What Leadership Actions Are Necessary to Directly Increase All Students’ Growth and Achievement?
Purpose The purpose of this study is to answer what leadership actions are necessary to directly increase all students’ growth and achievement? By first investigating improvement work done in two states: Ontario, Canada, and Queensland, Australia, and in two school regions within these states, the over-arching research question, became clear: “What are the common leadership practices between and within schools and systems that result in improved learning for all students regardless of learning need, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic background or past experiences?”
Design/Approach/Method: The design was an in-depth Case Study investigation in four schools in Darling Downs South West Region, Queensland, Australia. The Australian national standards-based data sources were used to determine these improving schools and intensive interviews of 9 leaders were conducted and an inductive thematic analysis method employed.
Findings: Findings revealed that students’ growth and achievement were attained when leaders systematically interrogated and then refined the alignment of structural, cultural and cognitive improvement practices.
Originality/Value: This research clearly links the direct impact of system and school leadership to improvement in students’ growth and achievement when leaders at every level attend to structural, cultural and cognitive alignment.
Key Words: structural, cultural and cognitive alignment; growth; achievement; system and school leadership, student success, improvement practices
An internal environment or culture that supports the balance between an organization’s ability to learn and unlearn or to refresh its learning, appears necessary for the organization’s long-term survival and success. We have grappled with this notion since Hedberg (1981, p. 19-20) noted that organizations learn when they interact with their environments. In today’s rapidly changing socio-economic and political climate, acquiring and extending the leadership skill set that creates, supports and enables continuous regeneration of the internal environment is extremely valuable. This leadership capacity for sustaining cultural stability enables organizations to create, embed and use consistent collaborative decision-making processes by which they analyse and determine which practices or processes to retain, which to modify and incorporate, and which to reject in order to become more adaptive, nimble and expert at balancing a consistent, overall organizational improvement strategy.
Leadership is the key to productively managing through turbulence and creating innovation and calm out of chaos (Sharratt, 1996). Leaders of Learning Organizations foster a climate of low personal risk but moderate to high organizational risk-taking that encourages a collaborative community of learners. Promoting the right people into leadership positions shapes organizational culture for years and offers the greatest potential for sustainability of improvement (1996). In a Learning Organization (LO), leadership development is a responsibility shared by all employees. Employees take responsibility for their continued learning and leaders at all organizational levels take responsibility not only for their own development, but also the development of their people (adapted, London, 1992, p. 60).
That being the case, educational leaders in states, regions and districts soon discover that there are no ‘magic solutions’ or ‘quick fixes’ on the road to improving the Professional Learning (PL) for teachers and leaders that results in equity and excellence for all students. Two such states, Ontario, Canada, and Queensland, Australia, have been actively wrestling with the role of the leader as the chief influencer in teachers’ capacity to successfully assess and instruct ALL students. Their stories and Case Studies in this paper demonstrate what the role of leadership encompasses in directly and indirectly impacting students’ growth and achievement.
The Ontario Narrative
Ontario, Canada, now has a proven track-record in increasing all students’ growth and achievement and a reputation across the globe for doing so. In 2007, there were 800 elementary schools in Ontario where 50% of Grade 3 and 6 students were scoring at below Level 3 – the expected provincial standard in reading, writing and mathematics on the state (provincial) assessments delivered by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO: an arms-length organization that develops and administers standards-based assessments, measuring proficiency in Reading, Writing and Mathematics for students in Grades 3, 6, and 9 (Mathematics only) and Grade 10 (Literacy)). In 2016, only 8% of the 800 Ontario schools – just 63 – had similar proportions of students achieving below the expected Level 3. Using 4 key levers for elementary reform: improving classroom teaching and learning using a framework; improving school effectiveness; building leadership capacity; and ensuring research and evaluation would be included in every step of the process, stunning increases occurred. Similarly, in secondary schools, with a laser-like focus on increasing all students’ achievement, Ontario increased secondary graduation rates impressively from 68% in 2003 to 87.1% in 2018. The story of one school district in Ontario that rose from being ‘at the bottom of the pack” to the top of the achievement grid, using EQAO data, follows.
