Distributed Leadership PDF
Donley, J., Detrich, R., States, J., & Keyworth, (2020). Distributed Leadership. Oakland, CA: The Wing Institute. https://www.winginstitute.org/leadership-models-distributed
School principals have been the focus of much of the research on educational leadership, with studies generally demonstrating that principals exert a strong, though mediated, influence on student learning, and powerfully impact factors such as school climate and teacher working conditions (Hallinger & Heck, 2010a; Hitt & Tucker, 2016; Leithwood, Harris, & Hopkins, 2020; Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008; Sebastian & Allensworth, 2012; Supovitz, Sirinides, & May, 2010). However, with the advent of the democratic and participative school restructuring movement of the 1990s that called for empowering teachers as professional educators to maximize the potential for school improvement (Marks & Louis, 1997), a key leadership model emerged to describe how principals and teachers work together to share the leadership load and determine the best instructional practices for the school (Marks & Printy, 2003). The distributed leadership model has been the focus of abundant lines of research (Gümüş, Bellibaş, Esen, & Gümüş, 2018); this review summarizes the evidence for the model’s efficacy in explaining how principals and teachers together influence school practices and effectiveness.
Background and Definitions of Terms
The origins of distributed leadership grew out of turning away from the “great man” concept of educational leadership, in which a single actor was thought necessary to lead in a top-down way in a bureaucratic organizational school structure (Leithwood & Louis, 2012; Pearce & Conger, 2003). The shift toward a flatter organizational structure, in which there are few or no levels of middle management between leaders and staff-level employees, reflected an increased appreciation for the contributions of individuals who often performed leadership roles in schools without holding positions of formal authority (Gronn, 2003). Distributed leadership was also touted as a way to support school principals who frequently face increasing complexities of leadership challenges in today’s schools. As noted previously, these challenges resulted from massive restructuring efforts to improve schools and to professionalize the role of teachers so more teachers could share responsibility for leadership work (Marks & Louis, 1997; Marks & Printy, 2003).
The seminal research conducted by Spillane, Halverson, and Diamond (2001, 2004) set the stage for further lines of investigation into distributed leadership. These researchers argued that “to understand leadership practice, it is essential to go beyond a consideration of the roles, strategies, and traits of the individuals who occupy formal leadership positions to investigate how the practice of leadership is stretched over leaders, followers, and material and symbolic artifacts in the situation” (Spillane et al., 2004, p. 27). Distributed leadership involves the principal and teachers collaborating to determine and carry out the best practices for the school, rather than the principal serving as the sole or primary authority on these matters (Spillane et al., 2001, 2004).
Studies on distributed leadership use a variety of perspectives and terminology (Liu, Bellibaş, & Gümüş, 2020), such as shared instructional leadership (Marks & Printy, 2003), collective leadership (e.g., Leithwood & Mascall, 2008), and democratic leadership (Natsiopoulou & Giouroukakis, 2010). These terms are often used interchangeably with distributed leadership, leading to some confusion and the misperception that distributed leadership includes the notion that everyone leads together at the same level (Harris, 2007). Rather, distributed leadership “essentially means that those best equipped or skilled or positioned to lead do so, in order to fulfill a particular goal or organizational requirement.” (Harris & DeFlaminis, 2016, p. 144).
Eckert (2019) noted that distributed leadership does not consist solely of delegation of tasks by principals to teachers. Rather, distributed leadership is considered a key component of learning-centered leadership, which is performed collaboratively by administrators and teachers and relies on complex, organic interrelationships as well as shared responsibility for learning outcomes (Murphy, Elliott, Goldring, & Porter, 2006). Administrators and teachers work and learn together as they coordinate practices such as setting the direction for the school, developing school staff, redesigning the organization as necessary, and improving the instructional program (Leithwood & Louis, 2012; Murphy, 2005). The idea of distributed leadership is based on the notion that when teacher-leaders, who have assumed responsibility for achieving common goals, work together with the principal, they accomplish more than the principal could accomplish working alone (Chrispeels, 2004; Hallinger, 2005). In fact, inflexible hierarchies can produce low staff morale and performance (Tian, Risku, & Collin, 2016).
