How school system leaders can improve student learning

While teachers are known to be the most influential factor impacting student learning and achievement, superintendents and school system leaders can also have a significant influence. Educational leaders are increasingly recognized for their potential to have a positive impact on teaching and student learning, helping to create an exceptional district, rather than a single outstanding classroom. Understanding the characteristics of the superintendency teams in exceptional districts was part of study by Dr. Jim Brandon, and his colleagues Drs. Paulette Hanna and Dot Negropontes, which was commissioned by the College of Alberta School Superintendents.

Best practices

Working in six highly successful school jurisdictions in Alberta, the researchers collected data from 114 educational leaders – including principals, board office leaders, and superintendency teams. The study included a survey, interviews, and analysing documents to understand the leadership practices employed by the superintendency team in their district. The findings were divided into 5 ‘lessons’ which captured the key practices in these regions.

The study found that the practices of superintendency teams who lead learning are research-informed, and based in action. More than simply reading and engaging with research, these teams made thoughtful plans to implement change and measuring its effect on student learning.

The most effective superintendents also focused on working in strong, collaborative teams. These teams benefited from the collective efforts of all of those involved, from the superintendents through to teachers in the classrooms. This approach promotes a unified focus on effective teaching and learning to employees at every level. Building trusting and purposeful professional relationships throughout the district helped connect staff members, and keeps the best interests of student learning, engagement, and well-being of students at the center.

By building on expertise and knowledge both within and from outside the school system, the superintendency teams helped to grow professional capacity. In addition to current employees, the leaders consulted researchers and experts to target professional learning and planning in strategic areas.  This can better support superintendents in their own learning, as well those of teachers, principals, and other staff members. Using a variety of pathways to guide learning and development in the district was found to better serve the professional learning needs of aspiring and current leaders.

Leading learning

In these 6 successful districts, leadership from the superintendency team reflected a number of key approaches. Their work was based on research-informed action, engaging professional learning opportunities, and a team-based approach which impacts teaching and learning throughout the jurisdiction.

According to the researchers, as a new generation of principals turns over, it is vitally important that these collaborative approaches guide leadership learning and development. While each school district is unique, these lessons can be used by superintendents and district leaders in other jurisdictions to learn from and apply in their own context.


See more from Dr. Jim Brandon on his profile


Connected Citations

Brandon, J., Hanna, P., & Negropontes, D. (2015).  Superintendents Who Lead Learning: Lessons from Six Highly Successful School Jurisdictions. Edmonton, AB: College of Alberta School Superintendents.