The York Region Improvement Narrative
Of the 150 schools in the York Region District School Board (YRDSB), Ontario, Canada, in 2002, 17 schools in very challenging circumstances found sufficient funding within their overall staffing budget to have half-time literacy coaches in their schools, and, on that commitment basis were offered specific ongoing, differentiated PL from the district, based on their needs. There were two caveats concerning the role and the PL provided by the district: (1) each school in this district work must have had a literacy coach who was a respected, valued teacher selected from the school staff; and (2) the principal and the literacy coach had to attend the monthly district PL sessions together.
The approach, known as the Literacy Collaborative (LC), was driven by the Literacy Steering Committee, comprised of the superintendent of curriculum (Sharratt), curriculum coordinators, an appointed system literacy principal, and principal representatives from the field. The LC was strategically guided by the Literacy Advisory Committee—composed of the elected chair of the school board; director of education; two field superintendents; Sharratt; an elementary and secondary principal representative; and the district-wide literacy principal.
After one year, and with literacy as the singular priority, district scores began to improve; the scores from the initial 17 LC schools outperformed both state (provincial) and all other district schools (Figure 1.1, Sharratt and Fullan, 2012). In year 2, the 17 schools again outperformed the others. When Sharratt and Fullan examined the 17 schools’ data more closely, they found that nine of the seventeen were able to align and sustain their work on improvement despite chaotic episodes in their schools. The nine were called “ high-focus schools.” Figure 1.1 shows that in years 3, 4, and 5, the nine “high-focus” schools advanced their level of achievement. Scores for the eight “low-focus” schools were inconsistent and episodic because they could not maintain their focus on quality classroom practice to increase all students’ achievement. What factors differed between the high- and low-focus schools to affect scores as they did?
Figure 1.1 Grade 3 EQAO Reading: Percentage of All Students at Levels 3 and 4
To determine why, Sharratt and Fullan analysed the annual reports from the 17 schools, school improvement plans and interviewed teachers and leaders at each school to learn which schools had incorporated the literacy coach and monthly PL sessions more fully and how they had done it. The nine high-focus schools ( Figure 1.1) that did especially well were initially among the lowest performing schools in the district, yet they moved beyond district and state averages in a relatively short time and, importantly, sustained their achievement levels. The explanation for better performance was found to be more carefully-focused attention to the details in each of 14 improvement areas that Sharratt and Fullan (2009) called the 14 Parameters shown in Figure 1.2. Within these highly successful schools, it was not by accepting or endorsing an idea or practice that was recommended by others, improvement resulted by the whole-school staff continuously self-assessing against these 14 areas.
Think of the 14 Parameters as the specific reform strategies that, in combination, and over time, as the organization progresses to gradual implementation of all 14 Parameters, “cause” classroom, school, district, and state improvement.
Figure 1.2: The 14 Parameter Conceptual Framework for System and School Improvement
Leadership Lessons from Ontario. We have learned that new and focused leadership strategies are needed to increase the specificity of teaching and the opportunity for all students to learn. Principals and teacher-leaders across schools shared their leadership lessons with us (2007):
Use student assessment data to tailor individual student instruction in classrooms;
Use school performance data to define the precise and intensive support for PL in assessment that informs instruction needed across the school and schools;
Use various forms of student assessment data to differentiate learning support and resources across a region;
Use and trust only hard work, will and perseverance – do not depend on miracles;
Be consistent, persistent and insistent in seeking high-impact classroom practice – in pursuit of equity and excellence. Leaders suppressed chaotic, unfocused practice by continually leading their teams back to the priority;
Follow the 14 Parameters to create a continuously improving internal environment.
The Queensland story closely reflects the lessons learned above.