Supporting Research and Important Factors and Caveats
Distributed leadership has received an extensive amount of research attention, particularly in the past decade (Gümüş et al., 2018), and supporting research includes related investigations that have generally confirmed the leadership potential of teachers to act as mentors, curriculum specialists, and resource providers in addition to classroom instructors (Tian & Huber, 2020). Distributed leadership has been associated with positive outcomes such as improved student academic performance (Hallinger & Heck, 2010a; Hallinger & Heck, 2010b; Heck & Hallinger, 2009; Leithwood & Mascall, 2008), teacher academic optimism and professional efficacy (Mascall, Leithwood, Strauss, & Sacks, 2008), organizational commitment (Hulpia & Devos, 2010; Hulpia, Devos, & Van Keer, 2011), teacher satisfaction (Liu et al., 2020), and teacher retention (Booker & Glazerman, 2009; Cowan & Goldhaber, 2016), as well as increased teacher effectiveness and instructional improvement (Ali & Yangaiya, 2015; Camburn & Han, 2009; Supovitz & Riggan, 2012).
Collective leadership, which “encompasses the practices through which teachers and administrators influence colleagues, policymakers, and others to improve teaching and learning” (Eckert, 2018, p. 5), has also been shown to have a greater influence on student outcomes than individual principal leadership (Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstrom, & Anderson, 2010). The source of this influence may lie at least in part on collective leadership’s potential to enhance teachers’ professional efficacy, which has been shown to be a highly influential factor for student learning (Hattie, 2017).
In a recent overview of the research support for distributed leadership, Leithwood et al. (2020) stated that “school leadership can have an especially positive influence on school and student outcomes when it is distributed” (p. 9). Still, how that leadership is distributed produces diverse outcomes and results, and effectiveness depends on how leadership roles and responsibilities are distributed to optimally address the organization’s needs. Research suggests that careful planning, coordination, and intentional support on the part of the principal or other school leaders to distribute leadership based on staff characteristics or competencies maximize the chances for improved school outcomes (Bush & Glover, 2012; Leithwood et al., 2007).
The quality and distribution of leadership functions and opportunities for participative decision making and cooperation in leadership teams have been found to influence teachers’ organizational commitment, with teachers more strongly committed when informal leadership responsibilities are shared based on patterns of staff expertise, such as when new teams are created to solve problems of practice (DeFlaminis, 2013; Hulpia & Devos, 2010). These patterns of expertise, of course, vary from school to school context (Eckert, 2019; Hallinger & Heck, 2010a; Leithwood & Mascall, 2008; Leithwood et al., 2020), meaning that distributed leadership will likely be enacted differently across schools.
As the research base on distributed leadership has expanded, criticisms have appeared in the literature. For example, some critiques suggested that distributed leadership was conceived as a way to get teachers to do more work and as a more efficient way to deliver top-down, standardized policies and practices (Hargreaves & Fink, 2009). Lumby (2013) argued that claims of distributed leadership’s potential to empower and open up new teacher opportunities might be unwarranted and that there was no mention of the potential for unequal inclusion related to gender and race. Lumby suggested that distributed leadership “reconciles staff to growing workloads and accountability and writes troubling issues of the disempowerment and/or exclusion of staff out of the leadership script” (p. 582). Indeed, some research has included examples of how those with leadership authority and responsibility in schools have used distributed leadership for detrimental and damaging purposes (Harris, 2013).
The empirical research suggests that careful design and wise execution of distributed leadership strategies, when tailored to suit the school context, provide the best chance for distributed leadership to improve organizational performance and outcomes (Camburn & Han, 2009). In addition, high levels of trust, transparency, and mutual respect, along with a culture of collaborative learning and shared practice, are necessary for distributed leadership to have a positive impact (Harris, 2014; Massachusetts Department Elementary and Secondary Education, n.d.; Tian et al., 2016). The leadership capacity of teachers must also be considered, as this capacity can be hampered or supported by factors such as degree of preparation and professional development for leadership work (Jensen, Roberts-Hull, Magee, & Ginnivan, 2016; Wei, Darling-Hammond, Andree, Richardson, & Orphanos, 2009), and even meaningful leadership work, when added to the workload of teachers who are already at capacity with their own instructional responsibilities, will likely not translate to more positive student outcomes (Eckert, 2019). As Harris and DeFlaminis (2016) noted, “distributed leadership is not a panacea, it depends on how it is shared, received and enacted” (p. 143).
