School administrators universally understand that to be successful, they must be "instructional leaders." This means attending to the professional growth and development of teachers so that teachers may, in turn, have a more significant impact on student learning outcomes. Many school principals, however, find that devoting time to instructional concerns is a real challenge, and new research further suggests that the kinds of things principals do when they engage in instructional leadership makes a real difference. In fact, some instructional leadership tasks - in some contexts - might not make a difference at all.
Vanderbilt University's Jason Grissom and Susanna Loeb of Stanford University have previously demonstrated that if instructional leadership isn't accompanied by effective organizational management skills, school principals might still be ineffective (see my discussion of their earlier research here). Now, in study recently published in the journal Educational Researcher, Grissom and Loeb are joined by Benjamin Master to explore the kinds of instructional leadership practices Miami-Dade Public Schools principals engaged in. They found that not all instructional leadership activities predicted higher levels of student achievement.
Utilizing a rare research design, the authors conducted full-day observations of about 100 principals over a three year period. Follow up interviews and surveys were also conducted. Principal activities were coded by category and then researchers explored which kinds of activities correlated to higher student learning outcomes.
Grissom et al. found that principals only spend about 12% of their time engaged in instructional activities. Conducting classroom walkthroughs was the most common activity, but principals were also observed developing programs and evaluating curricula, engaging in formal teacher evaluation, and informally coaching teachers to improve their practice, among other tasks.
Among the many interesting findings from this study, the authors found no significant relationship between the overall amount of time principals devoted to instructional leadership and their school's level of student achievement. But at the level of individual instructional leadership activities, significant findings did emerge. For example, spending time informally coaching teachers and assisting teachers in evaluating curricula were both associated with improvements in student math achievement.
Perhaps of greatest interest, classroom walkthroughs were negatively associated with student outcomes. In other words, principals in low-performing schools tended to spend more time engaged in classroom walkthroughs that principals in high-performing schools.
This finding is likely explained in that principals may be engaging in walkthroughts to the exclusion of other high-leverage instructional tasks, or failing to use data gleaned from walkthroughs in meaningful ways. To illustrate this point, the researchers did find when principals coupled walkthroughs with informal coaching and other teacher professional growth activities, student achievement was significantly higher.
"In short, our results suggest that time spent engaging in instruction is not itself sufficient but rather that the effects of instructional leadership activities are conditional on the type and quality of those investments," the authors wrote.
"Although we find a negative association between time spent on walkthroughs and outcomes, these results do not imply that walkthroughs cannot be useful...However, if [principals] do not use these walkthroughs to support professional development or other human resource practices, the information they gather may be less beneficial...Schools may be better served if principals spend more time using the information [from walkthroughs] for school improvement than collecting it."
Like all studies, this one has limitations, but this research confirms the experience of many teachers and school leaders. Simply conducting walkthroughs is not enough to make a meaningful difference in student learning. The time principals spend in classrooms can be invaluable, but only if it leads to substantive interactions with teachers about their practice, and toward on-going improvement.
Grissom, J. A., Loeb, S., & Master, B. (2013). Effective instructional time for school leaders: Longitudinal evidence from observations of principals. Educational Researcher, 42(8), 433-444.