The Queensland Narrative
2019 marked a decade of remarkable improvement in outcomes for students in schools in Queensland, Australia. The system and school improvement journey was recently honoured by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for exemplary continuous improvement work and achieving compelling gains in student outcomes, most significantly for its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students (Carnegie Foundation, 2019). Why? It has been said that leadership is critical, second only to teaching among school-related factors in its impact on student learning (Hopkins, 2001; Leithwood et al 2006; Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstron & Anderson, 2010). But evidence from this current research conducted in Queensland indicates that leaders can and do directly influence students’ growth and achievement when they attend to structural, cultural and cognitive alignment in a whole-system, whole-school approach.
The Critical Importance of Leadership in Increasing Student Achievement
Instructional leadership has long been part of the narrative and practice in Queensland Department of Education, State Schools. Over time, Queensland leaders have sharpened the focus on the elements of school improvement that are considered in research to make the most difference for students, namely, systematic curriculum delivery, effective pedagogical practices and effective teaching teams (ACER, 2012).
Using the research of the14 Parameters has been foundational and pivotal across many jurisdictions, including Queensland (Dr. Alma Harris, Presentation, International Congress of School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI), 2020). Kelly and colleagues in Queensland promote the concept of instructional leadership at every level using the 14 Parameter Framework as Queensland’s self-assessment guide moving toward all students’ improvement as well as benchmarking their progress against the National School Improvement Tool (NSIT) and the Australian Professional Standards for principals. Between 2013 and 2020, Sharratt worked across all seven regions within Queensland introducing the focused use of data to inform improved outcomes for students, drawing on her co-authored books, Realization: The change imperative for deepening district-wide reform (Sharratt & Fullan, 2009) and Putting FACES on the data: What great leaders do! (Sharratt & Fullan, 2012).
Sharratt’s work influenced the way in which Queensland teachers and leaders have engaged with data to inform their work and which subsequently was identified as a primary driver for recent trends in continuous improvement (Queensland Government, 2018). For example, in a 2017 system review, the Department of Education noted the use of data in school decision-making in more than one-third of reviewed schools, adding that
data discussions in these schools were often supported by tools, such as data walls and student data books, which contributed to greater student ownership of their learning. Some of these schools noted considerable progress in developing a culture where everyone is assessment literate, owns the data of all students, and uses data to improve student learning (Queensland Government, 2018, p. 4).
The 2017 review also highlighted the use of Data Walls at Kirwan State High School in North Queensland as a “single point of truth for monitoring student progress” towards achievement of the Queensland Certificate of Education (Queensland Government, 2018, p. 55). The school, in direct acknowledgement of Sharratt’s research and writing, reported that the use of Data Walls, by putting ‘FACES on the data’, has allowed them to “better understand the unique story behind each student’s situation” (Queensland Government, 2018, p. 55).
A key enabler for uptake of Sharratt’s work in Queensland has been its alignment with the guiding policy for school leaders and teachers in Queensland, being Every Student Succeeding: State Schools Strategy (Queensland Government, 2019).
Leadership Lessons Learned from Queensland. Leadership at all levels of the organization is critical in sustaining improvement and modelling active participant expectations has been critical. Thus school Principals come to Sharratt’s PL sessions, work alongside their team members and, with integrity as ‘lead learners’ do the on-going ‘Homework’ assigned. System leaders learning alongside team members has generated an inquiry approach to learning together. Many lessons were learned about the critical importance of system and school leadership:
School leaders must become coaches and mentors rather than simply being supervisors and monitors.
‘Collaboration’ has moved from being a concept to a genuine action (Sharratt and Planche, 2016) and a ‘companioning’ process to underpin relationships, particularly between school supervisors and school principals - of differing school population sizes and with differing levels of experience.
System leaders must create environments where support is differentiated by context and need, acknowledging the importance of encouraging the cultural changes which are needed for school or system teams to embrace school improvement without risk.
Leaders must position themselves as co-learners in a collaborative structure which has a cumulative impact on the creation of shared beliefs and understandings (Sharratt & Planche, 2016).
