Managing to Lead: Reframing School Leadership and Management

By Spillane, James P. | Phi Delta Kappan, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Managing to Lead: Reframing School Leadership and Management


Spillane, James P., Phi Delta Kappan


Leadership and management make a difference in increasing school productivity and turning around struggling schools. But common ways of thinking about leadership and management limit how we think about the work. Too often, we place the burden for saving a failing school on the principal, perpetuating a view of successful school leaders as heroes and less successful ones as failures. Too often, we give short shrift to the practice of leading and managing, focusing instead on leadership styles or personal approaches. Dwelling on the formal school organization, we overlook informal relationships that are fundamental to leadership. By fixating on leadership, we pay inadequate attention to the importance of management.

At Northwestern University, we're working to change how researchers, developers, practitioners, and policy makers think about school leadership and management. Over the last decade, as part of the Distributed Leadership Studies (DLS), we've been developing a new framework for examining school leadership and management (www.distributedleadership.org). Viewed from this framework, school leadership practice is constructed through the interactions of leaders, followers, and aspects of the context. The framework draws on theoretical and empirical work from various fields, including distributed cognition and sociocultural activity theory (Spillane, Halverson, and Diamond 2001, 2004). Our distributed framework, like all frameworks, has limitations, as it highlights some aspects of leading and managing and backgrounds others. It does, however, offer a fresh perspective on these phenomena.

Our distributed framework involves two core aspects: principal plus and practice (Spillane 2006). The principal plus aspect acknowledges that multiple individuals are involved in leading and managing schools. The practice aspect prioritizes the practice of leading and managing and frames this practice as emerging from interactions among school leaders and followers, mediated by the situation in which the work occurs. In our view, practice is more about interaction than action. Putting practice center stage allows us to focus where the "rubber" of school leadership and management meets the "road" of instructional improvement.

Our distributed perspective is not a blueprint for leading and managing. Rather, it's a framework for researchers and practitioners to use in diagnosing the practice of leading and managing and designing for its improvement (Spillane 2006; Spillane and Diamond 2007). We employ the distributed framework to various ends. First, we're designing and validating such research instruments as practice logs and social network instruments (Camburn, Spillane, and Sebastian, under review; Spillane and Zuberi 2009; Pitts and Spillane 2009; Pustejovsky and Spillane, in press). While these instruments are designed for gathering data, practitioners can also use them to reflect on practice. Second, based on our analysis of data from multiple sites, we're able to describe leadership and management arrangements in schools and explore relations between these arrangements and other crucial variables in the school context--organizational conditions, instructional innovation, and student learning. This will enable us to describe what works--and what doesn't--in school leadership and management. Third, we're building curriculum modules to engage school leaders in their own diagnostic and design work using the distributed perspective.

The Principal Plus: Rethinking Who Has and Who Takes Responsibility

While allowing for the occasional hero or heroine in school leadership, our distributed frame presses us to reach beyond the principal to pay attention to other designated leaders. The work of leading and managing involves a cast of others in addition to the principal, such as assistant principals, curriculum specialists, mentor teachers, and department chairs (Spillane 2006; Spillane and Diamond 2007; Spillane, Hunt, and Healey 2009). …

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