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School and District Leadership in an Era of Accountability

reviewed by Sarah Woulfin - December 08, 2014

coverTitle: School and District Leadership in an Era of Accountability
Author(s): Bruce G. Barnett, Alan R. Shoho, Alex J. Bowers (Eds)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1623963826, Pages: 292, Year: 2013
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Over the past two decades, accountability pressures have intensified and contributed to drastic changes in district and school leaders’ roles and responsibilities. Researchers, reformers, and practitioners grapple with the shifting policy environment and its influences on leadership. The editors of School and District Leadership in an Era of Accountability have assembled current research on “successful school and district leadership during the accountability era from multiple perspectives” (p. 2). This research is clearly organized into themes by the editors and includes discussions relevant to multiple stakeholders in the field of education.

Within this book, research covers numerous branches of accountability policy, specifically considering how leaders engage with the structures, rules, and ideas of federal, state, and local policy. Importantly, the research within this volume attends to leaders at different levels of the system—from superintendents to school leaders—and incorporates different methodologies, including quantitative cost-benefit analyses and in-depth case studies. Through its incorporation of diverse vantage points, Barnett, Shoho, and Bowers teach us about the state of research on school and district leadership, as well about the ways in which policy shapes leaders’ work.

The first section addresses the problem-solving strategies of school leaders in low-performing schools; it explicitly considers issues of equity under accountability policy. The chapter by Townsend et al. provides insight into how No Child Left Behind (NCLB) structured and altered the nature of superintendents’ work. The authors note that superintendents were “worried about the discouraging and counterproductive effects of NCLB” (p. 51). Additionally, Corcoran et al. share findings on the concrete strategies that leaders deploy to hold teachers accountable for improved instruction. The strategies ranged from examining student data and facilitating communication with parents to creating a schedule for Title I specialists. These findings are particularly relevant for practitioners, as well as scholars advancing the leadership practice perspective.

The second section includes two chapters on how school leaders buffer external demands. In each of these chapters, the authors use organizational theory to probe the cognitive dimension of leaders’ implementation of accountability policies. These authors acknowledge that NCLB is a forceful policy lever, and that leaders adapt policies in order to protect educators within their schools. These chapters remind us of the active, strategic role that district and schools leaders play while mediating state policy.

In the third section, the chapters discuss financial analyses for program improvement; they encourage consideration of the relationship between economics, policy, and reform programs, such as reading diagnostic assessments and charters as a form of school choice. Ingle and Cramer issue a reminder that district administrators have an important responsibility regarding data analysis, as well as in the careful selection and management of diagnostic tools. Salazar and Raphael use quantitative methods to reveal the charter school enrollment patterns of special education students, and shine light on the equity issues associated with charter school reform.

Two chapters on instructional leadership for curriculum reform and teacher evaluation constitute the final section. Browne and Doolittle review the literature on instructional leadership in order to address the role of school leaders in curricular reform in New Jersey. They declare that leaders should “keep a watchful eye on the coordination and content of curriculum” (p. 217). Derrington and Campbell turn attention to issues of supervision and evaluation; they track principals’ responses to a new evaluation policy aligned with Race to the Top. The authors encourage further research on the cultural changes that evaluation systems could advance, as well as investigation into the relationship between values and practices of evaluation and gains in student achievement.

Additionally, the volume’s commentary by Kenneth Leithwood presents a framework for conceptualizing the relationship between accountability policy and leaders’ practices. Leithwood posits that, within the NCLB-dominated environment, elements of the federal policy shape the behavior of leaders, who, in turn, play a role in shaping the teaching and learning conditions in schools and classrooms. He emphasizes that the chain of implementation is a “very messy nonlinear reality” (p. 256), and concludes by encouraging greater discussion regarding the link between NCLB and student learning. Leithwood cautiously notes that, based on international measures (e.g., PIRLS Reading, PISA, and TIMMS), there is some evidence that student performance is improving over the course of the accountability era. It appears that further research is needed on the ways in which accountability policy’s levers affect student learning, engagement, and achievement.

School and District Leadership in an Era of Accountability examines critical issues currently facing leaders and is structured to clearly depict different forms of research. Taken as a whole, this book helps us understand the relationships among accountability, school reform, and leadership. This book could be used in leadership preparation programs because it provides windows into how leaders strategically engage with policy within their context. Chapters from this volume could also be used in professional development with teachers, as well as district and school administrators. For instance, principals could read about strategies that turnaround school leaders have used and could reflect on similarities and differences to their own practice.

This book responds to key questions regarding leadership within the context of accountability. Future volumes on school leadership should address issues of teacher leadership, and attempt to compare leaders’ experiences in different types of districts (e.g., large versus small, high versus low control). In addition, volumes should attempt to incorporate more theory-based research.

Race to the Top, educator evaluation policies, and the Common Core State Standards are affecting the structures and practices of U.S. schools, thereby impacting the work of district and school leaders. There is a need for additional research on how the rules and ideas of accountability policies alter various dimensions of leadership. It is vital for educational leaders to possess the knowledge and skills to mediate policy, as they have the capacity to shape policy implementation. Fortunately, scholarship is beginning to attend to the ways in which leaders’ knowledge and skills matter for reform.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 08, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17776, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 11:52:11 PM

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About the Author
  • Sarah Woulfin
    University of Connecticut
    E-mail Author
    SARAH WOULFIN is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education. She studies the relationship between education policy, leadership, and instructional reform. Using lenses from organizational sociology, she investigates how leaders affect teachers’ responses to school reform. Dr. Woulfin is currently investigating the district-level structures and activities shaping teachers’ opportunities to learn about Common Core State Standards. She has published manuscripts in AERJ, EPAA, RRQ, and the Journal of Educational Change. She is an associate editor for Educational Administration Quarterly (EAQ). She is on the Executive Steering Committee of the Districts in Research in Reform SIG of AERA. From 2009-2012, she served as the program chair for AERA’s Organizational Theory Special Interest Group.
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