Good educational leaders are those who make a difference to the learning and wellbeing of their students. Viviane Robinson, distinguished professor at the University of Auckland, says that while this is perhaps an obvious statement, the yardsticks generally used to measure school leaders tend to revolve around how well their school is managed, their popularity with staff and parents, and how innovative they are.
Robinson acknowledges that a well-run school is essential for learning, and that good relationships with staff and parents are important but are not sufficient. She stresses that a preoccupation with innovative or “twenty-first century” approaches do not necessarily indicate effective educational leadership.
Until recently, it has been difficult to ascertain the contribution of leadership to student outcomes. However, research is now starting to show these correlations, which is helping leaders to base their leadership practices on evidence, rather than assumed knowledge.
Robinson uses research to guide leadership practices associated with increasing students’ learning and well-being in her book Student-Centered Leadership, published in 2011. The book talks about five key leadership dimensions, each derived from a meta-analysis of 30 research studies focused on the links between leadership and student outcomes.
Robinson’s book is essentially building on her research from the 2009 Best Evidence Synthesis (BES) iteration School Leadership and Student Outcomes: What works and why and presenting it in an accessible and practical format.
While the dimensions may be familiar to many, Robinson’s book focuses on understanding why each dimension has a strong effect on student outcomes and how to translate into particular school contexts.
“Making a bigger impact requires moving beyond a “general idea” about the importance of these five dimensions, to a more precise understanding of how they work to improve the quality of teaching and learning,” says Robinson.
The five dimensions
The first dimension, establishing goals and expectations, looks at the importance of gaining the ‘buy-in’ from staff, linking goals to values and the current levels of student achievement, and ensuring staff have or can acquire the capabilities needed to achieve the goals. It is about making clear to staff what is important. Without clear goals, warns Robinson, staff effort is dissipated in multiple agendas and conflicting priorities.
The first dimension flows into the second, resourcing strategically. Resources, such as money, time, teaching material and staff expertise, should be strategically allocated in alignment with the key goals.
The third dimension of student-centered leadership involves ensuring the quality of teaching. Robinson says that leadership in this area requires a defensible and shared theory of effective teaching that forms the basis of a coherent teaching programme in which there is collective rather than individual teacher responsibility for student learning and wellbeing. “A powerful difference can be made by teachers and leaders learning together on the job about how to achieve their student learning goals.”
The fourth dimension is all about leading teacher learning and development, and again, should involve a collaborative analysis of what has been taught and what has been learned. Central to this dimension is leaders’ knowledge of the types of professional development that are more and less likely to make an impact on the students of the participating teachers.
The fifth dimension, ensuring a safe and secure environment for both staff and students, provides a foundation for all the rest. It involves the parents and wider community to gain a better understanding of parents’ aspirations for their children and empathy for the conditions under which they may be trying to realise them.
Robinson’s book introduces three interrelated capabilities needed to help put the dimensions into action in a particular school context: (1) using deep knowledge of teaching and learning to (2) solve complex school-based problems, while (3) building relational trust with staff, parents, and students.
Robinson suggests that the dimensions should be used across a leadership team or in particular subject departments, rather than to evaluate principals.
“The scope of the work is too great, and the expertise required too broad, to reasonably expect a single leader to demonstrate high or even moderate levels of competence in all five dimensions,” says Robinson.
Barbara Cavanagh, principal of Albany Senior High School, describes Student-Centered Leadership as an “invaluable guide”.
“What I most appreciate is its accessibility. The five dimensions of leadership give very clear direction about what is worth spending time on for all levels of leadership across the school. Time and time again, we go back to this book for support on having the most effective learning conversations, designing smart tools that will work, challenging thinking about our theories.”
Leadership theory in practice
Albany Senior High School is a new school and Cavanagh says the school’s stated aim is that it wants to remain a new school. Robinson’s book has been key to achieving this goal.
“The most powerful quote for me and one that I use often in my own presentations is ‘Effective educational leadership is not about getting the relationships right and then tackling the difficult work challenges. It is about doing both simultaneously so that relationships are strengthened through doing the hard, collective work of improving teaching and learning.’”
It is also helping to reinforce and transform the way things are being done at Botany Downs Secondary College.
Principal Mike Leach told University of Auckland’s Te Kuaka magazine that he was so inspired by the book that he gave one copy to each member of his leadership team and based a professional development day using the book as a primary focus of discussion. They were split into groups to discuss the dimensions and capabilities, why they were important and how they could be made to work at their school.
Discussion of the book has filtered beyond the professional development day itself and into the regular conversations about leadership. All notes from the day were loaded onto a shared OneNote so they could be reflected on and added to as the year progressed. Leach also uses questions related to the dimensions and capabilities in his weekly meetings with leaders and in the reflection and review meetings held with the leadership team each term.
The dimensions are working well in this school. They were a good fit to begin with; as a Microsoft mentor school, the dimensions and capabilities were well aligned with some of the Microsoft competencies around personalised learning, collaboration and self regulation.
Dimension three, for example, has impacted on the way leaders use data. The school is now using data mentoring for students to help them understand end interpret their data to inform subject choices for NCEA. A parent portal allows access to student data in real time. It is also helping review the staff appraisal system by encouraging teachers to start thinking about using data to inform and change their practice.
It is, by both accounts, a book that is accessible, but also possesses the ability to challenge and change existing leadership practices.
As Barbara Cavanagh says, “This book is not for the faint-hearted. It is very precise in its challenge.”