Distributive Leadership in Schools: How to Develop DL Teams

by | Jun 28, 2021


Who are the Most Valuable Players on your school’s leadership team? Educational research proves that teachers are vital for driving improvements in student achievement, but they’re often excluded from leadership teams. In this article, we’ll explain how a distributive leadership (DL) model can boost your school’s performance.

What is Distributive Leadership (DL) in Education?

Distributive leadership (DL), also called distributed leadership, involves a team of educators from different levels of leadership, grades, and/or subject areas who work collaboratively to create positive, schoolwide change.

The Gates Foundation outlines the basic characteristics of distributive leadership teams in schools, explaining that DL teams:

  • Actively engage teachers by regularly soliciting teacher feedback, observing teachers in the classroom, and guiding teachers to reflect upon their practice;
  • Routinely evaluate student data to track progress in meeting student achievement goals;
  • Make content-focused decisions about professional development and instructional strategies; and
  • Commit to continuous improvement by implementing the above practices with fidelity.

Through the DL process, leaders draw from the diverse knowledge and experiences of educators at all levels within their schools to make more informed decisions.

Why Teachers Need A Voice and Choice

One of the key reasons a school may adopt a distributive leadership model is that DL teams give teachers a voice and choice in decisions that affect their instruction and professional development. In addition, this opportunity for teachers to provide input can boost morale because educators feel heard and supported.

Additionally, taking teachers’ experiences into account has a measurable impact on student achievement. In their 2018 research study of about 25,000 schools, Ingersoll et. al. report that “instructional leadership is independently, significantly, and positively related to student achievement, after controlling for the background characteristics of schools (such as poverty level), and this is for both mathematics and ELA.”

In particular, Ingersoll et. al. find that student achievement is most positively impacted when teachers are involved in two areas of decision-making:

  1. Student behavior and discipline procedures, and
  2. School improvement planning

DL allows teachers the opportunity to not only voice their opinions, but also play a meaningful role in driving positive change.

Functions of a Distributive Leadership (DL) Team in Education

So what does a school’s distributive leadership (DL) team actually do? In our blog, we frequently remind principals and district leaders that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy that works perfectly for every school. That said, we can look to educational research and case studies to find general best practices that can be tweaked to meet your school’s needs.

The Oregon Department of Education outlines some of the functions of DL that have been effective in one of their Title I schools. East Gresham Elementary’s DL team:

  • Develops an inclusive culture of trust
  • Provides evidence-based professional development for teachers
  • Collaborates with a data team to track student learning and inform instructional strategies
  • Allocates time for teachers to work together to plan instruction
  • Engages students’ families with regular communication

At the Center for Student Achievement Solutions, we match up experienced educational consultants with your team to help customize a leadership strategy for your school’s unique needs. Read more about our approach or schedule a free call with one of our consultants to start developing a leadership plan now.

Next Steps: How Principals Can Develop and Support Distributive Leadership (DL) Teams

Ready to start building a distributive leadership team? The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recommends four steps to prepare your school’s DL strategy:

  1. Assess your school’s cultural readiness for a DL approach — Is your school’s culture inclusive and collaborative? Do teachers feel safe giving and receiving feedback with leaders and with each other? DL requires a foundation of trust and openness to effectively engage teachers as leaders.
  2. Research the different types of DL — Explore the different approaches to DL that may be a good fit for your school’s culture. You can read about various approaches with this DL planning tool, or work with a professional education consultant to consider how DL could work within the context of your school.
  3. Assess your school’s readiness for implementation of a DL model — Meet with educators across different levels of leadership to pose practical questions about how DL could work in your school. For example, what measurable goals would your DL team work to achieve? What processes would you use to plan the steps required to meet these goals?
  4. Develop a DL implementation plan — Define the specific goals, roles, metrics, and other elements that will make up your DL implementation plan.

Creating any sort of leadership or professional development strategy for your school can easily become overwhelming. There are many books, studies, and guides available to guide your planning process, but you may struggle to apply general advice to your specific situation.

Our consultants at the Center for Student Achievement Solutions offer direct support for you and your team. All of our consultants are seasoned educators, and we combine our professional experiences with educational research to develop evidence-based strategies for your school. Schedule a free call with us now to start crafting your school leadership plan.