Community structures must be created specifically for collaborative learning. For example, regional ‘Learning Fairs’ are annual events that bring system, school and teacher-leaders together to explore effective practices: “an outstanding sharing opportunity” whose focus is to “reflect on the successes and challenges of each school’s journey and to share evidence of their actions, results, and learning, modelling what schools can continue to do internally” (Sharratt, 2019, p. 40).
These leadership lessons experienced in Ontario and in Queensland operationalize the belief that while ‘one size does NOT fit all’, there are some definitive leadership actions that increase all students’ achievement. These lessons have been further researched through a case study approach in one region in Queensland to substantiate claim that precise leadership actions have a direct impact in building teacher capacity to improve all students’ growth and achievement.
Evidence-informed Leadership Dimensions
The work in Queensland continues to build leadership capability to lead complex change and enhance collaborative learning opportunities for leaders and teachers. In those regions, Sharratt’s (2019) Six Dimensions of Leadership is proving to be a useful conceptual organiser for increasing high-leverage leadership practices. Table 1 provides examples of the Queensland Department of Education’s contextualisation of Sharratt’s six Leadership Dimensions, mapped to the inquiry cycle that sits within their School Improvement Model (Queensland Government, 2019).
Table 1: Continuous Improvement Leadership Practices
The six identified school improvement leadership practices are ‘touchstones’ for driving improvement within a school, sharing practice between schools and learning together across schools using an agreed-upon self assessment format. The term “alignment” has commonly been associated with school improvement as a way of showcasing a school’s/organisation’s ability to implement strategies effectively (Fullan, 2009, Jeyaraj, 2011). Drawing from the more recent work of Alagaraja & Shuck (2015), alignment is defined as an adaptive, dynamic resource capability achieved by developing a shared understanding of organizational goals and requirements by employees (p.5). Two common dimensions: structural and cultural and the emerging dimension of cognitive alignment have been utilised in this paper to guide the analyses of leadership practices. The structural dimension focuses on aligning strategies, structures, and planning systems (Chenhall, 2005). The cultural dimension of alignment refers to the gap between staff’s commitment to the school’s vision and their daily practices (Schein, 2004) whereas cognitive alignment is concerned with the changes in cognition that emerge as a result of the strategic and structural support provided by school leaders that enable staff “to engage in ideational sharing, strategic sense-making, co-learning and reflection”(Jeyaraj, p 241, 2011). These critical alignment processes are further clarified in the following case study.
The Darling Downs School Improvement Case Study
The following case study explores the role of leadership in contexts that have evidenced continuous student improvement and a culture underpinned by collective accountability for all students. In 2016, the Darling Downs South West Region (DDSWR), Queensland, partnered with Sharratt in “The Leading Learning Collaborative” to support school leaders in utilising the 14 Parameters’ Conceptual Framework (Sharratt & Fullan, 2012; Sharratt, 2019) as a leadership tool targeted at improving all students’ growth and achievement (Sharratt, 2019). Over the next 3 years, 160 schools chose to participate in bi-annual PL sessions with explicit in-between tasks (‘Homework’). Over time, the six Leadership Dimensions in the self-assessment tool (Sharratt, 2019), Education Queensland’s School Improvement Model, including their inquiry process, and their school improvement hierarchy provided a common language and way of working for school leaders.
Within this context, schools began to evidence improvement which prompted our research inquiry question: What types of school leadership practices enable the development of collective responsibility and accountability that evidence growth in learning for all students? Answering this question will allow us to deepen our understanding of how continuous leadership improvement directly impacts on teachers’ capability to teach all students and strengthens all students’ capacity to learn.
Case Study Methodology
The case study methodology was deliberately adopted so that intimate knowledge of how leadership practices contributed to the building of collective accountability could be identified. This model of research began with whole-system data collection, which was explored through systematic data analysis of conceptual trends. Perspectives were sought from those leading the implementation of Sharratt’s work, that is, school principals, assistant principals, teacher-leaders and teachers, to glean insights into leadership decision-making and enactment. To achieve this, ten schools’, that reflected the diversity of school contexts within the DDSWR were selected by the DDSW regional leadership team.
