Shared leadership is not a new concept among the educational leadership community, but it has gained a new wave of attention in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis. School administrators seek a leadership strategy that adequately supports educators and students alike as we all adjust to this new phase of life. Is shared leadership a viable option for promoting significant schoolwide improvement?
What is Shared Leadership in Education?
Shared leadership is not defined by any single, formally structured educational leadership strategy. Rather, shared leadership refers to a decision-making approach driven by collaboration between teachers, principals, and other school leaders.
One popular form of shared leadership is distributive leadership. In distributive leadership, a team of educators from different levels of leadership, grades, and/or subject areas work collaboratively to create positive, schoolwide change.
Although shared leadership looks different at every school, the Wallace Foundation outlines some key components of an effective approach:
- Decisions are targeted directly at improving instruction — In our blog, we frequently examine evidence-based approaches to effective leadership and professional development. Educational research continues to find that professional development has the greatest impact on student achievement when it is job-embedded, curriculum- and content-focused.
- Principals and teachers share leadership responsibilities — Schoolwide decisions are informed by the diverse experiences of both administrators and teachers. This collaborative approach earns teacher buy-in for new procedures. Additionally, it offers principals the opportunity to learn from teachers’ “boots on the ground” classroom perspectives.
- Educators enjoy a supportive professional learning community — Teachers, principals, and other school leaders continuously work to build trust and grow professionally as a team. Educational research continues to find that this consistent collaboration leads to significant student achievement improvements.
Let’s take a look at three examples of how shared leadership drives positive change in schools:
Example 1: Shared Leadership Promotes Student Achievement
The Wallace Foundation’s report “What School Leaders Do to Improve Student Achievement” encompasses a literature review of research about educational leadership. When the researchers looked at student performance in mathematics, they found that “achievement scores in mathematics are significantly associated with focused instruction, professional community, and teachers’ trust in the principal.”
The researchers note that mathematics achievement doesn’t appear to be directly impacted by a shared leadership strategy. Instead, shared leadership contributes to the school culture and professional development needed to enhance the three factors which do impact student achievement:
- Focused instruction
- Professional community
- Teachers’ trust in the principal
Edutopia shares a real-world example of how shared leadership transformed student achievement at the Samuel Mason Elementary School. When the school developed leadership teams made up of teachers and administrators to make schoolwide decisions, they noticed rising test scores in reading and math.
Example 2: Shared Leadership Improves Teacher Retention
Teacher turnover is one of the biggest stressors impacting school administrators. Edutopia estimates that each year, about 16% of teachers change jobs or leave the profession altogether. But there are practical steps administrators can take to improve teacher retention, including nurturing more collaborative leadership processes.
In their 2016 paper, “A Systemic Approach to Elevating Teacher Leadership,” Learning Forward reports the positive impact of uplifting teachers as leaders at your school. Their research suggests that:
- When teachers are given leadership opportunities, schools are better able to retain teachers for the long term.
- Teacher leaders become more engaged in their work as they feel greater responsibility for the success of their students and school.
- Many teachers want to become leaders “while remaining in the role of teacher.” Schools that foster a collaborative culture of shared leadership help educators feel supported in their dual role of a teacher and a leader.
Learning Forward reminds school leaders that they should regularly assess the impact of their teacher leadership programs. Do your teachers feel properly supported by your school’s shared leadership processes related to schoolwide decision making, professional development, and teacher evaluation?
As you implement a system of shared leadership, you must decide what data should be tracked to measure teacher engagement. Consider how your school’s processes can become flexible and responsive to teachers’ needs.
Example 3: Shared Leadership Closes Equity Gaps
Educational research continues to show equity gaps, or achievement gaps, among traditionally underserved student groups. For example, students of color, students with IEPs, LGBTQ+ students, and students from low-income households are often disproportionately impacted by educational inequities.
Fortunately, research indicates that schools with shared leadership are able to dismantle systems of inequity that harm students. A 2014 research brief from the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) illustrates how shared leadership supports equitable student-centered learning:
- Teachers have a greater capacity to personalize instruction based on students’ individual needs when they have adequate support, especially through shared leadership and professional development.
- When shared leadership occurs through grade-level teacher teams, teachers collaborate with one another to provide more comprehensive support for all students.
- Shared leadership and student-centered learning lead to better student performance on state assessments, increased high school graduation rates, higher college enrollment, and other positive outcomes.
One reason shared leadership may be so powerful in advancing equitable education is that this approach gives a voice to teachers who can identify with students from diverse backgrounds. School administrators tend to lack the racial diversity that is present among their student body, but teachers are more likely to reflect the demographics of students.
How School Administrators Can Implement Shared Leadership
Shared leadership will naturally look different at every school because every school is made up of a unique group of educators. That said, school administrators can look at case studies and frameworks examined by educational researchers to find a starting point for implementing shared leadership at your school.
For example, Turning Points offers this advice to principals in their “Guide to Collaborative Culture and Shared Leadership”:
- Reflect on the individual strengths of each teacher and staff member at your school to consider how they can help improve teaching and learning.
- Provide meaningful opportunities for teachers to become leaders and contribute to schoolwide decisions.
- Support effective leadership by providing high-quality professional development. (Remember that professional development should be informed by clear, measurable goals and provide teachers with regular feedback.)
- Act as an instructional leader by regularly engaging with teachers in the classroom and during team meetings.
Shared leadership doesn’t offer a quick-fix solution for low-performing schools. This approach requires administrators to continuously nurture a collaborative school culture, regularly evaluate key performance indicators, and implement ongoing professional development with fidelity. But committing to shared leadership is the first step in recognizing significant, sustainable gains in school improvement.
At the Center for Student Achievement Solutions, our expert consultants are seasoned educational leaders who are excited to support your school improvement goals. Learn more about our approach to consulting and professional development, or schedule a free call.