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Leadership for organisational learning and improved student
outcomes - what do we know?

Mulford, B., University of Tasmania, Australia; and
Silins, H., Flinders University of South Australia, Australia.

Cambridge Journal of Education, Vol.33, No.2, 2003 pp.175-195

What are the links between leadership, school practices and
student outcomes?

How can school leadership make a difference to school reform and improved student
learning? This paper described a project called „Leadership for Organisational Learning and
Student Outcomes' (LOLSO) carried out through the Australian Research Council. The goal
of the project was to understand school reform initiatives which aimed to change school
practices in order to achieve improved student learning.

On the basis of teacher and student surveys, the authors suggested that, in the opinion of
those who are being led, leadership which makes a difference encourages, supports and
respects teachers and involves them in decision making. They suggest that successful
school reform is about development and therefore learning; that the context for leadership
and school reform (such as socio-economic factors, home environment and school size)
should be taken into account and that what counts for academic achievement should be
broadened beyond performance in national tests to include, for example, students‟
perceptions of themselves as learners and of their achievements.

The authors raise concerns that school leadership currently overemphasises the managerial
or strategic aspects of the role.

Australia; Pupils; Teachers; Secondary schools; School improvement; School management;
Professional development; Attitudes; Leaders; Collaboration

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What were the researchers' aims?                                                 Page 3
What did the researchers find out?                                               Page 4
What conclusions did the researchers draw?                                       Page 5
How was the study designed?                                                      Page 6
What are the implications for school leaders?                                    Page 7
Where can I find out more?                                                       page 8

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What were the researchers' aims?
The researchers aimed to find answers to the following questions:

   1. How is the concept of organisational learning defined in Australian secondary
   2. What leadership practices promote organisational learning (such as teacher voice)?

   3. What are some outcomes of schooling other than academic achievement?
   4. What are the relationships between the non-academic and academic outcomes of
   5. Does school leadership and/or organisational learning contribute to students'
   6. What other factors contribute to student outcomes?

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What did the researchers find out?
The researchers used the results from their surveys to answer the project's six research
questions (see What were the researchers' aims? on p. 3). They found organisational
learning involved a sequence of:

            establishing a trustworthy and collaborative climate;
            having a shared and monitored mission; and
            taking initiatives and risks.

within a context of on-going, relevant professional development.

The main condition that promoted organisational learning was distributive leadership (staff
actively and collectively participated in the school decision making) and transformational
leadership (defined by six factors which enabled teacher leadership and valuing of

Students in Year 10 and Year 12 perceived four non-academic processes of schooling as
significant: teachers' work (such as students liking the way teachers teach); academic self
confidence (such as students being confident of their success); participation (such as
students responding to questions); and engagement (such as students identifying with their

Students were more likely to stay on at school and complete Year 12 if they were engaged
with school, but engagement with school only indirectly influenced achievement (through
staying on). Features of the home environment (such as having space to study and help with
school work) also influenced student participation and self-concept.

Teacher leadership contributed to organisational learning (the extent that teachers were
involved in the decision making processes and felt supported and valued), which in turn
influenced teaching and pupils‟ learning, the way teachers taught and the challenges and
expectations they placed on their pupils. The higher the teachers' ratings of the school as a
learning organisation, the more positively their work was perceived by their pupils. Where
pupils' perceived teachers' work positively this directly promoted their participation, academic
self-confidence and engagement, and these factors were related to academic achievement.

Larger schools were less likely to have transformational and distributive leadership and were
more likely to have students who were academically “self confident”, but who participated
less intensively in school life and work. Schools with higher socio-economic status were
more likely to have students who stayed on at school, had higher academic self-confidence
and achieved more academically, but who saw teachers' work less positively. The important
factor for staying on at school and academic achievement was that students actively
participated in school and felt valued.

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What conclusions did the researchers draw?
On the basis of their findings, the authors suggested that successful school reform is related
to four factors:

        distributive and transformational leadership;
        development and learning;
        context; and
        a broader understanding of student outcomes.

Distributive leadership
Leadership that made a difference in the secondary schools studied involved not only the
headteacher, but the administrative team and teachers. Headteacher leadership which the
authors describe as transformational was focused on creating a caring ethos, where teachers
felt supported and valued, were given opportunities to learn from each other, were
encouraged to reflect on what they were trying to achieve and contributed to the decision
making. How teachers were treated by the headteacher was reflected in how the students
perceived the teachers' work, and this was related to the outcomes of their schooling. The
authors suggested that success was more likely where teachers were encouraged,
respected, supported and involved in decision making.