Following the selection of case study schools, the research team reviewed the schools’ student learning data to identify case study schools that were demonstrating continuous whole school improvement utilising the Australian National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) test results for year 3 and year 5 as a common school improvement assessment tool. When students results are released their scores are organised into ten bands (1-10) with determined minimum band levels for each year level. This initial review identified the number of students who achieved below the National minimum benchmark band and the number of students who achieved in the upper two bands in year 3 and 5 over a three-year period. Schools that demonstrated a reduction in the number of students below and a growth in the number of students achieving in the upper two bands were isolated. This initial review identified four focus schools that demonstrated continuous whole-school growth and improvement in NAPLAN Reading as outlined in Figure 1.3.
Figure 1.3: Four Case Study High-Focus Schools Using NAPLAN Student Trends Compared to the Australian NAPLAN Trends in Reading.
Note: NAPLAN scores are organised into ten bands. Students who have achieved above the minimum band (Band 2 for year 3 and Band 3 for year 5) are identified as being above the minimum standard. Students who have achieved within or above the top two bands (Band 5 and 6 for year 3 and Band 7 and 8 for year 5) are identified as being in the upper two bands.
Focus schools’ improvement narrative (supported by system documentation and student data) were captured, following the first three years of implementation of Sharratt’s work, and analysed to identify the leadership practices used when implementing the 14 Parameters (Sharratt, 2019) through the layers of a school’s learning culture.
The case study participants and their roles are listed below. Each school leadership team member contributed to the sharing of their school narrative. The analysis of the data from these four high-focus schools is highlighted in this paper.
Table 1.1 Case Study Participants
Data analyses were inductive in nature and focused on identifying the leadership behaviours and practices across each high-focus school context. To ensure the findings were grounded in the data, an inductive thematic analysis method was utilized so that the explicit elements and underpinning assumptions could be revealed in the findings. Each data source was interpreted and coded through the implementation of Braun and Clarke’s (2013) inductive thematic analysis, as shown in Table 1.2.
Table 1.2: Braun and Clarke’s (2006) Phases of Thematic Analysis
Within phase two of this framework, two levels of analyses were applied to the data. The first level was concerned with identifying semantic themes (Braun & Clarke, 2006) drawn from explicitly-stated information within the text. This was followed with a latent analysis that was concerned with examining the “underlying ideas, assumptions and conceptualisations – and ideologies – that are theorised as shaping or informing the content of the data” (p.84).
The following three findings resulted from this thorough analyses of the system- and school-level data collected.
School improvement is known to be challenging (Elmore, 2016) and therefore understanding how school structures can be used to establish the right conditions for improvement is important. The notion of structural alignment requires leaders to systematically implement structures and processes that focus on achieving their identified improvement outcomes. Within the context of school improvement, structural features include but are not limited to: system strategic clarity, leadership structures, support and engagement strategies. Thematic analyses identified three common structural alignment leadership themes in this case study: 1.1 systems’ thinking; 1.2 strategic alignment (including resource allocation); and, 1.3 shared instructional leadership all related to the implementation of Sharratt’s 14 Parameter Framework and Queensland’s School Improvement Hierarchy.
1.1 Systems’ Thinking
Within the perceived complexity of school improvement, principals planning behaviours reflected a systems’ thinking approach. Principals in the four schools were consciously focused on identifying why current situations were the way they were to inform themselves of how to best improve results. They utilised historical and current evidence from multiple perspectives (including student data, school opinion surveys, past school audits and observations) to consider patterns of behaviour which in turn illuminated the impact of current school structures and strategies. This enabled each principal to contextualise their improvement journey.
