Congressional Newsletter
A series of periodic updates to Congress on RAND's work in education

What Does It Take to Improve School Leadership?

principal with two teachers

When it comes to improving U.S. public schools, policymakers have begun to view leadership as a key factor. In fact, research supports this view, finding that the quality of the principal is second only to teacher quality among school-based factors in contributing to what students learn in the classroom. Given this, many states and districts have enacted new initiatives to help principals become strong instructional leaders. But to be successful, these initiatives must be consistent with other state and district policies that affect school leadership so principals have the authority and resources to apply the best practices they learn.

The Wallace Foundation has focused nine years of grantmaking on helping states and districts move beyond isolated reforms and forge policy connections that could lead to more-cohesive, high-performing systems. The hypothesis behind their investments is that a cohesive leadership system (CLS)—one that spans state agencies and districts and consists of well-coordinated policies and initiatives addressing leadership standards, training, and the conditions principals face—will increase the capacity of principals to improve instruction in schools. The foundation commissioned RAND to document the results of its initiatives in ten sites in ten states and 17 affiliated districts—in Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, Oregon, and Rhode Island—and to examine this hypothesis.

The study found that all ten sites had taken steps to improve school leadership, focusing on a variety of policies and initiatives in six areas: standards, pre-service and recruitment (e.g., mandating program reform or closure), licensure, in-service professional development, evaluation, and improving the conditions under which principals work (e.g., providing necessary data and sufficient autonomy). RAND found that states and districts were equally likely to be pursuing these policies and initiatives, and boundaries between what used to be the "state role" and the "district role" were blurring.

The study identified eight key strategies that resulted in more-cohesive policies: developing trust, creating formal and informal networks, fostering communication, exerting pressure and influence, improving the quality of leadership policies and initiatives, building capacity, identifying strong leaders with political and social capital, and connecting to other reform efforts. The sites with the most-cohesive leadership systems were more likely than others to use a broad range of strategies, focused on identifying strong leaders and connecting the efforts to other reforms. These sites also distributed leadership responsibilities among individuals from the various stakeholder agencies involved and skillfully used a combination of pressure and support to further their agendas.

All told, the study found that it is possible to build cohesive leadership systems and that doing so may be a promising approach to improving school leadership. Although they could not confirm the entire CLS hypothesis, the researchers found a correlation between improved conditions for principals and principals' engagement in instructional leadership practices. Principals who reported that they had sufficient autonomy, access to data, useful professional development and evaluation systems, and adequate resources were more likely to report spending more time on instructional leadership practices and were more satisfied with their ability to focus on these practices.

Because many of these conditions (e.g., data, resources, autonomy) require both state and district attention, the study resulted in three recommendations to strengthen relationships between states and districts to better align education policies that improve conditions for principals, thereby promoting instructional leadership: (1) identify strong lead organizations and individuals, (2) engage a broad coalition of stakeholders, and (3) commit to engaging in this work over the long term. These recommendations can inform any endeavors to build a system within a state, not just those for school leadership initiatives.

Building Cohesive Systems to Improve School Leadership


What Have We Learned About the Implementation of NCLB?

It has been nine years since Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which focused on using research-based practices to improve student outcomes, including the performance of subgroups; required stronger teacher qualifications; offered parental choice; and provided strong accountability with real "teeth" for enforcement. The RAND Corporation, the American Institutes for Research (AIR), and the National Opinion Research Corporation (NORC) conducted two longitudinal studies for the Department of Education that led to a series of reports on the topics of accountability, teacher quality, Title I school choice and supplemental educational services, and targeting and resource allocation. Drawing on the results of those two longitudinal studies—along with results from separately funded RAND reports on NCLB—this forthcoming report will summarize objective, empirical information on the progress made in implementing this legislation and on how state, district, and school administrators—as well as teachers and parents—have responded to it.


Hanine Salem

Hanine Salem

Hanine Salem is associate director of RAND Education Middle East Development. Salem's work at RAND largely focused on public reform, evaluation of the implementation of education policies, and examination of topics related to human capital formation and skills attainment in the Arab World. She led or co-led several large projects to develop strategic plans at major public entities in order to support ambitious sector-wide reforms. She has also conducted analyses of organizational restructuring and developed working prototypes for a top executive public office.

Read more about Ms. Salem »


Lindsey Kozberg
Vice President, Office of External Affairs

Shirley Ruhe
Director, Office of Congressional Relations

Education Legislative Analyst

RAND Office of Congressional Relations
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