CLARITY Series Volume 9 - Leadership Actions

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?