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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
October 1, 2009
Vol. 67
No. 2

What Research Says About… / Learning Communities for Administrators

Teacher learning communities are all the rage, but scant attention has been paid to the need for learning communities for school administrators.

What's the Idea?

Principals and assistant principals can derive substantial benefit from meeting with their peers in learning communities structured to enhance their knowledge about effective instruction. Through classroom observations and facilitated discussions, such forums can help site leaders develop a culture of adult learning.

What's the Reality?

Increasingly, principals are expected to lead and support teachers' efforts to create effective professional learning communities. However, few site administrators have had firsthand experience as a member of a learning community. Principals are typically expected to learn on the job through traditional professional development workshops, coaching, and mentoring.
Principals do not lack opportunities to meet together; in fact, they often complain of too many meetings. But most of these meetings are devoted to administrative issues. Sometimes principals meet in cadres or networks organized by school level and geographic area, but most of these cadres are not designed as collegial communities for solving problems collectively or deepening understanding of instructional issues.

What's the Research?

Research has established that among school factors influencing learning, leadership is second only to instruction (Leithwood, Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004). School leaders influence learning indirectly. In addition to creating a shared sense of purpose and ambitious learning goals, effective school leaders build collaborative cultures that support teacher learning (Bryk, Cambrun, & Louis, 1997).
But researchers are just beginning to study how school administrators learn to build such school cultures (Knapp, Copland, Plecki, & Portin, 2006). A small but growing number of studies document various kinds of principal learning communities.
The earliest of these studies (Elmore & Burney, 1999; Fink & Resnick, 2001) documented the case of New York's former Community District #2, whose leaders placed a high priority on instruction and a collegial culture. District leaders envisioned principals as instructional leaders who support teacher learning. One key step was to redesign their monthly principals' meetings to focus on instruction. These daylong conferences, led by the superintendent and deputy superintendent, provided opportunities for principals to learn about and discuss instructional initiatives and served as models for the staff conferences that principals were expected to lead in their schools.
A case study of the Long Beach Unified School District (Austin, Grossman, Schwartz, & Suesse, 2007) describes how principals' meetings consisted of structured learning opportunities for participants. Groups of principals met each month at one school where the host principal had identified a crucial question (for example, how to promote critical-thinking skills and active participation). Visiting principals observed classrooms and then met to discuss what they had observed related to the host principal's question.
In their study of a high school initiative to strengthen instruction in Austin, Texas, Talbert and David (2007) document the evolution of a districtwide professional learning community of high school principals. All high school principals in the district met monthly. A subset involved in the new initiative met twice a month as a group and worked to create a culture in which the participants moved from sharing struggles to discussing readings and instructional issues. Strong facilitation and thoughtful meeting design were the keys to the group's high-level conversations. The consistent message from district leadership was that no principal can do his or her job alone.
Talbert and David also describe an unusual case in which one high school principal distributed instructional leadership across five assistant principals, each responsible for a subject area. Although neither their job descriptions nor their backgrounds had prepared them for this role, the assistant principals became a learning community with encouragement from the principal and a combination of training and coaching from the district central office. All of them ended up shifting their jobs dramatically; they soon spent one-half of their time observing teachers and discussing instruction.
Principal learning communities were only one part of multifaceted reforms in all three case-study districts. In each district, leaders communicated a clear focus on instruction and placed a high priority on collaboration. In addition, each district made major investments in professional development for teachers and balanced district and school control over budgets and programs. Not incidentally, district test scores increased each year over a period of several years in all three cases.

What to Do?

To flourish, principal learning communities need sufficient meeting time, strong facilitators, and carefully constructed agendas grounded in the real problems that school administrators face.
Thriving collaborative communities for school administrators depend on central-office leaders who are committed to the enterprise and able to create the conditions for their success. Establishing such communities may not be easy. Yet, without firsthand experience collaborating with their peers, how can we expect school leaders to create a collaborative culture for their teachers?

Austin, J. E., Grossman, A. S., Schwartz, R. B., & Suesse, J. M. (2007). Managing at scale in the Long Beach Unified School District. In S. Childress, R. F. Elmore, A. S. Grossman, & S. M. Johnson. (Eds.),Managing school districts for high performance(pp. 269–288). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Bryk, A., Cambrun, E., & Louis, K. S. (1997). Professional community in Chicago elementary schools: Facilitating factors and organizational consequences.Educational Administration Quarterly, 35(1), 751–781.

Elmore, R., & Burney, D. (1999). Investing in teacher learning: Staff development and instructional improvement. In L. Darling-Hammond & G. Sykes (Eds.), Teaching as the learning profession: Handbook of policy and practice (pp. 263–291). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fink, E., & Resnick, L. B. (2001). Developing principals as instructional leaders.Phi Delta Kappan, 82(8), 598–606.

Knapp, M. S., Copland, M. A., Plecki, M. L., & Portin, B. S. (2006). Leading, learning, and leadership support. Seattle: University of Washington.

Leithwood, K., Louis, K. S., Anderson, S., & Wahlstrom, K. (2004). How leadership influences student learning. New York: The Wallace Foundation.

Talbert, J. E., & David, J. L. (2007). Evaluation of the Disciplinary Literacy-Professional Learning Community (DL-PLC) initiative in Austin Independent School District. Stanford, CA: Stanford University.

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