Harvard Graduate School of Education Logo

Building a New Structure for School Leadership

With accountability standards creating more public scrutiny than ever before, educational leaders must focus their efforts on instruction

May 29, 2008
Professor Richard Elmore

Based on the essay "Building a New Structure for School Leadership," from Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Richard Elmore's book, School Reform from the Inside Out: Policy, Practice, and Performance (Harvard Education Press, 2004).

If our educational system is to deliver on the promise of high standards for all students, educational leadership must strive to create conditions for high quality instruction in every classroom. The historical paradigm — in which instruction is solely the purview of the teacher, to the exclusion of administrators, superintendents, and policymakers — is an obstacle to reaching our academic goals for children.

Like successful business executives, winning coaches, and triumphant politicians, good school leaders have traditionally been viewed as standouts — not because of their expertise in instructional practice (which, after all, is what their business is all about), but because of their individual character traits and actions, "in the heroic American tradition of charismatic leadership," exlains Elmore.

In this essay, Elmore sets forth a novel vision for school leadership that would not reside with individuals, but would instead be distributed among various branches that are fully accountable not only to one another and to teachers, but also to the marketplace — in this case, parents and students.

He begins by describing the notion of "loose-coupling," in which the core of education — what and how students are actually learning — resides in isolated individual classrooms. Teachers have a great deal of discretion in what and how they teach, and are intentionally buffered by the system from outside intrusions — leaving administrators, superintendents, and policymakers out of touch, performing tasks designed mainly to increase public confidence in the system: organizing, budgeting, managing, and "dealing with disruptions."

Loose coupling explains why model practices take root in so few schools; it creates an environment, Elmore writes, that is "deliberately and calculatedly incompetent" at influencing the very job it is set up to oversee: teaching.

The governance structure further weakens schools. A superintendent's tenure is usually short, based largely on his or her ability to maintain a majority of the school board. And school board members spend most of their time consolidating political support. These political circumstances fuel a common view, that educators are good because of their personal skills, "not because they have mastered some body of professional knowledge or...are expected to be competent at what they do as a condition of employment."

The logic of standards-based reform is "fundamentally at odds" with that of loose-coupling, because reform violates the premise that teachers should be buffered from outside interference and makes "what actually gets taught a matter of public policy and open political discourse."

Reform also "hits at a critical weakness of the existing institutional structure": why some students learn and others do not. In taking accountability away from school systems and placing it on individual schools and their employees, reform calls into question the current system of governance — and leaves no room for "excuses" such as weak family structures, poverty, discrimination, lack of aptitude, peer pressure, diet, television, etc.

Elmore concedes there is "strong evidence that asking policymakers to bring coherence and stability to education policy at the state and local level is akin to trying to change the laws of gravity." But he believes the traditional arguments used to defend loose-coupling will grow weaker with time — particularly as market-model voucher systems, capitation grants, and charter schools take hold. "Entrepreneurial schools," he notes, "have little incentive to operate under local governance systems if they can function successfully ... as free agents." Schools run under the old system will become "the domain of the nonchoosers and the unchosen."

Formula for success

For Elmore, improvement is not amorphous, and change is not merely for the sake of change. Improvement has direction, lasts considerably longer than the latest fashion trend, can work across the entire system, raises quality and performance, and decreases the variation from classroom to classroom.

The starting point is to recognize that the inherent character traits said to make good leaders are "much less amenable to influence by education, training, and practice than are knowledge and skill." He believes the primary focus of leadership should be to guide instructional improvement, with everything else being secondary.

The best way to change the focus is through multiple sources of guidance and direction. Such distributed leadership, Elmore is quick to point out, does not mean "no one is responsible for the overall performance of the organization" — rather that leaders must create a "common culture of expectations" regarding skills and knowledge, and hold individuals "accountable for their contributions to the collective result."

Elmore cites research that found "profoundly different opportunities for teachers' skill acquisition" in school cultures characterized by collaboration and continuous improvement versus those characterized by autonomy. Schools that focus strongly on instructional goals, he writes, "promote a view of teaching as a body of skill and knowledge that can be learned and developed over time, rather than as an idiosyncratic and mysterious process that varies with each teacher."

When school policy presents "clear expectations about the range of acceptable quality in the delivered curriculum, a broader range of students learn at higher levels."

Principles for improvement

Elmore proposes five foundational principles for a model of successful distributed leadership:

  1. All leaders, regardless of role, should be working at the improvement of instructional practice and performance, rather than working to shield their institutions from outside interference.
  2. All educators should take part in continuous learning, and be open to having their ideas and practices subjected to the scrutiny of their colleagues.
  3. Leaders must be able to model the behaviors, the learning, and the instructional knowledge they seek from their teachers.
  4. The roles and activities of leadership should flow from the differences in expertise among the individuals involved, not from the formal dictates of the institution.
  5. Policymakers should discover and take into account the circumstances that make doing the work possible, and provide the resources necessary for improvement.

In Elmore's system of checks and balances, several types of leadership roles emerge. Policymakers should focus on "translating" diverse political interests and adjudicating conflicts between them to arrive at goals regarding what should be taught, the rewards offered for getting the job done, and the sanctions aimed at those schools or individuals consistently failing to improve. Policymakers should not, he emphasizes, be involved in creating the specific content of the standards or practices to be used in the classroom.

That should be the job of professional leaders — distinguished practitioners, professional developers, and researchers who can design pre-service and in-service learning opportunities and pilot successful new instructional practices. Administrative leaders, then, are left to design improvements in "resource allocation, hiring, evaluation, retention, and accountability."

Elmore points out that large-scale improvement is a "property of organizations," not of the individuals who work for them, as the current system would have us believe. He lists several main themes that characterize high performing schools:

  • Continuity of focus on core instruction;
  • Heavy investments in highly targeted professional development for teachers and principals in the fundamentals of strong classroom instruction;
  • Strong and explicit accountability by principles and teachers for the quality of practice and the level of student performance; and
  • A normative climate in which adults take responsibility for their own, their colleagues', and their students' learning.

At all levels of the system, he adds, isolation is the enemy of improvement.

Large-scale, sustained, continuous improvement, Elmore concludes, "is what the existing institutional structure of public schooling is specifically designed not to do." But for the sake of our children's futures, we must "fundamentally redesign schools as places where both adults and young people learn."

See More In
School Leadership