This post points to ways educational leaders, or the leadership activity[i], may release some of the external pressures in the pursuit of favourable performance results from Australian school systems. Since the introduction of public disclosures of NAPLAN results (MySchool) in 2010 there have various empirical research studies (Klenowski & Wyatt-Smith, 2011; McGuire, 2013) that demonstrate school life for Australian students, parents and educators has changed. For some school communities this change has felt like a squeeze. Australian educators have moved from being accountable for inputs of resources to outputs for student performance results, as predicted by Rowe (2005). The impacts of high stakes testing, are often construed as consistent with our global peers (‘Staking Australian educational accountability’) with negative impacts, mutating our learning communities. However, few empirical studies reveal how educational leaders are part of this change process. While my research (2017) confirms some negative impacts as our global peers from a high stakes testing regime, such as over preparation for tests, setting performance targets for teachers and students and ‘cherry picking’ students, I found an overwhelming number of principals who could meet high levels of accounts for student results at the same time as enacting their beliefs about learning.
A plethora of empirical and theoretical studies draw direct (Dinham, 2005, 2008; Robinson, 2011) and indirect parallels (Hattie 2015; Le Fevre and Robinson 2014; Sun and Leithwood 2015) with regard to educational leaders’ ways of enabling learning and influencing teaching (Dinham et al., 2013). In my study I also found direct parallels with regard to principals’ styles and expressions of leadership, such as instructional leadership (Bendikson, Robinson, & Hattie, 2012; Brown & Chai, 2012), accountable leadership (Elmore, 2005), pedagogical leadership (Male & Palaiologou, 2012) and data-informed leadership (Pettit, 2010), in managing their external expectations for results and their fundamental beliefs about learning.. Notably, Pettit’s research and ongoing work, set in NSW/ACT Australia, opened a research stream on the topic of educational leaders’ use of data from external assessment programs. The expectation by Catholic NSW School systems of their principals is that they are ‘Leaders of Learning’. Integral to this function is the expectation that principals will be accountable for learning and demonstrate how they utilise data to inform their practices. However, Pettit’s (2010) findings suggested that principals did not meet these expectations.
The findings by Norris (2017) offer an extension on Pettit’s work and demonstrate insights by drawing out significant acts of leadership through comparing and contrasting them with the extant literature.
There were several ways the educational leaders, principals in this case, met their accountability for results and at the same time felt enabled to enact their own beliefs about learning. They were:
- Positioning learning in the centre;
- Targeting their work with teachers about learning; and
- Implementing accountable processes as part of the learning cycle
- Positioning learning in the centre
- Articulating a vision for learning
In this study, the principals who revealed that articulating a vision for learning was essential in their enactments of leading learning spoke about their knowledge about learning, different curriculum designs, working closely with teachers on learning projects and the learning processes more often. In Hershey and Blanchard’s (1988) leadership framework, selling is a behavioural task. In this current study, ‘selling’ a vision for learning and informing people about it were often couched in persuasive terms and as a ‘selling’ task. These same principals reported negative impacts of external expectations less frequently, which may suggest that being able to articulate a vision of learning is also one step in influencing teachers. Most principals in this study were committed to an ongoing professional learning about the learning cycle
- Pursuing knowledge of learning
The principals in this study revealed that they pursued their knowledge of learning and teaching through formal post-graduate study, including doctoral studies, analysing empirical research about learning, reviewing other curriculum designs, schools and School systems (national and international) and engaging in peer leader conversations through meetings and conferences. While there appeared to be no definitive pattern regarding the impact of these activities on principals, the principals who sought out specific professional readings on learning outside of any formal study program were more likely to enact these learnings in their relationships with teachers, with reported influence: ‘When it comes down to it, it’s about learning. You can’t argue with that’(Graham). These same principals noted that students’ results in external testing were not the full representation of learning.
