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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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. A strong 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 instructional leadership is robust and impactful. Here are six key 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. 

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, principals 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 improvement. Using consistent data protocols, schools can quickly analyze disaggregated data, identify key  trends, and unite around a common goal for improving student learning. Principals who create a collaborative culture in which teachers use data and student work to inform, adapt, and monitor instruction in their classrooms 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 learning and trusted to make 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: a targeted focus on rigorous instructional strategies and delivery and 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 school 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. 

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Now is the time to invest in strong instructional leaders.

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