Research/Policy | Distributed Leadership Toolkit

Schools that support teachers and other members of the school community in taking initiative and exercising leadership over their work look and feel different from schools where decision-making and influence are more centralized. A growing body of research, backed by the experience of teachers and school leaders across the country, supports the notion that expanding leadership—or “distributing leadership”—is a critical strategy for addressing the professional needs of educators, catalyzing existing and nascent leadership within a school community, and achieving real, sustained results for students. 

To help policymakers at all levels more deeply understand distributed leadership and the variety of ways it may manifest at the school level, we conducted a comprehensive review of the research on distributed leadership. Our goal is to support policymakers in developing evidence-based strategies to support distributed leadership and improve school and student outcomes. 

Our findings and recommendations are summarized in the Policy Primer. For those who want to dig deeper into the research, we offer an explanation of our definition (Resource A), more detail on our findings from the literature review along with relevant citations (Resource B), and reflections on how research limitations should inform policy decisions (Resource C). 

Finally, to bring the research and policy actions to life, we have developed a series of vignettes that show how school and system leaders are distributing leadership and, together, improving results for schools and students. By capturing their learning and experiences, we aim to help illustrate what is possible when supportive, evidence-based practices and conditions are in place.

Distributed leadership refers to a range of flexible approaches to school organization, management, and operations that expand traditional conceptions of leadership to include a wide range of both formal and informal leadership roles and activities. 

While the specifics may vary by context, all models include an effective principal who fosters a trusting culture, promotes collaboration, and organizes, taps, and marshals school resources (including through staffing, scheduling, and other structures and strategies) to help build the leadership and overall capacity of teachers, students, parents, and the school community as a whole. 

When these elements are in place, distributed leadership approaches can yield important improvements to school and student outcomes that may exceed the sum of individual contributions. 

KEY FINDINGS: DISTRIBUTED LEADERSHIP | SCHOOL AND STUDENT OUTCOMES

1) Promotes CollaborationStrong Evidence. In schools where leadership is distributed effectively, there is greater collaboration among school staff members and more-collaborative team problem-solving and decision-making. 

2) Fosters Teacher LeadershipStrong Evidence. Distributed leadership models promote and strengthen teacher leadership, increasing educator voice in shaping school practices and providing exceptional teachers with more and better opportunities to expand their reach, positively influence instruction, and advance in their careers. 

3) Supports Instructional ImprovementModerate Evidence. In schools where leadership is distributed more widely, teachers engage in a number of important practices that support instructional improvement, including engaging in more and more-candid conversations about instructional change and seeking feedback and support from instructional leaders.

4) May Increase Teacher Job Satisfaction and Foster Stronger Organizational CommitmentPromising Evidence. Teachers express greater job satisfaction when they work in schools where leadership is distributed, and they are more willing to work with their colleagues outside of their own classrooms and to make altruistic contributions to the school community. 

5) May Contribute to Increased Student AchievementPromising Evidence. Studies connecting distributed leadership to student outcomes are currently limited. That said, two studies show that distributing leadership across multiple stakeholders is correlated with greater student achievement.

KEY FINDINGS: DISTRIBUTED LEADERSHIP | 6 KEY ELEMENTS

Key Element 1: An Effective Principal. A skilled principal is key—not a lone, heroic leader, but rather an individual with both positional and relational authority who is committed to fostering leadership across the school and who has the necessary mindset, knowledge, skills, and supports to do so.

Key Element 2: Collaborative Learning, Problem-Solving, and Decision-Making. School actors, including those who do not hold formal leadership positions, help to establish a shared understanding of their school’s particular needs, deliberating on solutions and establishing shared goals.

Key Element 3: Strategic Opportunities for Engagement. Creating and supporting leadership teams, professional learning communities (PLCs), councils, and other structured opportunities for teachers, students, parents, and other school community members is a key strategy for promoting the collaborative learning, problem-solving, decision-making, and capacity-building that are central to distributed leadership approaches. 

Key Element 4: Empowered Staff and Community Members, Especially Teacher Leaders. Staff and community members feel empowered to exercise leadership. Principals have an important role to play in encouraging and supporting individuals, especially teachers, to take on new responsibilities and roles.

Key Element 5: A Culture of Trust. Individuals who are not in traditional leadership roles have opportunities to provide feedback, engage in shared decision-making, and contribute to collective improvement efforts in an environment in which they can trust that their input and contributions will be respected and valued.

Key Element 6: A Focus on Capacity-Building. Distributing leadership helps members of the school community grow and improve in their individual practice and strengthens a school’s overall capacity for improvement. In successful distributed leadership approaches, principals are explicitly focused on capacity-building and sustainability. 

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