- Building levels of self-efficacy in the knowledge of learning
Investigating the principals’ levels of self- efficacy was not an immediate goal of this study. However, principals’ self -efficacy levels factor seemed to influence their ways of leading learning. In turn, the findings suggested that the principals’ levels of self-efficacy in leading were influenced by their confidence levels with regard to understanding learning. George disclosed, ‘I am concerned about the results but I really don’t know enough about learning’. Self-efficacy is an important determinant for behaviour in educational leadership. A study by Tschannen-Moran and Gareis (2004) found that self-efficacy influences principals’ efforts, persistence and resilience in managing demands and expectations. McCollum and Kajs (2007), for example, found that the self-efficacy construct was relevant in a broad sense of principals’ abilities to lead schools. In comparing general literature on self-efficacy, this study could describe principals’ levels of self-efficacy as a self-referent construct (Ajzen, 1991) and describe self-efficacy as a leader’s confidence in their knowledge and skills (Schwarzer, 2014). While Lovell’s (2009) study found some relationship between leading and leaders’ levels of self-efficacy, he suggested that further research was needed to examine the relationship between principals’ sense of efficacy for instructional leadership and their sense of efficacy in enacting. However, no studies were found in the literature about the influential relationship between principals’ processes of meeting accountability expectations and their self-efficacy.
In this study, the greatest influence on the principal’s agency in leading learning was found to be the principal’s perceived knowledge and skill about the teaching and learning processes. Graham reflected on his past: ‘Look, when I first came into the job I was told that [learning and teaching] was an area I needed to develop—and I did’. Graham and the leadership team relentlessly pursued learning ideas in various contexts – from epedagogies to agile learning spaces. In this study appeared to be a dependent relationship between the comfort or confidence in being accountable for results and leading learning with the principals’ knowledge regarding learning and teaching. Several studies point to similar dependent relationships in principals’ leadership. A study by McCollum and Kajs (2007) found that the self-efficacy of principals was related to their confidence in their knowledge base and skill (McCollum & Kajs, 2007). Likewise, Nelson and Sassi (2005) and Stein and Nelson (2003) found that a barrier to more effective instructional leadership is the adequacy of leaders’ knowledge of teaching and learning processes. They found that leaders who demonstrated lack of confidence were likely to be reluctant to observe teachers and give them feedback. Moreover, Spillane and Seashore-Lois (2002) found that if leaders do not demonstrate knowledge and confidence, their chances of being influential with teachers were not high. If principals are to be influential in leading assessment-focused accountability ( or want for a better term, ‘leading accountable learning’), then they need to be confident and convinced in enacting their own knowledge and skills regarding teaching and learning.
- Prioritising learning
When tasked with leading learning and meeting accountability expectations, educational leaders need to balance competing priorities (Leithwood, 2005), reorder goals (Seashore Louis & Mintrop, 2012) and be creative in integrating information (Thiel et al., 2012). Many studies on the topic of leader effectiveness in student learning outcomes offered insights for this current study (Hattie et al., 2015; Le Fevre & Robinson, 2014; Robinson et al., 2008). However, as noted earlier, there are few studies on the topic of the influence of educational leaders’ agency on teaching and learning while at the same time being accountable for results. However in this study building credibility with teachers was seen as being essential to leading learning in the principals’ accountability contexts (see Section b). Their self -efficacy levels were affected by their knowledge of learning. Therefore, these findings, alongside the literature, clearly suggests that if educational leaders are to have influence in leading assessment-focused accountability, they need to feel confident and convinced in enacting their own knowledge and skills in teaching and learning.
