching.” Specifically we were looking at how districts and CMOs were supporting principals’ instructional leadership.

Three specific action areas were identified in the course of this project. The full report with those action areas is an important read for those interested in principal instructional leadership.

However, it’s noteworthy here to highlight Action Area I: Clarify the principal’s role as an instructional leader by specifying the high-impact practices for which principals will be accountable. This action area grew out of the following recognition. Before a school district can put the necessary policies, processes and structures in place to support principal instructional leadership, district leaders first have to develop with principals a shared understanding of what they mean by instructional leadership.

The reason this action area is first, is that it makes little sense for school districts to formulate a plan for supporting principal instructional leadership when there isn’t a definition and shared vision for what that leadership should look like in the ideal.

While we saw some good examples of districts and CMOs putting a stake in the ground over a smaller number of high-impact instructional leadership practices, we were surprised that many districts self-assessed that they were busy working to evaluate and support principals without a clear and shared vision of what they meant by instructional leadership. Their evaluation instruments and rubrics tended to contain a broad and unweighted array of knowledge, skills and attributes that did little to acknowledge the highest-impact leadership practices.

In fact, this lack of definition was part of the impetus for CEL to develop its own vision for instructional leadership. CEL’s 4 Dimensions of Instructional Leadership framework grew out of a review of the research literature as well as countless hours of conversation among our field staff and district partners.

Just like with our 5D instructional framework, we don’t contend that the 4D leadership framework is the only useful model of high-impact leadership practices. In fact, our learning from the Gates Foundation knowledge-development project is that the actual working definition of instructional leadership may be less important than developing a shared vision (whatever that vision may be), along with developing the internal clarity and ability to operationalize support in service of that vision.

Having a clear and shared picture of high-impact leadership practices will allow a district to create concomitant leadership expectations and marshal its resources to support the development of those practices. Conversely, a lack of clarity likely will result in a diffuse and disconnected set of district initiatives that does little to improve teaching practice — regardless of what principal evaluation instrument is in place.

In that spirit I invite district and school leaders to examine closely the extent to which you have a clear and compelling picture of instructional leadership; the extent to which there is internal clarity around that vision; and the extent to which the district has operationalized that vision in its policies, district practices and allocation of resources. This is where the teaching improvement process begins. Even a well-implemented teacher evaluation system can only identify the level of teaching performance. It’s instructional leadership that will, in the end, improve that performance.


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Topics: School Leadership, Teaching Effectiveness, Teacher Evaluation

About the author: 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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