Strong Instructional Leadership: What Does It Look Like?

Strong instructional leaders can reverse NAEP trends and improve student outcomes. Here are six key leadership actions that can accelerate student learning in your school and district.
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Blog date
11/10/22
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The 2022 NAEP results are shining a light on two important issues in our nation’s schools. One, the need to jumpstart student learning. And two, the essential role that school principals, and their teams, play in reversing those trends. Research confirms that a strong instructional leader at the helm of a school can add up to three months of learning for students every year. An effective principal working in tandem with the school community—via an instructional leadership team, data team or teacher teams— can grow and sustain student achievement year after year. 

But what does effective instructional leadership look like? And how do districts cultivate instructional leadership right now—and for years to come? 

Our students need school leaders who can intensively and intentionally focus on all the aspects of learning and teaching, from staffing and professional development to collaborative lesson planning and assessment schedules to coaching teachers and monitoring instruction regularly to ensure students are engaged in deep thinking and high-quality learning opportunities. This kind of educational leadership is robust and impactful. Here are six key instructional leadership actions that will propel student learning forward in your school and school district. 

Action 1: Set a vision for ambitious instruction

Having a shared vision for the rigor and quality of instruction serves as a rudder for teachers, students, and families, simultaneously empowering them to do their part and holding them accountable to the learning outcomes. The most effective vision statements articulate both the “how” and the “why” a school’s instructional approach will enable students to achieve more. 

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Action 2: Upgrade curriculum and instructional materials

Strong curriculum is both evidence-based and culturally responsive. Instructional leaders need to create systems and structures to continuously analyze and adapt instructional materials so they are relevant, timely, and high-quality. Working with teacher teams, a school leader can vet classroom-level resources to better support teachers’ preparation for delivery, build stronger alignment around best practices, and increase student voice and agency

Action 3: Create systems to support data-driven instruction

Data—not perception—is the driving force behind instructional and school improvement. Using consistent data protocols, schools can quickly analyze disaggregated data, identify key  trends, and unite around a common goal for improving student learning. A school principal who creates a collaborative culture in which teachers use data and student work to inform, adapt, and monitor instruction in their classrooms will fuel a sense of collective efficacy and accelerate school improvement.

Action 4: Provide equitable access to individualization and interventions

Individual interventions, like tutoring, are being implemented nationally in response to the pandemic. Ensuring equitable access to these supports is a key responsibility of instructional leaders. Successful models include the use of data and student work to identify students who are most in need and then ensuring students receive tutoring support multiple times every week from the same tutor, ideally a former teacher or pre-service teacher. 

Action 5: Develop systems and structures for professional learning and collaboration 

When teachers are engaged in professional development and trusted to make instructional decisions that can create impactful changes for students, they are more likely to stay. Strong instructional leaders listen intentionally to teacher needs, protect time for teacher collaboration, and provide various job-embedded supports, like coaching, that can inform instructional delivery over a sustained period of time—and enable teachers to immediately apply their learning in their classrooms.

Action 6: Offer consistent coaching and feedback to teachers

Schoolwide systems for observation, coaching, and actionable feedback are often synonymous with instructional leadership and student gains. Two key ingredients include: 1) a targeted focus on rigorous instructional strategies and delivery and 2) systems that enable principals to monitor teacher practice over time and assess the impact of coaching on student achievement. Student achievement is the end goal. 


“It is difficult to envision an investment with a higher ceiling on its potential return than a successful effort to improve principal leadership,” the Wallace Foundation found in a landmark report on educational leadership. Multiple independent evaluations have also proven that in schools led by a New Leaders principal, students perform better in reading and math and gain additional months of learning. When we develop principals as strong instructional leaders, we can change student learning trajectories.

What does this look like in math?

Our Instructional Leader's Guide to Jumpstarting Math Instruction provides real examples of how instructional leaders can strengthen teacher capacity, increase the complexity of the math learning task, and shift students from passive learning to active learning.

For example, consider amplifying math communication across classrooms or grade levels. “Math talk”—what the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) defines as “the ways of representing, thinking, talking, and agreement/disagreement that teachers and students use to engage in mathematical tasks”—is essential for math learning. Just like with any other subject, students need to be able to ask questions, articulate their learning moves, and clarify their ideas in order to develop the thinking and explanation skills required to master math concepts. 

Unfortunately, far too many students don’t think of themselves as “math people,” and often, this thinking is rooted in inequitable practices. School leaders can also partner with teachers to re-examine some of those practices—such as tracking and inflexible grouping—so that all students can excel in math.

What might this look like in English Language Arts (ELA)?

It’s critical that teachers identify what makes texts challenging and then teach high-impact comprehension strategies, so as texts increase in complexity, students can continue to apply the same strategies to what they’re reading and learning. Set your teachers up for success by giving them the gift of time with one another, whether it’s to analyze data, plan curriculum, or simply swap ideas.

For example, teachers might use collaborative planning time to have a “text talk”—where they read and discuss the text they’re teaching to students with one another so they can deepen their own understanding and facilitate a more productive discussion with their students.

Our Instructional Leader's Guide to Jumpstarting ELA Instruction outlines many more day-to-day leadership actions for school and district leaders committed to providing instructional leadership.

Don't forget to track your instructional successes

As you work to accelerate math and ELA learning, it is essential to lead in ways that put you in an instructional leadership mindset: observing classroom instruction, giving meaningful feedback, and participating in teacher meetings. These measures help you facilitate greater instructional coherence across your school—and then sustain it through regular practice.

Looking for evidence of meaningful content, effective instructional practices, and active student engagement is critically important. Keeping track of teacher wins and seeing their growth makes it that much easier to keep flexing your instructional leadership muscles.

If you need a system to capture key “look-fors,” download our full Accelerate & Activate Math Toolkit. It has a place to write down your observations. We created our ELA Toolkit in the same way. Be sure to check it out

For more blogs on instructional leadership, visit: https://www.newleaders.org/topics/instructional-leadership.

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