Distributed Leadership Matters: Perspectives, Practicalities, and Potential

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Alma Harris

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  • Praise for Distributed Leadership Matters

    “Alma Harris is a world leading writer on the thinking and practice of distributed leadership. This is undoubtedly the best book that she or anyone has yet written on the subject. Harris's view that distributed leadership is disciplined and collaborative counters critics who complain about the fuzziness of the idea. If you want a book that gives you an authoritative and accessible grounding, that sets out a strategy and a methodology, and that alerts you to the dark arts of distributed leadership as well as its payoffs when it is properly done, this is absolutely the book for you.”

    —Andy Hargreaves, Thomas More Brennan Chair in Education Lynch School of Education Boston College, Boston, MA

    “Distributed Leadership Matters is an outstanding contribution to the literature on real and enduring school improvement! The writing sparkles with inspirational examples of real-world leadership transformations that have benefitted staff and students alike. The research base is capacious and demonstrates the author's encyclopedic knowledge of school improvement and effectiveness from all around the world. Especially welcome is the crucial acknowledgement that distributed leadership can be abused and problematic if implemented in rushed mandates, autocratic rule, or mindless compliance. Here is a volume that will help us all to raise achievement with dignity. Here is a book that every educator can use to rally reluctant faculty, to focus on the instructional core, and to lift achievement. Distributed Leadership Matters is indispensable reading for every educator!”

    —Dennis Shirley, Professor of Education Lynch School of Education, Boston College, Boston, MA

    “Leadership is a vision that is not held in the hands of one but in the eyes of all who are part of the system. This book allows us to see through those eyes and know what a collaborative unified environment does to make a school successful.”

    —Tania E. Dymkowski, Instructional Coach K-8 Hays Consolidated Independent School District, Buda, TX

    “The book does make a unique contribution to the field of education because distributed leadership impacts leadership style and can guide leaders in moving away from traditional management techniques. Of great importance is the emphasis on the conscious and intentional application of strategies that reflect distributed leadership.”

    —Kathleen Ellwood, Assistant Principal Irvington School, Portland, OR

    “The author provides an eclectic mix of current research to convince educators that distributed leadership is an effective method to raise student achievement levels in innovative ways. The vehicle for this method is the structure and facilitation of PLCs. The author boldly provides a platform for difficult conversations regarding the challenges of this type of leadership and its effect on student achievement.”

    —Laura Linde, Elementary/Mentor/Field Experience Coordinator Mankato Area Public Schools, Student Support Services Center, North Mankato, MN

    “In addition to its readable and readily accessible style, this book's strengths lie in the discussion of the nature of distributed leadership, including the difficulties inherent in this form of leadership practice; the discussion around the relationship between distributed leadership, social capital and professional learning communities; and the discussion about building and facilitating strong collaborative teams.”

    —Dr. Dan Archer, Independent Education Consultant Institute of Education, University of London, London, UK

    “Certainly one of the most eminent scholars in the area of distributed leadership in schools, Alma Harris argues persuasively in her book that distributed leadership, in the form of collective expertise, carefully constructed through professional collaboration, can positively influence learning and teaching in schools. Drawing upon research findings and carefully written so that readers can follow her arguments systematically, this book is a valuable resource to readers hoping to find a reliable guide to link theories in distributed leadership to practices in schools.”

    —Dr. Pak Tee Ng, Associate Dean, Leadership Learning Head and Associate Professor, Policy and Leadership Studies Academic Group National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Republic of Singapore

    “Alma Harris captures the essential challenges facing today's school and district leaders and summarizes, in precise and accessible language, important research-based lessons for practice. Her focus on building authentic relationships among all staff that will increase school effectiveness is both practical and a welcome antidote to an excessive focus on testing and standardization.”

    —Karen Seashore, Regents Professor and Robert H. Beck Chair University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN

    “Distributed Leadership signifies the cutting-edge development in the Theory Movement in understanding educational leadership, whereas ‘professional learning community’ is the most recent strand in understanding educational organizations. The book has successfully blended both concepts together and implied that they are the sides of a coin—not opposing forces, interacting to form a whole greater than either separate part; in effect, a dynamic system. The book is a must for most academics, researchers, policy makers, school practitioners and students of educational leadership, organizational study and school improvement.”

