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Progressive School Leadership in the Era of Accountability

by Rebecca Lowenhaupt - April 26, 2016

This commentary argues that principals are well positioned to promote a progressive vision of education. In particular, principals might enact progressive practices through instructional leadership, managing data-use, and developing distributed leadership models in their schools. In this way, principals might co-opt accountability policies to promote progressive aims, despite the threats to progressive education inherent in accountability policies.

I have recently heard both aspiring and practicing school leaders lament the many restrictions on their leadership in this era of accountability. During discussion of the foundations of progressive education in class, they complain that the theoretical ideals they subscribe to are simply not realistic in practice, at least not in public schools. Although I have a deep appreciation for the numerous challenges school leaders face in meeting the competing demands of their work, I disagree with this assertion. I argue that progressive school leadership should be embraced and is even more crucial given the current context of standards and accountability based reforms.

Over the last few decades, education policies in the U.S. have increasingly emphasized standards-based reforms that have narrowed curriculum and prioritized instruction that raises achievement outcomes based on standardized measures (Au, 2011; Booher-Jennings, 2006). These reforms have also led to a substantial shift in the role of the public school principal (Spillane & Lee, 2013). Strong local control and teacher norms of autonomy have historically led principals to serve primarily administrative functions and buffer teachers from external distractions (Firestone, 1985). However, improving classroom instruction has become central to the work of school principals. They are instructional leaders who frequently work closely with teachers on accountability related initiatives including curriculum reform, new supervision and evaluation methods, and the administration and analysis of standardized tests (Horng, Klasik, & Loeb, 2010). The accountability movement has pushed principals to engage more directly in teaching and learning.

What has become of progressive education within this context? Since John Dewey and others founded this movement in the early 1900s, progressive educators have long sought to establish schools that embrace the ideals of a democratic society by fostering active student engagement, experiential learning, curiosity, and collaboration. One foundational tenet of progressive education is embracing learning as a process rather than an outcome (Kliebard, 2004). Progressive education also calls for a democratic approach to schooling and emphasizes the importance of shared decision-making (Knoester, 2012). However, recent accountability policies have the potential to threaten this progressive view of education. Policies tying high stakes decisions such as student retention, teacher evaluation, and school closure to standardized test scores shift the emphasis away from process and toward narrow measurable educational outcomes (Au, 2011; Knoester, 2012).

From the principal’s vantage point, these policies also empower administrators to influence instruction more directly than ever before. Although undoubtedly restrictive in many ways, the accountability movement also opens the door for a progressive approach to school leadership, at least in a few key ways. The approach taken to these practices can foster a progressive vision for school leadership and education. For example, principal practices in instructional leadership, data use, and distributed leadership provide the opportunity to promote the aims of progressive education. I discuss each of these practices in turn below.


Although instructional leadership is not a new role for school principals (Hallinger, 2005), accountability and standards-based reforms have required principals to engage in large-scale instructional improvement and implement substantial changes to teacher supervision (Donaldson, 2009). The responsibilities of school principals have shifted away from pure administrative tasks in favor of instructional leadership in this context (Ylimaki, 2014). Supervision broadly includes formative teaching observations and feedback, teacher evaluation, and support for professional learning (Sergiovanni, Starratt,, & Cho, 2013). Although traditional norms surrounding supervision have been critiqued as superficial and compliance-oriented, new systems of teacher evaluation promote more rigorous, frequent, and substantive observations and feedback linked to curriculum planning and instructional improvement (Marshall, 2009). With this increased expectation to work closely with teachers on instruction, principals have new opportunities to promote a progressive vision of instruction.

Although some may view accountability as the antithesis to progressive education, it creates an opportunity for principals to promote progressive instructional approaches. Despite these policy pressures, there remains substantial room for local decision-making concerning instruction. For example, teachers might implement Common Core while also developing collaborative student centered pedagogical skills. Similarly, some teacher evaluation systems provide local autonomy in identifying the focus and goals of supervision. As such, principals can co-opt these new supervision roles to support progressive approaches in classrooms.


As accountability policies have gathered steam, access to and use of data has proliferated, not only in education, but also across other institutions (Espeland & Sauder, 2007). This flood of data has primarily been in the form of summative assessments associated with No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act. It also includes formative standardized tests to benchmark progress, and assessments associated with identifying particular student populations, such as language proficiency assessments for English Language Learners (Ylimaki, 2014). These assessments run the risk of emphasizing outcomes while ignoring the process of learning. These forms of data have become an integral part of schooling to varying degrees despite efforts to mitigate their use, and they continue to proliferate with each new instantiation of accountability (Au, 2011).

Although many progressive practitioners balk at this rapid growth, some principals take a progressive approach to data use. Principals occasionally co-opt data processes by creating, establishing, and reifying metrics associated with progressive aims. Portfolio-based assessments have been enacted in some schools seeking to prioritize and document the learning process (Farr & Turnbull, 1996). By ensuring that multiple forms of data are used in decision-making, principals can also promote progressive education. Finally, while these data are instantiated in most public settings, the extent to which they influence instruction varies widely across schools (Au, 2011; Wenner & Settlage, 2015). Principals can buffer teachers from external policy pressures by minimizing the influence of standardized tests.


Recent models of distributed leadership have gathered steam in many public schools and are well aligned to progressive aims of collaboration and shared decision-making. Distributed approaches to leadership incorporate organizational routines to support and structure professional interactions (Spillane, Parise, & Sherer, 2011). These routines support collective decision-making about individual children, curriculum reform, and using accountability measures (Spillane et al., 2011). Principals can bring progressive values of collaboration and community building to their schools by drawing on these routines, along with other forms of teacher collaboration in schools such as professional learning communities.

These three principal practices of instructional leadership, data use, and distributed leadership can collectively establish and sustain a progressive vision of education even in an era of accountability. Although the policy context does not actively promote progressive practices and may in fact discourage them, I believe that school principals are well positioned to enact progressive approaches by co-opting these new reforms. Principals might meet the demands of accountability pressures by embracing progressive practices through identifying strategic areas of influence if they are inclined to do so.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 26, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 20273, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 7:27:00 PM

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