2. Targeting their work with teachers about teaching and learning
- Building credibility with teachers – knowing what they do and how they do it
Finding ways to influence teachers and their teaching requires educational leaders to build credibility with their teaching team. Educational leaders need to develop a deep understanding of what teachers do and how they do it. The principals in my study reported that to meet the accountability expectations for learning (both external and internal) they needed to be able to influence teachers and their teaching. Principals may have carried out this role either directly or indirectly. Raymond in the study, for example, delegated this function to others. This delegation is not unusual, as secondary school principals regularly devolve or distribute the tasks before them (Jäppinen & Maunonen-Eskelinen, 2011; Spillane, 2006). There are some studies that describe how educational leaders influence (or do not influence) teachers and teaching, as well as students and student learning (Hattie, Masters, & Birch, 2015; Le Fevre & Robinson, 2014; Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008).
Building credibility and being credible are two essential leadership acts that influence teachers’ thinking and actions. I describe building credibility as the degree in which educational leaders or leadership activity may influence teachers’ thinking and actions, through the leader’s (or leadership activity) way of doing. Building credibility was reported (Norris, 2017) as being essential in influencing and persuading teachers in their thinking and acting, to meet the external accountability expectations yet remain true to the schools’ internal learning goals. The level of principals’ credibility was reported in terms of the benefit teachers could determine in meeting the expectations for favourable student performance results and at the same time as pursuing their own commitments regarding teaching and learning. As such, the degree of credibility could be said to be determined by the teacher yet influenced by the views and actions of the leader(s) or leadership. The importance of building credibility with teachers and their teaching was mentioned often by early career leaders and those new to their school communities: ‘They don’t know me so I am not sure of my creds [credibility] yet’.
Some educational leaders build credibility by understanding their teachers’ work. Working beside teachers provides opportunities to not only be in close working relationships but also to know and remain current about the teachers’ work. Charmaine, in this study, described herself as ‘a hands-on leader’ and she attended staff professional studies days, along with the teachers, as a part of the team on. In this way, Charmaine was building and maintaining relationships through common tasks with equal power relationships. Educational leaders working beside teachers aligns with Hersey’s and Blanchard’s (1988) behavioural task of participating, which is described as shared decision making with regard to task accomplishment and fewer requests for a task to be completed, while maintaining high relationship behaviour. Similarly, Hargreaves (2015) asserted the importance of working together to remain strong for a common purpose. Franken, Penney, and Branson (2015) found that teachers were more likely to be influenced when they perceived that their middle leaders understood their aspirations and needs. Importantly, Robinson’s (2011) study found that the characteristic of being close to teachers and their learning resulted in better student outcomes. This research of working besides and being close to teachers, participating in the team and knowing teachers aspirations and needs, suggests possible transference for educational leaders when tasked with being accountable for learning.
- Using data to inform learning and teaching plans
The majority of principals in my study were expansive about what data could offer, such as leverage for persuasion and notably, the way data informed teaching and learning practices. Empirical research was also considered data. Most of the principals described the importance of using and personalising data (Kaufman, Graham, Picciano, Popham, & Wiley, 2014; Sharratt & Fullan, 2012), acknowledging the influence of educational research on their understandings of learning and the impact of teaching on student learning (Bendikson et al., 2012; Hattie & Timperley, 2007; Richmond, 2007; Timperley, 2007). A minority of principals only used data to inform performance target setting. Koretz’s (2008) study found that in regimes with higher stakes consequences, accountability in driving for performance results gradually superseded the ‘diagnosis of the strengths and weaknesses of individual students’ learning’ (p. 47). In this current study, the principals who employed data for the purpose of performance target setting were also the principals who believed that the external expectations were a tool for judging and being measured against themselves as a principal. This was an important finding and supports Koretz’s study. The higher stake in this case was the principal thinking that their competency was being judged according to the students’ results in external testing. In this instance, these principals set targets for students’ performance results and grades. At the same time these same principals displayed higher levels of anxiety and disclosed they experiences symptoms of burnout and tiredness.