    —Nicholas Sun-Keung Pang, Professor and Chairman, Department of Educational Administration and Policy, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China

    Copyright

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    Preface

    Agreat deal has been written about distributed leadership. Indeed there is a burgeoning literature on the subject. This is both encouraging and reassuring as the concept is now widely used and known. On the down side, some of the writing about distributed leadership has simply served to obscure a relatively simple and straightforward idea. Consequently, this book takes a realistic and pragmatic look at distributed leadership practice. It looks at the different perspectives associated with the idea; it considers the practicalities of making it happen and the potential of distributed leadership affecting organizational improvement. This book focuses on why distributed leadership matters, by looking at the facts, the evidence, and the practice.

    Distributed leadership is primarily concerned with the interactions and the dynamics of leadership practice rather than a preoccupation with the formal roles and responsibilities traditionally associated with those “who lead.” This book argues that it is the practice of leadership that is most important if the goal, in schools and districts, is to secure better instruction and improved learner outcomes. Most recently, Spillane and Coldren (2011) have suggested that the adoption of a distributed framework, under the right conditions, can contribute to organizational development. This is achieved particularly, rather than exclusively, through a process of diagnosis and design. But as the authors are careful to note,

    For this diagnostic and design work to bear fruit, in terms of student achievement and educational attainment, it must be anchored in the core work of schooling—classroom teaching and student learning leadership. (p. 108)

    This book anchors distributed leadership in the core work of instruction and argues that to be most effective, leadership distribution has to be first and foremost focused upon improving learner outcomes. The chapters that follow explore and explain the potential of distributed leadership to secure improvement and change. However, as Spillane and Coldren (2011) note, people can exercise leadership but “fail to influence others to change” (p. 28). While this is certainly true, if leadership is defined as those activities or practices tied to “changing the core work of the organization” you would realistically expect to see some change in outcomes.

    There are two important points to be made here. First, distributed leadership needs to be aligned to the “technical core” of learning and teaching if it is to really make a difference to learner outcomes. Second, to be most effective, the diagnostic and design elements associated with distributed leadership need to be firmly located within a clear, overarching model of professional collaboration and learning.

    Even though the theory of distributed leadership is now well known and firmly established in the minds of those who think and write about leadership (Spillane, 2006) the important matter of how to make it happen is less well traversed territory. Accounts of distributed school leadership still tend toward theory, debate, discussion, ideological bias, and analysis rather than practical application. While theory is undoubtedly important as it can frame, explain, and predict, it is also important that theory connects, in some way, to practice.

    This book proposes to make a direct contribution between theory and practice. It argues that distributed leadership is not just a powerful analytical frame or the latest leadership theory, but it is also a leadership approach that, if properly constructed and enacted in schools and districts, can result in better learner outcomes. The book proposes that, under the right conditions, distributed leadership can be a positive influence on organizational change and improvement.

    Audience for the Book

    This book will be of interest to practitioners, policy makers, and researchers who are committed to school and system improvement. It has been written for an international audience, and there are some specific examples to illustrate and illuminate some of the key ideas. In summary, this book will be useful to district and school administrators, district teacher coaches and teacher leaders, school leadership teams, professional development coordinators, and those teachers interested and engaged in the process of improvement.

    Central Purpose of the Book

    The central purpose of this book is to go beyond the theory by guiding readers to and through a research-based change process. The book links the idea of distributed leadership directly to disciplined professional collaborative learning.1 The book's “big idea” is that distributed leadership, in the form of collective expertise, carefully constructed through professional collaboration, can positively influence learning and teaching. This book focuses on why distributed leadership matters, how it matters, and where it matters most of all.

    Advance Organizer

    This advance organizer offers a preview of what to expect in the book. It is an overview of the chapters and a summary of the key ideas. Essentially, the book is divided into eight chapters:

    • An introduction and overview of change, improvement, and system transformation (Chapters 1 and 2)
    • An analysis of the leadership approaches and practices required in the future (Chapter 3)
    • An outline of the research evidence about distributed leadership and organizational improvement (Chapter 4)
    • A commentary on the more negative aspects of this leadership approach and how it can be misused and misrepresented (Chapter 5)
    • An analysis of social capital—how to build it and sustain it for organizational change (Chapter 6)
    • A reflection upon professional learning communities as a form of disciplined collaborative learning (Chapter 7)
    • A guide to leading and facilitating or supporting professional collaboration with impact and concluding thoughts about distributed leadership (Chapter 8)
    • An Appendix that offers practical resources that can be used by those leading professional collaboration

    Chapters 1 and 2 set the global scene by looking at the challenges of educational change and focus on one key question: Why has there been so much reform and so little change? (Payne, 2008). Together, these chapters offer readers the contextual piece and advocate that leadership is the critical component in school and system improvement. For readers interested in the bigger picture, these two chapters provide a contemporary critique of school and system reform within an international context.

