A great value is placed upon school leaders having expertise in education, learning and teaching and of this being a priority dimension of their leadership. It is perhaps no accident that we refer to the head of a school as the headteacher. This emphasis is often referred to by the term ‘instructional leadership’, which has origins in the United States.
Instructional leadership, developed during the effective schools movement of the 1980s, viewed the principal (i.e. headteacher) as the primary source of educational expertise. Aimed at standardising the practice of effective teaching, the principal’s role was to maintain high expectations for teachers and students, supervise classroom instruction, coordinate the school’s curriculum, and monitor student progress.
A basic way of looking at what is meant by instructional leadership is that it focuses on leadership functions directly related to learning and teaching. Of course leaders may influence learning and teaching in a range of informal ways that are not direct. So, in a broader view, instructional leadership also refers to all other functions that contribute to student learning, including managerial behaviours. In principle then it encompasses everything a principal does during the day to support the achievement of students and the ability of teachers to teach (Sebring and Bryk, 2000).
Claims made for instructional leadership
Instructional leadership was originally identified in schools in poor urban communities where students succeeded despite the odds because:
. . . they had strong instructional leadership, including a learning climate free of disruption, a system of clear teaching objectives, and high teacher expectations for students.
(Robinson Lloyd and Rowe, 2008; page 638)
There is a good deal of research evidence that shows that in schools where the quality of learning and teaching was strong the principal demonstrated instructional leadership both directly and indirectly. These principals emphasised four sets of activities with implications for instruction.
- Developing the school mission and goals.
- Coordinating, monitoring, and evaluating curriculum, instruction, and assessment.
- Promoting a climate for learning.
- Creating a supportive work environment.
(Marks and Printy, 2003; pages 372–373).
Instructional leadership is identified as a key feature of high performing education systems around the world. Principals in high performing schools focus strongly on instructional leadership and developing teachers. They prioritise teaching and curriculum, and they believe that their ability to coach others and support their development is the most important skill of a good school leader. High performing principals are also more likely to report that they greatly enjoy teaching (Barber, Whelan, and Clark, 2010).
The instructional leadership of teachers
As well as the attention paid to the instructional leadership contribution of headteachers, there has been a great emphasis on teachers. Indeed, many see that teachers are best placed to exercise this form of leadership because of their day-to-day experience and expertise within the classroom. So according to Harris and Muijs (2003) the clear message is that sustaining improvement requires the leadership capability of the many rather than the few and that improvements in learning are more likely to be achieved when leadership is instructionally focused and located closest to the classroom. In this respect it is felt that it is through the distributed leadership of teachers that gains in learning and teaching take place, with the role of headteachers being to ensure this happens.
The legitimate instructional leaders . . . ought to be teachers. And principals ought to be leaders of leaders: people who develop the instructional leadership in their teachers.
(Sergiovanni, 1992; page 41)
We have seen that there has been a great deal of emphasis on the importance of instructional leadership. However, it is often felt, by practitioners as well as educational researchers, that this is often difficult to exercise given the many demands and pressures within schools today. For instance Hoog, Johansson and Olofsson (2005) observe that while the principal is expected by school authorities to be an instructional leader, in actual practice within schools the principal is often expected to act as an administrative manager.
Reflect upon this, drawing on your own experience in schools. What are the barriers to teachers and headteachers exercising instructional leadership? What might be done to support and promote instructional leadership at all levels within the school?