It’s easy to say that instructional leadership is important for educational leaders; it’s far more difficult to actually do it. Sure, the literature about effective educational leadership consistently promotes its importance. So, too, do the NCATE and ISLLC Standards emphasize instructional leadership. In fact, the ISLLC 2008 Standards display Standard 2 (Leadership for Teaching & Learning), at the center of the six-standard framework indicating its importance and centrality to effective leadership (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2008). Research clearly shows that principals of effective schools emphasize instructional leadership (Jenkins, 2009). Cotton points to hundreds of research studies that place effective principals at the center of instruction in their school (2003).
Yet, the data about how principals and other educational leaders actually spend their time tells another story – a reality-based story that suggests that instructional leadership is often elusive and difficult to achieve. There have been many studies about how principals spend their time. A quick look at just a couple of them paints the picture well. When asked about their most important job responsibilities, principals reported that their top four priorities are: supervision/instructional support, school improvement, staff development, and curriculum planning/development (Chan & Pool, 2002). An actual examination of how they spent their time indicated that student interaction/discipline and personnel administration crowded out their most important responsibilities (Chan & Pool). Another study found that principals spend the most time overseeing students, managing budgets, and dealing with student discipline (Horng et al, 2009). That same study found that principals spend 10% of their day on instruction. Interestingly, Horng and her coauthors found that time spent on management tasks has a positive impact on student achievement in addition to the positive impact that instructional leadership has on student achievement. This means that good leaders are both good managers and good instructional leaders. But how to do both, and how to do both well?
One way to do a good job at both management and instructional leadership is to divide the two important areas of responsibility between two different people. A new position is appearing in some schools, that of School Administration Manager. An analysis of schools which have principals and School Administration Managers (SAM) indicates that principals in such schools are able to spend an hour per day more on instructional leadership than without a SAM (Turnball et al, 2009). The kind of activities that principals report doing more of included observation, walkthrough, and instruction-related work (Trunball et al). Conversely, principals in the same study reported spending less time on student discipline, student supervision, managing non-teaching staff, and managing school facilities. All of this sounds good, and many principals might be asking for their own SAM as they read this. The problem with this, however, is that the addition of School Administration Managers is simply out of the question given the difficult financial situation in which all districts find themselves.
Until every school has its own School Administration manager, it’s up to the principal to do it all, whether all alone or with the help of assistant principals, department leaders, or instructional specialists. First and foremost, the principal has to be committed to the goal of instructional leadership. Commitment to instructional leadership means making it a priority both in intention and in action. Instructional leaders know that they must effectively and efficiently manage their school, but they also know that learning and teaching have to permeate all aspects of decision making and school management. Instructional leaders have the courage to make learning a priority, even when pulled in many directions and even when a status quo of complacency drags like an anchor. Instructional leaders have the courage to be agents of change. Instructional leaders have the courage to model good instruction at every opportunity, including faculty meetings, team meetings, and committee meetings. Instructional leaders are deliberate and thoughtful about change and match change to the context and culture. But, instructional leaders know that standing still and watching the world rush past is not an option. To be an instructional leader, it takes some courage – deliberate courage.
How do instructional leaders act? How do you know one when you see one? Most of all, instructional leaders make instruction important by placing it at the center of their work and at the center of their school’s work. They don’t leave it to change or serendipity – it is deliberately and carefully planned for. There are many different ways that instructional leaders are deliberate about their focus on instruction and those methods vary from leader to leader. What doesn’t vary, however, is the deliberateness that leaders bring to the mission.
Note: This is an excerpt from an article I wrote for NYS ASCD, titled Instructional leadership: It Takes Courage (and a Plan).
Jeff Craig, Ed.D.