    Chapter 3 looks at the type of leadership required in the future and builds a case for distributed leadership. It argues that future leadership from the corporate world to the world of education is characterized by collaboration, networking, and distributed forms of social influence. It highlights a tension between past and future leadership and argues that existing forms of leadership practice will struggle to remain relevant and useful in a global and 24/7-networked world.

    Chapter 4 focuses on the research evidence and addresses the central question of what type of leadership makes the maximum difference to organizational change and improvement? This chapter presents the empirical facts.

    Chapter 5 considers an issue that is very rarely discussed. It focuses on how distributed leadership could be misconstrued, abused, and misused. It considers the “dark side” of distributed leadership and focuses on what happens when things go wrong. Distributed leadership, or indeed any leadership practice, can be used for good or ill. As this chapter argues, much of the leadership literature tends toward the positive features of leadership, neatly side-stepping any references to the less favorable aspects. Consequently, this chapter looks at some of the more negative dimensions of distributed leadership.

    The how of distributed leadership and the practicality of making it happen are addressed in Chapters 6, 7, and 8. Chapter 6 considers the relationship between distributed leadership and social capital. It focuses on how social capital contributes to organizational improvement and considers how it can be generated and sustained through professional collaboration.

    Chapter 7 explores professional learning communities (PLCs) as one way of creating the structures for building the collective capacity for change. It notes that interpretations of PLCs wander between “whole-school” PLCs and “within-school” PLCs. The chapter proposes that viewing the whole school as an entire PLC is essentially aspirational; it is something to aim for, something that aligns with the broader vision or mission of the organization. In contrast, within-school PLCs are functional; they offer a structural mechanism for generating innovation and change.

    Chapter 8 is written for those facilitating the professional learning of others. This chapter makes the case that distributed leadership can be enhanced, supported, and sustained through focused and disciplined professional collaboration (Harris & Jones, 2012). It introduces a model and methodology2 of professional collaboration3 for those working within schools and districts. It concludes by arguing that it is impossible to imagine how sustainable innovation and change in complex times can be secured without broad-based and sustained distributed leadership.

    Collectively, the chapters are written for those working with and within schools. This is not a research book, although it draws upon the empirical evidence. The book proposes that if carefully planned and supported, distributed leadership can be a potentially powerful force for change.

    Throughout this book, there are questions or points to consider that aim to do two things: first, to prompt focused reflection and, second, to highlight and reinforce the central argument and themes that run throughout the book. The last chapter is a deliberate departure from other chapters in the book as it provides a practical framework aimed at supporting professional collaboration in districts and schools.

    It is easy to say that evidence suggests that distributed leadership matters, but in what way? It is important to reiterate that as each school and district is different, inevitably, distributed leadership will be different in each context and setting. This is not a convenient “opt out” clause but rather the recognition that there is no blueprint. Ultimately, distributed leadership will be dependent upon the individuals within an organization, their particular expertise, and the unique set of relational dynamics.

    In his work, Jim Spillane talks about the importance of organizational routines and organizational tools that shape and define distributed leadership practice. But what sort of routines and tools best support the development of distributed leadership practice? This book argues that professional collaboration can be a powerful routine that effective organizations can deploy to support distributed leadership practice. At the end of the book, the relationship between professional collaboration and organizational improvement is revisited.

    Should You Read This Book?

    Think about the following questions:

    • Are you committed to improving the learning outcomes of young people, whatever their context and whatever it takes?
    • Do you believe that the key to school and system improvement resides in supporting teachers to be the very best they can be?
    • Do you agree that collaborative learning with impact is achievable and sustainable?

    The answers to these three questions lie at the heart of this book. The first question is about moral purpose, why we as educators do what we do in order to make a difference to young lives and life chances. The second question reinforces that teachers are not our best resource; they are in fact our only resource in securing better outcomes for young people. Teachers matter far more than they know. The third question implies that professional collaboration is one way in which we can achieve better teaching and learner outcomes. As I have said on many public stages, it is my belief that we have everything we need to improve our schools and districts within them—the real challenge is to make more powerful and effective professional connections.