2. Strategic Alignment
It is hard to argue the important role that utilising a systems’ approach plays when attempting to initiate educational change. As Wagner (1993) puts it, “systemic reflection, not reflexive reaction, is fundamental to long-term improvement” (The Institute for Systemic Leadership, 2018, p.24) as it provides leaders with a tool to learn from their school’s previous experiences. This process begins by asking the right questions (Sharratt, 2019). Utilising Queensland’s inquiry process and the 14 Parameter System and School Improvement Framework, principals described their role as the “linchpin” or “connector” between all facets of the improvement agenda, beginning with its development (Crowther, 2011). Through these reflective lenses, each principal considered the strategic alignment needed by analyzing the strengths and needs of their individual school contexts. They fore-fronted student learning as the short-term and long-term outcome and backward mapped the contributing inputs into current whole-school practices. These strategic inputs, aligned to the 14 Parameter Framework, included
having shared beliefs and understandings; ensuring shared responsibility and accountability (Parameters #1 and #14);
developing curriculum clarity (Parameters # 3, #13 and #7);
capturing the knowledge of students’ learning needs (Parameters #6 and #8);
using data purposefully and making evidence-based pedagogical decisions (Parameters #3, #5, #6 and #11);
building staff capability (Parameters #2, #4 and #7);
ensuring support mechanisms (Parameters #9 and #10);
engaging with key stakeholders (Parameter #12).
This reflective systems’ thinking process enabled school leaders to acknowledge the complexity of the context and improvement agenda by isolating and looking for the next best learning moves that aligned their work. Each principal articulated that this process created a personal sense of urgency and established the platform to ensure ‘learning’ was their priority.
A common aspect of each school leader’s thinking was his/her ability to ensure the right work was the focus of daily interactions and conversations through a ‘no excuses’ approach as clearly and consistently articulated by system leaders. As outlined by one principal interviewee, it is not about the principal taking on extra work… “it is about building capability of others…by refining roles and responsibilities through the development of a shared vision (Parameter #1) to develop shared responsibility and accountability for all students’ learning (Parameter #14)”.
3. Shared Instructional Leadership
Within each school’s journey, the principal identified the need to ensure there was shared ownership of the improvement journey (Parameter #14) which resulted in the implementation of a distributed leadership model. Formal leadership and teacher-leaders positions were identified to form the ‘leading learning leadership teams’. The deliberate selection by each principal to implement this leadership structure laid the foundation for becoming a LO as it encouraged a particular relatedness between teacher-leaders and formal leaders that enabled the knowledge-generating capacity of school staff members to be activated and sustained (Crowther et al., 2011). Teacher-leaders actively reflected upon their daily practices providing valuable insights into the development of improvement strategies while formal leaders reflected on the conditions and supports that needed to be established. These various perspectives resulted in balanced implementation plans that valued and reflected all stakeholders. Through these processes, the principals utilised and facilitated transparent, evidence-based decision-making processes and collaborative problem-solving structures (Parameter #11) to develop mutual trust and respect among all teachers and leaders. A collaborative culture of caring and self-assessment of impact emerged (Parameters #1, #2, #4, and #14).
2. Cultural Alignment
Organisational culture as a factor of system success has been highlighted by multiple researchers (Azhar, 2003; Jarratt & O’Neill, 2002; Schein, 2004). An organisation’s culture is the outcome of how individuals collectively align to the organisation’s values, norms, beliefs and customs to achieve goals. Schein (2004) identifies three critical components of an organisation’s culture: artefacts, espoused beliefs and values, and basic underlying assumptions. He outlines that a lack of alignment among these can result in a competitive or dysfunctional culture with anxiety and reactive behaviours (Schein, 2004) which supports the significant impact that group dynamics can have on the quality of knowledge-sharing (Cyr & Choo, 2010).
Research also highlights that an individual’s personal disposition and group-think within a context can impact on an individual’s ability to engage in practices aimed at building personal and professional awareness (Malm, 2009). Within each school context, the principal supported the development of practices that promoted conflict management, self-awareness, personal development and social competence. This highlights the importance of planning for and implementing formal practices, including: meeting structures with co-constructed operating norms, with communication templates and protocols, and with on-going time for reflective mid-course corrections.
