What We Know about Successful School Leadership [e-Lead]

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What We Know about Successful School Leadership

Scratch the surface of an excellent school and you are likely to find an excellent principal. Peer into a failing school and you will find weak leadership. That, at least, is the conventional wisdom. Leaders are thought to be essential for high-quality education. But is this indeed true-and, if so, exactly how does leadership work?

Amidst the seeming certainty that leadership matters, there is much that we do not yet understand about effective educational leadership. However, the knowledge base about leadership is constantly growing, and there are key, well-documented understandings about leadership at the school level. Major findings from research on school leadership can be summarized in the following five claims:

  1. Leadership has significant effects on student learning, second only to the effects of the quality of curriculum and teachers' instruction.
  2. Currently, administrators and teachers provide most of the leadership in schools, but other potential sources of leadership exist.
  3. A core set of leadership practices form the "basics" of successful leadership and are valuable in almost all educational contexts.
  4. Successful school leaders respond productively to challenges and opportunities created by the accountability-oriented policy context in which they work.
  5. Successful school leaders respond productively to the opportunities and challenges of educating diverse groups of students.
  1. Effects on Student Learning

    To learn well, students need access to high-quality instruction and a well-crafted curriculum. After that, they benefit most of all from the positive effects of strong school leadership. Case studies of exceptional schools, especially those that succeed beyond expectations, provide detailed portraits of leadership. Large-scale quantitative studies of schooling conclude that the effects of leadership on student learning are small but educationally significant. In these studies, as in case studies, leadership effects appear to be mostly indirect. That is, leaders influence student learning by helping to promote vision and goals, and by ensuring that resources and processes are in place to enable teachers to teach well.

  2. Leadership in Schools

    Much research focuses on the formal leadership of school principals. While empirical evidence is limited, research suggests that teacher leaders can help other teachers to embrace goals, to understand the changes that are needed to strengthen teaching and learning, and to work together towards improvement. In addition to teachers and administrators, parents and students are important potential sources of leadership.

  3. Basics of School Leadership

    Three broad categories of practices have been identified as important for leadership success in almost all settings and organizations. They are: 1) Setting Directions, 2) Developing People, and 3) Developing the Organization. While the mastery of these basics provides no guarantee that a leader's work will be successful in a particular school context, lack of mastery likely guarantees failure. A successful leader needs to do more but cannot do less.

    • Setting Directions: This dimension of leadership practice includes actions aimed at developing goals for schooling and inspiring others with a vision for the future.
      • Identifying and articulating a vision.
      • Creating shared meanings.
      • Creating high performance expectations.
      • Fostering the acceptance of group goals.
      • Monitoring organizational performance.
      • Communicating.
    • Developing People: Most work in schools is, of course, accomplished through the efforts of people. Effective educational leaders influence the development of human resources in their schools.
      • Offering intellectual stimulation.
      • Providing individualized support.
      • Providing an appropriate model.
    • Developing the Organization: School leaders attend to aspects of the school as an organization and a community, with consideration of internal processes and external relationships. Effective leaders enable the school to function as a professional learning community to support and sustain the performance of all workers, including teachers as well as students.

      • Strengthening school culture.
      • Modifying organizational structure.
      • Building collaborative processes.
      • Managing the environment.
  4. Context of Accountability

    Every school is in some fashion unique, and successful leaders address the particularities of their contexts appropriately. However, large numbers of schools share special challenges and opportunities that require effective responses from educational leaders. Once such instance is the rise in different kinds of policies designed to hold schools more accountable. Leadership practices that help schools succeed when they confront various forms of accountability mechanisms may include, for example:

    • Creating and sustaining a competitive school.
    • Empowering others to make significant decisions.
    • Providing instructional guidance.
    • Strategic planning.
  5. Educating Diverse Groups of Students

    Many school leaders work with populations that are increasingly diverse and that may not be experiencing success in school. This includes children who are from low-income families or whose cultural backgrounds or characteristics fall outside of the mainstream. Histories of poor school performance for such students may result from neglect on the part of school and/or district leaders, allocation of the least able teachers and most limited resources to the most needy schools and students, low expectations, or lack of knowledge of effective strategies for working with particular kinds of students in challenging contexts. Evidence suggests that successful leaders of schools in highly diverse contexts focus their effort on four sets of tasks:

    • Building powerful forms of teaching and learning.
    • Creating strong communities in school.
    • Expanding the proportion of students' social capital valued by the schools.
    • Nurturing the development of families' educational cultures.


Efforts to improve educational leadership should build upon the foundation of well-documented and well-accepted knowledge about leadership that already exists. We know that school leadership is most successful when it is focused on teaching and learning, and that it is necessary but not sufficient for school improvement. We understand that leadership can take different forms in different contexts. We understand some of the mechanisms through which educational leadership has its effects.

There are still many gaps in our knowledge about effective educational leadership. For example, how can educational leaders balance their leadership and managerial responsibilities in ways that move their schools forward? If leadership functions are indeed distributed across many formal and informal roles in a school, how are these roles coordinated and who takes responsibility for what? How can diversity in educational leadership be fostered, so that persons with appropriately rich backgrounds, values, and community connections lead our schools? Do educational leaders need answers to enduring questions about schooling, or are they most in need of provisional answers to immediate local concerns; in either case, how are those answers most likely to be developed and conveyed to potential users of the knowledge?

These and many other questions call out for further inquiry, and for vigorous conversation among the practitioners, policy makers, and scholars who are part of-and who support-the educational leadership profession.


This was excerpted and synthesized from Leithwood, K.A. & Riehl, C. (2003). What We Know About Successful School Leadership. Philadelphia, PA: Laboratory for Student Success, Temple University.

For copies of a newsletter brief from which this summary is drawn, go to www.cepa.gse.rutgers.edu/whatweknow.pdf. The longer paper (with citations) is due to be published in late 2003.

This report is the first product of the Task Force to Develop an Agenda for Research on Educational Leadership of Division A (Administration) of the American Educational Research Association.