    There are those who will argue that this books falls into the trap of blindly asserting the normative merits of distributed leadership. Interestingly, when it comes to empirical fact, rather than ideological assertion, the dissenting voices are quieter. The idea that distributed leadership is “insidious” and a “profoundly political phenomenon” (Lumby, 2013) is to give distributed leadership characteristics it clearly cannot possess. Distributed leadership is nothing more than a way of thinking about leadership as practice and exploring how different patterns of influence can affect organizational change and improvement.

    School leaders and district leaders understand, only too well, the challenges, potential pitfalls, and power dynamics associated with the redistribution of power and authority. There is no intention here to diminish the difficulties or to drown the dissenting voices but instead to outline the different perspectives, the various possibilities, and the potential that distributed leadership can bring to those leading schools and districts. Ultimately, these leaders will decide if distributed leadership stands or falls.

    Engage with the Author

    I hope that you enjoy reading this book. If any of you wish to explore the ideas further and to share your experiences of distributed leadership or collaborative learning, you can contact me at almaharris@almaharris.co.uk. You can also find more of my work at http://almaharris.co.uk.

    1See Harris and Jones (2012) for a full exposition.

    2Further details about the disciplined collaboration model can be found in Jones (2013).

    3See Appendix for templates and guides that can assist schools and districts in their collaborative work.

    Acknowledgments

    I would like to acknowledge and thank the many educators in schools, districts, systems, and universities around the world who continue to influence my research and my writing. I would also like to thank and acknowledge a few special people who have contributed to the writing of this book, both directly and indirectly.

    First, thanks to Michelle Jones, who is a constant source of support, creativity, and inspiration. Our work together with educators in Wales, England, Russia, Australia, Malaysia, and many other countries has been a pivotal influence on my thinking and writing. As a principal, with over twenty-two years' experience of leading at the school, district, and national levels, her mantra of “children first” ensures that our work together continues to focus on what matters most of all—securing success for every child in every setting.4 It is a huge privilege to work, research, and write together. Her constructive advice and focused feedback on this latest book has been invaluable. I am also grateful for her permission to reproduce some of our work in the Appendix.

    Second, my thanks to Jim Spillane who, without question, has influenced the educational leadership field in a significant and substantial way. His trailblazing scholarship on distributed leadership has shaped the contours of much of my writing, research, and thinking. His intellectual generosity and longstanding friendship has never wavered. He is a wonderful colleague and friend.

    Last but certainly not least, I would like to acknowledge my sister, Angela Evans, who has worked in a primary school in South Wales for many years. She is an exceptionally gifted teacher with a talent for bringing out the best in all children. On a daily basis, she makes a difference to the lives and life chances of young people in ways I never could. She exemplifies what it means to be a true professional and to put heart into the classroom. Over my lifetime, she has unselfishly given her time and her love to our family. She makes those around her feel appreciated and valued. This is my opportunity to acknowledge her significant contribution to education and to personally say “thank you.”

    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin wishes to acknowledge the following peer reviewers for their editorial insight and guidance.

    • Dan Archer, Independent Education Consultant
    • Institute of Education, University of London
    • London, UK
    • Judy Brunner, Corwin Author and Consultant
    • Instructional Solutions Group and Missouri State University
    • Springfield, MO
    • Tania E. Dymkowski, Instructional Coach K-8
    • Hays Consolidated Independent School District
    • Buda, TX
    • Kathleen Ellwood, Assistant Principal
    • Irvington School
    • Portland, OR
    • Addie Gaines, Principal
    • Kirbyville R-VI School District
    • Kirbyville, MO
    • Bruce Haddix, Principal
    • Center Grove Elementary School
    • Greenwood, IN
    • Sandra Harris, Corwin Author and Director
    • Center for Doctoral Studies in Educational Leadership
    • Lamar University
    • Beaumont, TX
    • Mark Johnson, Principal
    • Kearney Public Schools
    • Kearney, NE
    • Mary Johnstone, Principal
    • Rabbit Creek Elementary School
    • Anchorage, AK
    • Laura Linde, Mentor and Field Experience Coordinator
    • Mankato Area Public Schools
    • North Mankato, MN
    • Tery J. Medina, Associate Director
    • The Southeastern Equity Center
    • Ft. Lauderdale, FL
    • Kim E. Vogel, Principal
    • Hood River County District
    • Parkdale, OR

    4Harris (2008), School Effectiveness Framework, Welsh Government.