Within each context, principals did not explicitly refer to cultural alignment, however, they did implement processes and practices that reflected this critical aspect of school improvement. Practices and processes included
The development of a shared commitment to improving all students’ learning through reflective, data-driven conversations (Parameter #1 and #6);
The co-construction of shared improvement accountabilities and timelines (Parameter #14);
School documents co-constructed and continually refined by staff to reflect instructional practices that work (Parameters #3 and #13);
School communication protocols and conflict resolution processes co-constructed and documented to promote collegial problem-solving (Parameter #1);
Teachers engaged in regular informal and formal reflections in relation to the school’s improvement focus (Parameters #7 and #8);
Principals engaged in strengths-based, reflective conversations with staff and identified supports and clarified underpinning assumptions where needed in order to all embrace accountability (Parameter #4 and #14);
Learning Walks and Talks occurred on a daily basis extending to include teachers walking with leaders and peers (Sharratt, 2019). This entailed moving between classrooms and asking students Sharratt’s 5 Questions (2019) to identify how assessment literate students were. This was articulated by leaders as a powerful tool to reflect on the clarity of intentional learning across their schools (Parameters #1, #4, and #14).
As culture is difficult to measure, the structural inputs that are implemented model and create the culture of the environment. How each principal communicates and responds, daily, to situations contributes to developing a culture of learning. Within each school context, the principal was a instructional and relational leader who
modelled reflective practices;
responded rather than reacted;
engaged in strengths-based, solution-focused conversations with staff and students (Parameters #1, #4 and #14).
School review findings within each school reflected that all staff at each site embraced a clear line-of-sight from strategy to classroom practice with a positive, collective commitment to learning precise improvement practices. Many of these processes were underpinned by the on-going development of a growth-promoting culture of learning (Parameter #1 and #14).
3. Cognitive Alignment
Professional Learning is a fundamental prerequisite of school improvement (Geijsel, Sleegers, Van Den Berg & Kelchtermans 2001; Fullan, Harris & Jones, 2010). Within this context, the structure of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) is utilised in and across these case study schools. Within the PLC structure, teachers become actively involved in studying professional challenges, in making decisions as to what to do about them, and in committing to implementing those decisions (Louis & Marks, 1998; Stoll & Louis, 2007).
Relationships are fundamental to the formation of a purposeful and productive PLC. Pyrko and colleagues (2017) argue that LOs cannot exist without the collaborative element; however, as articulated by Fullan, Harris and Jones (2010) collaboration on its own is insufficient as it must be paired with processes that support learning or cognitive alignment.
In the four Case Study schools, principals utilised the cultural alignment processes to promote and support collaborative behaviours and practices with a strategic focus on student learning. Principals engaged staff in a series of constructivist processes that supported them to develop new knowledge, to reflect on their current practice and to co-construct shared beliefs and understandings (Parameter #1). They consciously utilised the co-construction process, data-driven conversations, descriptive feedback, mentoring and instructional side-by-side coaching conversations to build collaborative, cognitive structures. These structures ensured teachers’ professional conversations embraced higher-order thinking, using protocols to examine, compare and analyse the impact of their teaching (Sharratt, 2019).
Research Findings Linked to Leadership Imapct
Utilising the data and findings from the case study, a thematic analysis was applied to illuminate the emerging themes within and across each leadership layer. Sharratt & Fullan’s 14 Parameters (2012), Sharratt’s Leadership Dimension’s (2019) and Queensland’s School Improvement Model (SIM), including the inquiry cycle, from this study were utilised as the key reflective frameworks to construct the resulting system leadership model (Figure 1.4).