Distributed Leadership in Action
Distributed leadership was initially intended to be a theoretical framework for understanding how school leadership actions are enacted among school leaders and staff depending on the situational context (Spillane et al., 2001). However, many researchers today view it through a prescriptive lens and advocate it for purposes of reshaping leadership practices to increase the likelihood of school improvement (Robinson, 2009). Nonprofit organizations, such as the Wallace Foundation, have supported research on distributed leadership and widely disseminated the encouraging findings to policymakers working toward school improvement (e.g., Hallinger & Heck, 2009, 2010a, 2010b; Leithwood & Mascall, 2008). National principal leadership standards now reflect the importance of distributed leadership and include it in effective practices for operations and management and school improvement (National Policy Board for Educational Administration, 2015).
The notion of distributed leadership was operationalized in the Annenberg Foundation’s Distributed Leadership Project (DLP), which sought to build leadership capacity through a distributed perspective in urban schools with highly diverse student populations and in need of substantial school improvement (DeFlaminis, 2013). The DLP provided principal preparation to establish a distributed leadership mindset, and assisted with the development of distributed leadership teams to build leadership capacity in Philadelphia schools. Positive results in the form of multiple leadership team outcomes (e.g., effective team functioning and trust and efficacy levels among team members) led to the program being replicated in New York in 2015 (Harris & DeFlaminis, 2016).
Leadership teams. As noted previously, studies have determined that distributed leadership must be purposefully designed (Leithwood et al., 2007). School leadership teams in the form of overall school improvement teams, instructional teams, or professional learning communities (PLCs) are examples of distributed leadership in practice that have received wide research attention. Research shows that when principals work with a team of teachers, forming school-based leadership teams, the speed at which improvement efforts occur increases and reform is more likely to be sustained (Edwards & Gammell, 2016; Pedersen, Yager, & Yager, 2010). Further, school leadership models are more effective when they distribute responsibilities to a team rather than promoting unilateral decisions and actions (Hanover Research, 2013; Wallace Foundation, 2013).
The potential of leadership teams to free up time for administrators to be more directly involved in day-to-day instruction and organization management appears to be part of the reason that distributed management responsibilities improve student performance. Horng, Klasik, and Loeb (2010) reported that principals spent significantly less time on administrative tasks and more time on day-to-day instructional tasks in high-performing schools than in low-performing schools, as rated by state accountability systems. To become effective instructional leaders—by visiting classrooms, contributing to curriculum development, and coaching teachers—principals must step away from more managerial responsibilities and delegate some leadership tasks to others (Hallinger & Murphy, 2013; Murphy, Elliot, Goldring, & Porter, 2007). These leadership tasks must be assigned based on patterns of expertise in the school and avoid excessive burdens to teacher-leaders (Spillane, 2005). In addition, a principal does not have expertise in every area of his or her instructional responsibility, particularly when it comes to secondary content areas. The literature recommends that principals share or distribute leadership to teachers with content area expertise in these areas, and that they partner with the leadership team to oversee their work (Hallinger & Murphy, 2013).
Summary and Conclusions
Distributed leadership has emerged as a key model in the field of educational leadership, as research has accumulated regarding the benefits of teacher leadership and the need to spread the responsibility for school improvement beyond the sole domain of the building principal. The model is part of learning-centered leadership, in which principals and teachers work together to share responsibility for the school’s instructional program and learning outcomes at the school. Distributed leadership has received extensive research support, suggesting that these collaborative leadership cultures are associated with positive teacher and student outcomes. However, leadership roles and responsibilities must be carefully planned and tailored to meet the needs of the school’s context by appropriately using staff’s areas of expertise to assign leadership roles. This, in turn, means that distributed leadership will look quite different in practice across schools.
Distributed leadership is not without critics who raise issues about the potential to burden already overworked teachers with additional responsibilities, and with failure in the research to discuss how to ensure equal opportunities based on staff gender and race. Schools offering a staff climate of trust, transparency, and a culture of shared practice, along with preparation and development to fulfill leadership roles, provide the best chance for distributed leadership to be effective.
The research support for distributed leadership has led many in the field to view the model as prescriptive for educational leadership practice, and this view has resulted in national principal standards that call for principal capacity to distribute leadership in schools as a key indicator of effective practice. Distributed leadership has taken the form of training and development of school leaders and teams in schools in need of improvement, with positive outcomes. The rise of leadership teams in schools also demonstrates how distributed leadership is enacted, and these teams afford principals the opportunity to engage more closely with instructional leadership as well as the chance to build the leadership capacity of school staff.
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