    Dedication

    For my mother, Marjorie Alma Harris (1929–2010)

    I hope I still make you proud.

    About the Author

    Alma Harris is internationally known for her research and writing on educational leadership and school improvement. She started her career as a secondary school teacher in South Wales before moving into business development and starting her own company. After completing her PhD at the University of Bath, she held senior academic posts at the Open University, University of Nottingham, and University of Warwick. As professor of educational leadership at Warwick, she also held the post of director of the Institute of Education for four years. In 2009, she was appointed pro-director and professor of educational leadership at the Institute of Education, University of London.

    During her career, Alma has worked with various governments and agencies around the world, supporting their school and system improvement work. In 2010 through to 2012, she was seconded to the Welsh Government as a senior policy adviser to assist with the process of systemwide reform which involved coleading the National Professional Learning Communities program and developing a master's qualification for all newly qualified teachers. Her ongoing development work for the World Bank focuses on supporting schools in challenging contexts in Russia, working with a team from the Moscow Higher School of Economics.5 She is also currently coleading the Disciplined Collaboration and Evaluation of Professional Learning program for the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership.

    Alma is president of the International Congress for School Effectiveness and School Improvement (see http://www.icsei.net/), which is an organization dedicated to quality and equity in education. At present, she is director of the Institute of Educational Leadership (see http://iel.um.edu.my/), University of Malaya, and is leading a major two-year research study focusing on leadership policy and leadership practice in Asia.

    5National Research University, Higher School of Economics, Institute for Educational Studies.

  • Appendix

    Connect to Learn—C2L

    The following pages are taken from Connecting Professional Learning (Harris and Jones, 2012) published by the National College for School Leadership in England. The intention of this resource was to support the collaborative work between schools. The C2L process is equally applicable to a “within-school” approach to professional collaboration as the stages are exactly the same, although the questions would need to reflect a group of individuals rather than a group of schools.

    While it is not possible to reproduce the whole resource, the pages that follow are intended to support the work of those leading or facilitating the professional collaboration of others (see Chapter 8).

    The basic components of the C2L model appear below, and while they are divided into the three phases of implementation, innovation, and impact, they are essentially interrelated, and collectively they reflect the elements of effective collaborative working.

    Each phase has the same set of building blocks—outlined in the grids below. These are the following:

    • Diagnosis—Where are we? What are the main issues or problems we are facing?

    • Data—How can we be sure that we are focusing on the real issue and how do we gauge our progress and impact?
    • Development—What strategy approaches are we trying? How well are they working?
    • Distributed Leadership—Are we working as a collaborative team? Are we truly sharing leadership?
    • Drive—Are we maintaining and sustaining our collaborative efforts? How do we keep things going? What needs to happen to ensure our work is embedded in the long term?

    The diagnosis and development components are similar to Spillane and Coburn's (2011) diagnosis and design elements of distributed leadership. However, unlike their model, the C2L model focuses on outcomes as well as describing and capturing activity. It is deliberately constructed so that impact is thought about at the outset and not left to chance or retrofitted following the collaborative activity. The prime purpose of the C2L model is to ensure that professional collaboration has impact.

    One way of strengthening the validity of data is to employ more than one way of data collection method or to collect data from more than one set of respondents. This is known as triangulation. This does not mean that you will need three data collection methods or three types of informant just simply that different perspectives on the same issue are required. In addition, it is important to ensure that your data is reliable in the sense that there is consistency in the production of results. This would necessitate at least in principle another person being able to replicate the data collection and to achieve comparable evidence or results. Reliability is concerned with minimising the errors and biases that could occur when evaluating impact. So in summary you need to consider the following questions:

    • Will the selected data collection methods actually collect what they are intended to collect (Validity)?
    • How many different viewpoints are considered in evaluating impact and how are different perceptions captured (Triangulation)?
    • If someone else were to collect the data using the same methods what would be the chances of obtaining similar results (Reliability)?

    In an impact assessment it will be important to apply these three tests to the data, otherwise any data collected will be of dubious value and could be challenged.

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