Background: Many school districts are relying on instructional coaches to improve teaching and learning under the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Yet we know very little about how coaches exercise systemic leadership to support districtwide improvements in instruction.
Purpose: In this study, I broadly define systemic leadership as efforts to coordinate multiple reform goals with school improvement strategies and classroom instruction, and to build institutional knowledge and collaborative structures for scaling up instructional change.
I used social-network theory and the concept of brokering to study the systemic leadership practices of Digital Learning Coaches (DLCs) in the Peterson Unified School District (PUSD, a pseudonym), a midsized urban district that distributed iPads and laptops to schools in the 2014–15 school year for CCSS instruction.
Research Design: I used an explanatory sequential research design to examine how DLCs engaged educators at all organizational levels of PUSD to support systemic change. I collected social-network data to map communication networks in the district and how DLCs brokered information in these networks. I then conducted a multiple case study of three DLCs in six elementary schools to characterize the quality of systemic leadership exercised by DLCs through their brokering exchanges and the organizational factors informing their leadership.
Findings: I find that DLCs brokered information in a siloed, top-down manner from the central office into schools, guiding teachers on how to integrate technology with instruction but failing to coordinate this support with other CCSS resources popular among school leaders and teachers. Consequently, DLCs struggled to build coherence around the use of technology with school goals for improvement, provide instructional support to a broad footprint of teachers, and discover and share novel uses of technology developed by teachers. The organizational context of the central office and its schools informed DLC brokering, with top-down hierarchies, organizational silos, principal leadership, and the experience, goals, and training of DLCs influencing how these coaches engaged educators.
Conclusions: My findings suggest that district leaders should provide explicit guidance, resources, and more time for instructional coaches to demonstrate leadership in support of systemic change. I also show that instructional coaching is dependent on the organizational context of schools, suggesting that there will be local variation in the leadership outcomes that coaches achieve in practice and that district leaders should account for pertinent factors such as principal leadership, school structures for teacher collaboration, and school-reform readiness when developing coaching programs.