The teacher needs to see a benefit for themselves in changing a teaching practice or using data from performances (Dinham, 2008). Teachers are more likely to see a benefit if implementation plans have been established collectively and agreed by community members. Principals in this study who demonstrated their pursuits in solo (I and me) terms were more likely to demonstrate frustration and anger regarding their attempts to either persuade or influence teachers or to shield or buffer system expectations. One principal reported their solo pursuit as exhausting: ‘I have been going in this job now for [XX] years I don’t know how I will continue’ (Damien).
Principals in this study reported that students’ performance results were part of their learning goals, but only a small part. Joseph ‘tried a whole school approach—it’s a great scaffold for writing—so it will help in all subject areas but also should improve our results’. There were many studies about data informing leadership practices to address results, from No child left behind (Anderson, Leithwood, & Strauss, 2010; Stobart, 2008) and OfSTD (Earl & Fullan, 2003) to NAPLAN (Carter, 2015; Harris et al., 2013; Klenowski & Wyatt-Smith, 2011) and there was one study about the HSC (DeCourcy, 2005). While the principals who were in the National Partnership school program verbalised the processes that they used to measure their performance growth, they also reported more esteem for the incidental learning that occurred and more about the difficulties when students’ performances were the only targets. This finding suggested that targets other than students’ performance results were needed. Other principals in the study carried out their evaluations according to their own learning goals, rather than basing them on improvements in students’ performance results. This represented an increase in data informing practices, with the principals needing to present evidence of not only their implementation plans but also the evaluations and outcomes of those plans. This magnified the level and specificity of data and accountability. Being capable and confident in their capability of utilising data to inform leadership practices and evaluate accordingly appeared to be linked to principals’ levels of self-efficacy.
- Teacher benefit and leaders working collectively with teachers
The teacher needs to see a benefit for their students in changing a teaching practice or using data from performance results (Dinham, 2008). Teachers are more likely to see a benefit if implementation plans pertaining to accountability for learning have been established collectively and agreed by community members. Principals in this study who demonstrated their pursuits in solo (I and me) terms were more likely to demonstrate frustration and anger regarding their attempts to either persuade or influence teachers or conversely they shielded, buffered or ignored system expectations. One principal reported their solo pursuit as exhausting: ‘I have been going in this job now for [XX] years I don’t know how I will continue’(Damien). Finally the students need to know clearly where the expectations for performance results reside in their learning cycle. This clarity can be achieved when teachers agree on the expectations and there is a unified approach from all teachers across all their subject areas. Such collective agreements with a teaching team requires effective leadership skills which are fuelled by a vision and knowledge of learning and teaching.
3. Implementing accountable processes as part of the learning cycle
To effectively release the hold of the accountability squeeze educational leaders need to align accountable processes with their internal learning goals. Enmore (2005) in his study found that educational leaders who were less inclined to pressure their teachers to teach to the test or develop pseudo curriculum were more likely to have already established internal accountable processes as part of the learning cycle. Enmore’s finding is congruent with my findings where principals integrated the external demands into existing their school practices. In particular they emphasised the importance of managing external school systems expectations with internal learning commitments simultaneously. One such example was holding accountable conversations with teachers as part of their professional learning plans
- Managing the external accountability expectations simultaneously with leading learning
Some educational leaders seamlessly integrate their external expectations (favourable performance results) with their internal school learning goals. Participating principals in this research noted the importance of gaining collective agreements from teachers and simultaneously being responsive to the current sets of data and their analytical tools. This finding indicates that leaders need to develop the capability of building coherence between what is being asked of them and meeting their own existing school commitments. In the study most principals ignored the pressure to set performance results as their target and replaced this with broader learning goals. Leithwood, Riehl, Firestone, and Riehl (2005) found that the way principals manage the external and internal expectations is by attending to some concerns and disregarding others, thus balancing competing demands and making choices. They may reorder their goals (Seashore Louis, Knapp, & Feldman, 2012). In my study, the principals appeared to have developed sophisticated integration skills in the face of increasing accountability demands and expectations to implement School system-imposed programs, notably prioritising certain expectations over others.