Developing a LO is complex with no quick fixes because a LO is dynamic inside, and also must be sensitively plugged into its external context if it is to have any chance of surviving at all (Sharratt, 1996). The understanding of organizational culture and its power is integral to the management of change, to organizational learning, and to succeeding in attaining organizational goals. The organization has learned (italics ours) when it has developed better systems for error detection and correction; changed the mental models of its members to new ways of doing business; and changed its organizational memory by changing some part of how it encodes memory (information system, budget, policies, procedures) and captures and encodes knowledge latent in experience (Marsick & Watkins, 1992, p. 119). It is this multi-level learning of new skills and trusting in each other that enable Learning Organizations to succeed.
This in-depth case study has highlighted that within each of the four school contexts there was a clear alignment to the system direction, strategy and goals through the engagement in leadership practices that model and engage all staff in meaningful work focused on improving student learning. The specificity and comprehensive nature of the Queensland’s (DoE) improvement strategy, the adoption of Sharratt and Fullan’s 14 Parameters and Sharratt’s six Leadership Dimensions provided system leaders with clarity to achieve the system goals which in turn freed the school leaders’ thinking to consider the contextual conditions required for in-depth implementation. Each interviewee highlighted the use of DoE inquiry cycle in Figure 1.4 as the process that supported them to contextualise the model and adapt it to meet the needs of their learners. The use of the model enabled them to
develop deep knowledge of an evidence-based leadership framework that “just made sense and was connected to our existing work”(Interviewee’s Comment);
reflect and co-learn with system support personal, as one interviewee said, “We learned alongside our system leader which allowed us to engage in deeper, contextualised conversations about school improvement” (Interviewee’s Comment);
reflect and learn in school clusters as one specific research participant stated: “Learning how others were implementing the work allowed our teachers to share practices and learn from each other” (Interviewee’s Comment);
co-lead and co-learn with their school leadership teams as several leaders articulated: “Learning together provided the development of trust and open conversations that challenged our current practices” (Interviewee’s Comment).
Returning to our initial leadership inquiry: “What are the common leadership practices between and within schools and systems that result in improved learning for all students regardless of learning need, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic background or past experiences?”, we conclude that system leaders’ CLARITY of structural, cultural and cognitive alignment practices directly influence school leaders’, teachers’ and students’ improvement.
CLARITY of Leadership Practices
When reflecting on the connectedness of leadership practices aligned to the SIM, Sharratt’s six Leadership Dimensions and the 14 Parameter Conceptual Framework, Table 1.3, demonstrates that principals within improving schools utilise leadership practices that lead to the development of LOs that foster structural, cultural and cognitive as modelled by system leaders. The use of this organisation alignment lens has the potential to provide further CLARITY in understanding how principals lead in continuously improving schools.
Table 1.3 Continuous Improving Leadership Practices and Their Organisational Impact.
A key characteristic of these system learning processes was that they were reflective of double-looped learning, enabling new knowledge to be acquired, implemented in practice, reflected upon and refined (Tagg, 2010). System leaders encouraged school leaders to take an active role in exploring and testing improvement ideas through a whole-school approach to inquiry that utilised evidence to challenge thinking and current practice. As a result, school clusters and individual schools co-constructed shared understandings, experiences and set goals. It was also noted that over time these processes deepened individuals’ understandings of the challenges faced within each school culture and context, and unified the teams to continuously improve their practice and commit to every student succeeding.
The current system reform work in Queensland is evidencing improvement. The findings within this study highlight that successful leaders in Queensland consciously utilise structural, cultural and cognitive alignment practices to ensure that all teachers and leaders are continuously reflecting on practices that ensure every student is growing and achieving.
In summary, leadership is critical to the successful implementation of large-scale reform in education systems. The experiences of leaders in Ontario and Queensland demonstrate the importance of aligning structural, cultural and cognitive processes to support an organization’s ability to learn, unlearn, and refresh its learning as a learning organization. In each state, system leaders provided an environment which directly enabled school leaders and teacher-leaders to refine their practices to directly improve students’ growth and achievement.
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