The last few decades of research on school leadership has improved our understanding of the critical nature of the role, and coalesced into an empirical reality: school principals and other school leaders are critical to overall school quality, including building culture, teacher instruction, and student achievement (Hallinger and Heck 1998; Mulford et al. 2009; Supovitz, Sirinides, and May 2009). These empirical understandings, combined with policy- and practice-based insight, have been reflected in evolving national standards about how effective leaders manifest leadership (SNational Policy Board for Educational Administration [NPBEA] 2015). In particular, the school principal’s ability to establish a vision, orient others to it and the mission associated with it, and then effectively organize multiple aspects of the organization and lead its people have all been associated with elements of good school leadership. Given the extent to which a principal’s impact on student achievement is moderated by teacher quality, it could be that the ‘ripple-down effect’ of principals actually underestimates his or her significance (Clifford, Behrstock-Sherratt, and Fetters 2012).
The importance of our growing depth of knowledge about the importance of high-quality leadership should not be minimized or assumed because in our relatively recent past, the primary role of school principal was that of a manager who was successful if she or he ensured the logistical and financial operations of the building (Donmoyer and Wagstaff 1990; Murphy and Hallinger 1988; Edmonds 1979). School leadership was conceived as largely managerial. As the policy environment became increasingly concerned with addressing achievement gaps, and thereby enacting change and growth, good management was a necessary but insufficient component of effective leadership (Hallinger 1992). Effective leadership began to be more robustly conceptualized as enacting positive influence on stakeholders, building capacity of teachers, and creating organizational coherence in the form of unified and empowered teams assuming responsibility for improving outcomes for all students. Thus, while the emphasis was not purely managerial, instructional and transformational leadership began to surface as constructs that better represented the work of effective principals (Leithwood 2012; Robinson, Hohepa, and Lloyd 2009).
Beginning with the broad overview above is important to understand that leadership for school improvement is nuanced, complex, and ongoing. Without discernment, many initiatives to develop, study, or understand school leadership appear quite similar, but even some seemingly minor differences in the consideration of leading school improvement have important ramifications about what we actually know or how we respond. Any meaningful reflection on the simple phrase ‘leadership for school improvement’ results in a number of questions that are not always easily answered: Is leadership for school improvement different from effective leadership? If so, how is leadership for school improvement different from effective leadership? Should the person(s) leading even be leading? How should he, she, or they lead? How is capacity built in school stakeholders? How is leadership distributed to improve organizational efficacy? How are we defining improvement? How is it measured? How it will be achieved, and/or how it will be measured?
The number of questions and iterations of them are too numerous to list in this entry. But their existence suggests the utter importance of context for leadership. However, it is important to establish that we conceptualize leadership for school improvement as describing the context in which a school is not meeting standards for some or all of its students’ learning, and the leadership seeks to do something about it, typically through capacity building of teachers and improving overall instructional quality that could be limited by larger systemic constraints. Context, which we define as the unique nature of any given school, must occupy a prominent position in the minds of leaders when leadership moves are made. In effort to capture context, some leadership typologies are actually reflective of the context. ‘School improvement leadership’ and ‘turnaround leadership’ each demonstrate the importance of context, and remind us that the context of school improvement and the context of school turnaround may need specific actions and practices from certain types of leaders, in addition to fundamentally sound effective, high quality leadership.
We recognize the ongoing discourse in the field of educational leadership and the broader field of education research about whether school improvement leadership is a discrete construct. However, we contend the improvement context is unique and separate from the effective or ‘continuous improvement’ context. The primary driver behind our stance is that the few examples of research on school transformation includes distinct leaders and leadership moves separate from effective leadership (Herman et al. 2008; Le Floch et al. 2016; Meyers and Hitt 2017; Hitt and Meyers 2018; Hitt, Zhu, Meyers, and Woodruff 2018; Hitt, Zhu, Meyers, and Woodruff, in press). It follows that application of effective leadership may not suffice for school improvement. These assumptions about context set the stage to transition into the bulk of this entry, which focuses on an overview of the empirical advancement of knowledge of leadership for change – school improvement leadership and more recently, turnaround leadership – over approximately the last 30 years.