To avoid the accountability squeeze leaders need not only to prioritise the expectations but also need to be competent in understanding information and being able to integrate this information to the current situation. Thiel et al. (2012) asserts that one essential strategy for leaders who are making decisions is their capacity to integrate information from their environments. A certain amount of shrewdness on the part of leaders bolsters and enables an agile culture. Koyama (2014) found that principals negotiate and appropriate external accountability in innovative and ‘clever and savvy’ ways to meet multiple demands. A strategy in being shrewd, clever and savvy is for leaders to understand what is being asked of them yet suspend their expectations. Such suspension allows for adequate information integration, which enables educational leaders to be considered, yet creative in their approaches. Such creative or sensible approaches can occur when accountable conversations are part of the conversation of the professional learning plan with teacher and ‘leader’.
- Holding accountable conversations
In the body of literature about educational accountability little has been written about and less has been researched about the conversations that occur between the teacher and the leader about their students’ performance results. This paucity is surprising given the plethora of research about the plight of testing regimes and school systems’ expectations for favourable performance results.
Knowing teachers’ needs and motivations creates opportunities for the leader/s or leadership to influence teachers and their teaching. Conversations based on inquiry are avenues to help leaders’ understandings. However, a study by Le Fevre and Robinson (2014) found that principals demonstrated low to moderate capacity to hold conversations about performance; they were more skilled in advocating their own viewpoints than being able to inquire into and check their understandings of the views of the teachers.
In this current study, DeCourcy data were esteemed by the participating principals, possibly because it could be accessed easily, it was reported as being not complicated and it had few items to analyse. Additionally the DeCourcy guides to the data were employed to help hold the accountable conversation. This function was esteemed in beneficial terms particularly by the cohort of principals who had been working with the tool for at least 10 years. The majority of principals in this study used DeCourcy data for not only the provision of a different analysis from the HSC results but also as guide for questions to conduct during review conversations with teachers. While only one principal in this study reported that they held conversations focused on teacher developmental issues (outside of DeCourcy data) with regard to unfavourable performance results, Graham revealed that making the time and a structure for these conversations, even when they were difficult, resulted in positive outcomes. Le Fevre and Robinson (2014) found that one reason for educational leaders’ reluctance to address poor performance issues was owing to their tendency to avoid negative emotions. However, addressing issues of performance is important. The implications of not doing this were noted in Bryk and Schenider’s study (2002), which found that teachers’ (and parents’) trust of leaders is diminished when leaders avoid dealing with poor teacher performance or deal with it inadequately (resulting in no change). Hence, and possibly ironically, if principals avoid holding their teachers to account, this may decrease trust in their leadership in the community. There has been little research on the topic of the DeCourcy tool’s function as a guide for leaders’ questions, until now albeit as a sidebar finding. Given its widespread adoption by NSW Catholic secondary schools, this could be a future research area, particularly the impact of the DeCourcy guide questions.
This post aimed to present ways that leaders may release the accountability squeeze. It demonstrated ways that educational leaders may integrate their external expectations in the pursuit of favourable performance result with their own ideas about learning and teaching. While these are not detailed strategies to release the squeeze, the literature along with my study impress on the importance of leaders/leadership activity working closely with the teaching team, knowing and understanding their work and needs and motivations, making sense of the external expectations and integrating these expectations into the current processes in the school. Building credibility with teachers is an essential leverage point for those engaged in the leadership relationship. Positioning learning in the centre of the educational leader’s work is also essential as a platform to collectively engage teachers and their teaching.
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[i] Leaders, leadership, leading are employed synonymously in this blog – I prefer to conceptualise leadership as a verb – a way of ‘doing, that is when I think of projects or initiatives that may have been sparked by a ‘leadership team’ however, encouragingly, they start to evolve into a life of their own with teachers. On the other hand leadership may be about the leader; their way of ‘being’. For more ideas around the conceptualisation of leadership click here (hyperlink)