Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Successful School Leadership: What Is It and Who Decides?

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Successful School Leadership: What Is It and Who Decides?

Article excerpt

Arguments presented in this paper and the evidence from the Tasmanian Successful School Principals Project support broadening what counts for successful schools and school leadership. This broadening needs to embrace student outcomes, including non-cognitive social outcomes such as student empowerment. In examining who should provide the evidence for successful school leadership the need for triangulation, that is, multiple sources of evidence, became clear. Research employing only principal perceptions of success, especially on the importance of and improvement in student outcomes, should be examined much more critically than has occurred in the past.


This paper first argues the case for judging the success of school leadership on the basis of student outcomes. It further argues that there is a need to move to a broad understanding of student outcomes, that is, beyond the academic and cognitive to the non-cognitive, not withstanding a relationship between the two. To not do so short changes the excellence of our leaders, schools, communities and nation, and is not sensible, efficient nor defensible on equity or social justice grounds.

Next, the paper provides some examples of both cognitive and non-cognitive student outcome measures from the ongoing Tasmanian Successful School Principalship Project (SSPP) (which is linked to the International Successful School Principals Project--see, for example, Day & Leithwood, 2007; Thomas, 2005) together with some preliminary links to both leadership characteristics and school capacity building.

Finally, having established a position on, and provided examples of, what should decide successful school leadership, the paper turns its attention to the question of who should provide the evidence. The paper outlines results from the SSPP that examine the similarities and differences between teacher and principal perceptions of success, and between principals' perceptions of success and actual test results. Principals are found to overestimate the effectiveness of reforms, both when compared with their teachers and with actual literacy and numeracy results.

These arguments and results raise important issues for research and practice that relies solely on a limited set of processes or outcomes of schooling and only principals' perceptions of their schools' success.

What decides successful school leadership?

What criteria should be used in judging the success of a school leader? In answering this question, research (Earley, 1998) and practice (Vann, 2005) have tended to focus on the processes leaders put in place in their schools. Is there a school vision, and what is the quality of the vision? Is there a strategic plan to achieve the vision, a way of evaluating progress toward the vision, and so on? Recently, however, the focus has shifted with school leaders increasingly being held accountable for student outcomes (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2006).

A small but growing body of research has accumulated on the effects of leadership on student outcomes (see Bell, Bolam, & Cubillo, 2003; Leithwood, Day, Sammons, Harris, & Hopkins, 2006; Leithwood, Seashore Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004; Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005; Mulford, 2003a, b; Robinson, Lloyd, Hohepa, & Rowe, 2007; Witziers, Bosker, & Kruger, 2003).While this research concludes that particular types of school leadership have substantial impacts on student outcomes, the impact tends to be indirect and the actual outcome measure varies considerably--from standardised test achievement in mathematics and literacy and examination marks combined in a tertiary entrance score to engagement with and participation in school and self concept.

In practice, however, what is most easily measured seems to 'matter' most, whether this be through international testing, such as for the Program for International Student Assessment and Trends in International Maths and Science Study in mathematics, reading and science literacies; national and state testing or examination regimes; national incentive/disincentive programs such as No Child Left Behind in the United States of America that demand standardised testing in a limited number of areas; or local system and school reports. …

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