Development and learning
Successful school reform is about development and therefore learning. Once distributive
leadership and a collaborative climate had been established, then a shared and monitored
mission could provide a unifying focus. When there was confidence in what the school was
doing and why it was doing it, then the leaders and the school could move to development,
learning and change, including working with other schools. The authors indicated the
importance of having stability for change.

The authors argued that more account should be taken of the context for leadership and
school reform, as socio-economic status, home background and school size had a clear
interactive effect on leadership, the school and student outcomes. They suggested that
leadership may have to adapt to circumstances. For example, as smaller schools were found
to have advantages, large schools may find it beneficial to divide themselves into sub-
schools, to provide the support needed to involve students and teachers with the school and
improve learning outcomes.

A broader understanding of student outcomes
The authors suggested that what counts as effective education should be broadened beyond
academic achievement to include, for example, self-confidence. Although academic self-
confidence was not linked to academic achievement, it does not follow that academic self-
confidence is not an important student outcome. The authors cited other studies where pupil
self-confidence has been found to be related to later life successes such as employment and

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How was the study designed?
Data for the project were gathered over four years from a wide range of people and by
researchers who were not involved in the design or implementation of the reform:

        3,500 Year 10 students from 96 schools and 2,500 of their teachers and
         headteachers were surveyed (quantitative data);

        case studies of best practice were collected from four schools (qualitative data);
        data were collected from over half of the student sample on whether or not they
         continued on from Year 10 to Year 12 and their five-subject aggregate Tertiary
         Entrance score (South Australia's assessment procedure);
        Year 12 students, teachers and headteachers were resurveyed; and
        the results from the quantitative and qualitative data were used to develop and trial
         professional development interventions for school leaders.

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What are the implications of the study for school leaders?
In completing this digest, the authors began to ask the following questions about implications
for practitioners:

        the study found that students were more likely to stay on at school and to achieve
         more if they liked the methods of teaching used and felt valued and self-confident.
         What have you and your colleagues found to be useful strategies for motivating
         students and boosting their sense of success and achievement? Might canvassing
         your students‟ views on teaching methods that they find especially helpful be
        the study found that, where teachers were encouraged to reflect on their educational
         aims and given opportunities to learn from each other, this helped improve
         educational outcomes. What opportunities exist for you and your colleagues to reflect
         on the educational strengths of your school and to build on these collaboratively?

In completing this digest, the authors began to ask the following questions about implications
for school leaders:

        effective leaders in the study consulted widely, listened carefully, encouraged
         teachers to take part in decision making and extended opportunities for leadership to
         others. How widely distributed is the leadership in your school? Would Investors in
         People, action research, national leadership programmes and/or Hay McBer
         leadership instruments (see, where can I find out more? p.8) help you to explore
         ways of expanding staff involvement?

        in the study, transformational leadership focused on creating a caring ethos. If you
         asked teachers in your school whether they felt „safe‟ in taking risks and leading new
         initiatives, what would they say?

        many schools now involve pupils in school improvement planning through, for
         example, questionnaires on their views about teaching, their learning and other
         aspects of school life. Could such information help your school? Could your school's
         professional development programme support teachers in making regular use of pupil
         voice to enhance their teaching and their pupils‟ learning?

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Where can I find out more?

Other TRIPS digests that may be of interest can be found at:

A GTC Research of the Month summary, „Leading learning effectively‟ can be found at:

A systematic review of the impact of school headteachers and principals on student
outcomes can be found at:

B. Mulford (2003) School leaders: Challenging roles and impact on teacher and
schooleffectiveness. Paris: Commissioned Paper by the Education and Training Policy
Division, OECD, for the Activity “Attracting, Developing and Retaining Effective Teachers”.

B. Mulford (2003) The role of school leadership in attracting and retaining teachers and
promoting innovative schools and students. Canberra: Commissioned Paper by the Review
of Teaching and Teacher Education, Commonwealth Department of Education Science &
Training. URL:

David Reynolds' article: 'Effective school leadership: the contribution of school effectiveness
research' gives an overview of previous research. The article is available at:

Other useful websites

The Government White Paper 'Schools - Achieving Success (DfES, 2001) supports LOLSO's
emphasis on pupil's active participation in their education and the need to broaden what
counts for effective education beyond academic achievement. It states (p.15) 'we want
schools to play their part in developing rounded individuals who are prepared well for adult
life'. The White Paper can be viewed at:

The importance of distributive leadership is consistent with the above White Paper and also
the stance of the National College for School Leadership (NCSL). The NCSL web site is at

Hay McBer's ' Models of excellence for school leaders' lists characteristics for headteachers
and deputy headteachers and how they should be combined together. The models are
available at:

The Effective Professional Learning Communities project is a study of effective professional
learning communities in schools and of how they are created and sustained: